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July 7, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8833

Putin's 'National Interest' Article On WWII Historical Issues – An Academic Exercise Or A Declaration Of Intentions?

July 7, 2020
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 8833

Vladimir Putin's vigorous exoneration of the 1939 Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact in an article that appeared in The National Interest has aroused concern in Poland and the Baltic countries that were the primary victims of this treaty. This defense was viewed by both conservative and liberal commentators in Russia as less a history and more as a signal to the West that Russia seeks to reassert its influence in the areas that it obtained under the 1939 agreement and forfeited upon the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A discussion of the context of Putin's article and reactions to it are surveyed below:


Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov signing the agreement as Ribbentrop and Stalin look on (Source: Kyivpost.com)

On August 23, 1939 a non-aggression pact was signed between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that is known as the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact after the foreign ministers of the two states. The pact assured Germany that it would not be fighting a two-front war when it invaded Poland in September 1939. In return, Russia was assured of German benevolence regarding its intentions in the Baltic region and parts of Poland that were formerly part of the Russian Empire. Russia swiftly moved to annex these areas. During Soviet times, the pact was defended as an act of political realism.

A Return Under Putin To The Traditional Soviet Appraisal Of The Pact

On December 24, 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country's Congress of People's Deputies, formally the highest Soviet authority, adopted a resolution "On the political and legal assessment of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of 1939," officially condemning the pact's secret protocols as an "act of personal power" which did not reflect "the will of the Soviet people". The resolution emphasized that negotiations with Germany on the secret protocols were clandestinely conducted by Stalin and Molotov and the highest bodies of the Communist Party and the USSR's government were kept in the dark. [1]

Under Putin, the pendulum has begun swinging back. In 2019, Russia's then Minister of Culture and currently an assistant to Putin Vladimir Medinsky referred to the pact as a "diplomatic triumph", while a member of Russia's security council, Sergei Ivanov. announced "I consider the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact an achievement of Soviet diplomacy of which we should be proud of." In September 2019 on the pact's 80th anniversary, the Russian Foreign Ministry  posted the following on its Twitter page: "Thanks to the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, the war started on strategically more advantageous lines for the USSR, the population of these territories was subjected to Nazi terror two years later, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved" .[2]

Currently, Alexei Zhuravlev, a deputy from the nationalist Rodina Party, has tabled a law that would rescind the 1989 resolution condemning the pact. Zhuravlev, believes that the resolution was adopted under pressure by separatists from the Baltic countries, and given the current attempts to rewrite history by accusing the Soviet Union of unleashing the Second World War in league with Hitler's Germany revoking the 1989 decision is an issue of national self defense:

"A fierce attack is unleashed today on our historical heritage and, in particular, on the Great Patriotic War ... They [the West] started this campaign, as I recall, after 2010. We of course, must somehow respond to it. We cannot relinquish these things purely to the historians, because the historians are already politicized. Even Trump says that the United States and Great Britain won World War II".[3]

Additionally, Zhuravlev argued, the 1989 resolution was rooted in sin: “Our corrupt party nomenclature of that time, did everything to please the West, and, naturally, one had to be a complete idiot not to use it. An initiative group of [CPSU] party members was created, which was looking for documents that can condemn this peace treaty. They tried everything. In fact, the collapse of the USSR began precisely then, and not with the [1991] Belovezha Accords [that dissolved the USSR]".[4]

Aleksei Zhuravlev (Source: Kommersant.ru)

Zhuravlev's proposal was backed at a recent online conference of Russian military historians in Moscow. They assailed the 1989 resolution as harmful and creating "conditions for historical amnesia" amongst the younger generation. They also accused the 1989 resolution's backers of political expediency: "the decision to include the issue of the Soviet-German treaty and secret protocol in the agenda of the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR in 1989 was taken solely for reasons of 'political expediency'... "Representatives of the Popular Fronts of Estonia, Latvia and the Lithuanian Sayudis [who were then part of the Soviet Union] promoted this decision".[5]

High ranking officials do not want to go so far. The chair of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Leonid Slutsky, called Zhuravlev's bill a populist bill. According to Slutsky, this bill represents Zhuravlev's personal position. It would now go through the usual channels. "The bill was sent to the [committee] mailing list. The Foreign Affairs Committee will consider it later and make recommendations and conclusions.  Meanwhile, assessments are given to all historical events. The document largely reflects the author's personal position and has a rather populist character. This is purely my personal opinion. "[6]

Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Kremlin didn't know anything about the Zhuravlev bill. "I didn't know a thing about it."[7]

Russia's President Vladimir Putin chose to straddle the issue in his article " The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II" for the website of The National Interest.[8] In the article Putin sought to present the true history of the conflict and defended the USSR's conduct as well as reminding the readers that his country had made the greatest contribution to defeating Nazism. He gave serious attention to the Molotov Von Ribbentrop Pact. On the one hand, he cited the 1989 resolution: " However, let us recall that the Soviet Union gave a legal and moral assessment of the so-called Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The Supreme Soviet in its resolution of 24 December 1989 officially denounced the secret protocols as 'an act of personal power' which in no way reflected 'the will of the Soviet people who bear no responsibility for this collusion.'"

However, Putin claimed that the pact was precipitated by the Western betrayal at Munich in 1938, that should be condemned no less than Molotov-Ribbentrop. "The Munich Betrayal showed to the Soviet Union that the Western countries would deal with security issues without taking its interests into account. In fact, they could even create an anti-Soviet front, if needed."

In this context, the actions of the Soviet leadership were justified: " Stalin and his entourage, indeed, deserve many legitimate accusations. We remember the crimes committed by the regime against its own people and the horror of mass repressions. In other words, there are many things the Soviet leaders can be reproached for, but poor understanding of the nature of external threats is not one of them. They saw how attempts were made to leave the Soviet Union alone to deal with Germany and its allies. Bearing in mind this real threat, they sought to buy precious time needed to strengthen the country's defenses."

The entry of Russian forces to occupy that part of Poland granted Russia under the pact was equally understandable: "Obviously, there was no alternative. Otherwise, the USSR would face seriously increased risks because – I will say this again – the old Soviet-Polish border ran only within a few tens of kilometers of Minsk. The country would have to enter the inevitable war with the Nazis from very disadvantageous strategic positions, while millions of people of different nationalities, including the Jews living near Brest and Grodno, Przemyśl, Lvov and Wilno, would be left to die at the hands of the Nazis and their local accomplices – anti-Semites and radical nationalists."

The annexation of the Baltic countries, also envisaged under the pact, was purely legitimate: "In autumn 1939, the Soviet Union, pursuing its strategic military and defensive goals, started the process of the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Their accession to the USSR was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities. This was in line with international and state law of that time. Besides, in October 1939, the city of Vilna and the surrounding area, which had previously been part of Poland, were returned to Lithuania. The Baltic republics within the USSR preserved their government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher state structures of the Soviet Union."

Naturally the article aroused resentment and concern in Poland and the Baltic states. Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesman for the Polish security services, slammed Putin’s op-ed as "an element of an ongoing, persistent information war Russia wages against the West."[9] The Latvian Foreign Ministry commented: "The Latvian Foreign Ministry categorically rejects the assertions made in a 19 June article by Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation, called "The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II" (in English). The Baltic States were illegally occupied and annexed, through the use of threats and military provocations. The USSR broke commitments of its international agreements and engaged in an act of aggression."[10]  In Lithuania, members of the country's defense council "reached the unanimous opinion that the future changes in Russia's constitution and the declared plans to officially rehabilitate the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as well as the secret protocols to it, arouse great concern."[11]

Conservative Columnist Alexander Khaldey: Article Shows That Russia Is Back And Seeks To Regain Its Occupied Territories

But historical accuracy was perhaps not as important as the timing of the article. Writing in Regnum.ru, the conservative opinion writer and political scientist Alexander Khaldey was certain that Putin wanted to drive home a message.

"Important politicians never do anything by accident...The fact that Vladimir Putin decided to write a historical essay on the causes and driving forces of World War II to the 75th anniversary of the VE Day does not indicate that he suddenly found a special interest in history ...

"So the first question for whom was this essay written, has an obvious answer: For the select few. No wonder Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov answered this question with the following words: “We were focusing on a respectable publication [The National Interest], which is being read by solid and intelligent people.”

"It is characteristic that they chose not the print, but the electronic version: it means that the target audience was the young representatives of 'solid and intelligent' readers...The younger generation of politicians in the United States grew up on a completely distorted view of the war, and Putin’s information will be, if not a shock, but a revelation and a huge surprise...

"A simple fact is that Putin’s article is a sensation in the full sense of this word: ...for the first time in the history of post-Soviet Russia, the head of state delivered a devastating punch between the ears to the USA, Great Britain, France, and Poland, not to mention Germany.

"So, the answer to the second question 'what was it about?' is the following: it was not a slap in the face, but a right hook... To tell the truth about the West's role in unleashing the worst war in the history of mankind is not to 'spit' or 'throw down the gauntlet', or even '[strike a] blow' – it was a series of strikes, after which it is necessary to understand what happened.

"Putin, being always a model of political correctness, suddenly appeared and said: 'Gentlemen, you here are all bandits and murderers', then he bowed his head and left. Leaving the gentlemen in a state of shock, trying to comprehend what was said.

"Thus, the question why [was the essay written?] arises. Putin, like a tank propelled battering ram, launched an attack with his arguments on the redoubts of historical falsifiers, directly accusing the financial and political circles of the United States, Britain and France of creating the war industry for Nazi Germany, of setting it against the USSR, and of deliberately sabotaging all Soviet attempts to prevent the war...

"Imagine what it means to say such a thing now after twenty years of politically correct silence and keeping our mouths shut... This essay draws a line under all the previous Russia policies regarding the West. This is the end of pretense and now the enemy can be addressed with a true expression on one's face. And although Putin’s article talks about the governments that once existed, everyone understood the message perfectly...

"Now let’s answer to the question 'why was the essay written now? Well, because Russia is in a process of restoring its sovereignty, the quintessence of which will be the voting for amendments to the Constitution, where the leitmotif is sovereignty and the nationalization of the elite.

"Russia understands relations with the West, as a process of demarcating the former camps along new borders. And with his attitude to the instigators of the war, Putin showed that Russia does not accept the claims of their modern heirs to preserve the zone of influence, which they inherited as a result of the temporary weakness of the USSR.  To exploit history for legitimating their power over the occupied territories will not succeed...

"And if so, then the resistance is justified, and everyone who agrees to fight are our own people, and those who cringe at the prospect [of fighting] are strangers. This is the new criterion for entry into the Russian political elite...

"Putin took another step towards the opening of a new era - the era of resistance to the old world model. Vladimir Putin challenged the old order. No other superpower dared to do so.

"It should be noted, that for the first time Putin spoke out positively about the role of Stalin and the Soviet leadership. Of course, he took the required pre-step of distancing from repression, recognizing its existence and inadmissibility. But he still separated the question of repression from the USSR's position during the war that he unequivocally supported...

"This is not just a message of succession to the USSR. This is a sign: “Russia is coming back...

"Another noteworthy point is the timing for such a move. The West is weak, its statehood is under stress, there a deep crisis prevails, encompassing not only the economy, but also the spiritual sphere...

"As they say in boxing: 'You need not to strike hard - you need to strike on time.' That is how one should understand the meaning and the goal of Putin’s article on the causes of the outbreak of World War II, which at first glance is an abstract topic that. In fact, Putin described the current war, for as Bertold Brecht wrote 'the womb from which the vile beast emerged is still fertile'...)[12]


Alexander Khaldey (Source: Apral.ru)

Alexander Sagomonyan, a professor at Moscow State University's Department of Global Processes, believed that Putin's broadside was directed against countries, who were previously members of the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact who had launched a hybrid war against Russia's WWII achievements. It was a warning to Western Europe not to follow the anti-Russian inclinations of the former Communist countries.

"For me there are two Wests: one is Eastern Europe, these are former socialist countries and former republics of the Soviet Union. They chose the results of World War II as the field of informational, hybrid warfare. And Putin, over these countries' heads, was addressing their major Western partners, in an attempt to show how dangerous the revision of the World War II results could be. That could cause the collapse of everything."[13]

Liberal Journalist Yakovenko: Putin's Justification Of Pact Designed To Legitimize His Current Aggression

Writing in Ej.ru, the sociologist and journalist Igor Yakovenko, a former general secretary of the Russian Journalists Union. slammed Putin's article as fake history but also an attempt to promote his current aggressive agenda.

"The genre of this work can be defined as somewhere in between the ever-popular form of science fiction in which alternative historical reality is created and folk history– i.e. false history, which claims to be scientific and at the same time refutes recognized historical facts)...

In that alternative history of World War II written by Putin, the Soviet Union was not a de facto ally of the Third Reich when it attacked Poland... In Putin’s version of the history, no joint parade ever occurred in Brest on September 22, 1939, when the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in fraternal embraces jointly celebrated the destruction of Poland and danced on the bones of this state. Naturally, in the Putin’s alternative history there was no “Katyn massacre [of captured Polish officers]” and masses of other Soviet war crimes.

And here is how the occupation of the Baltic countries looks according to Putin’s alternative history: “In autumn 1939, the Soviet Union, pursuing its strategic military and defensive goals, started the process of the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Their accession to the USSR was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities. This was in line with international and state law of that time.”

"Putin's folk history does not say anything about the Soviet troops in the Baltic countries in June 1940, and about how Lithuanian President Antanas Smetona, who was trying to organize resistance to the Soviet invaders, was forced to flee the country, and his colleagues, Latvian President Carlos Ulmanis and Head of Estonia Konstantin Päts, who decided to come to an agreement with the Soviets, were repressed. (...)

"The parallels between the Stalinist occupation of the Baltic countries and Putin's occupation of the Crimea and Donbass are obvious. In both cases, everything is 'in accordance with international law …"

Listing all the myths of Putin's false history will require a slightly different format and may tire the reader. It is more important to see the objectives behind Putin’s lie. There are several of them. The first is to draw a parallel between the war and the modern wars waged by the Putin regime in Ukraine and Syria. He is trying somehow to transfer the glory of the victory over the fascism–, undoubtedly merited by the Soviet troops as well as by other members of the Anti-Hitler coalition) to the current troops of the Russian aggressor. The second goal is to supply 'the theoretical basis to an old and partially rotten idea: to convene the leaders of the five nuclear powers, and to arrange some sort of 'Yalta conference II', which will remake the globe..."[14]


Igor Yakovenko (Source: Mosyabloko.ru)

Historian Aptekar: Putin's Article Is Not Serious History But Represents A Diplomatic Signal

The historian and journalist Pavel Aptekar, who was formerly an archivist in the Soviet army wrote an article for Vedemosti titled "Presidential History"[15] where he claimed that Putin's article was not historical research but a message to the West. "Putin's article has primarily a foreign policy sound. It is yet another message to both the West and the East, a signal of his desire to negotiate and establish a new, and from the Kremlin's perspective fairer world order. However, its historical content cannot be called its strong side". 

This unflattering description of Putin's article followed Aptekar's point by point refutation of key assertions in Putin's article. Putin accused the West of building up Hitler but omitted Stalin's role in bringing the Nazis to power: "The President condemns the economic assistance of the Western powers to the Nazis, which contributed to the development of their industry, and political shortsightedness, but at the same time misses another important factor in the political success of Adolf Hitler and his associates - the split of the left movement in many European countries, directed by the Kremlin and the Comintern. At the XI plenum of the Comintern in March - April 1931, social democracy was called the main enemy (!) of the Communists in the labor movement and the 'second (after fascism) capitalist brigade' of capitalism. This sectarian position hindered the development of the struggle against the Nazi movement and turned into a loss of votes for both labor parties and, in the end, the victory of Nazism. In the late 1920s, the Nazis were still marginalized without gaining 3% of the vote, and in 1933 46% of Germans voted for them. Only after the Nazi victory in Germany did Stalin and his entourage come to their senses and demanded that the European Communists unite with the socialists, social democrats, and even liberals to fight Nazism. But this measure was too late."

Aptekar completely rejects Putin's argument that the agreement was intended to buy time to prepare for a German attack:

"Finally, one must understand that the German army of September 1939 was much inferior in terms of fighting spirit, armament and training to the Wehrmacht of the summer 1941 model. To speak of the inevitable defeat of the Red Army in the event of a war with Germany in September 1939 is a great exaggeration."

"Another thesis of the presidential explanation of the need for the pact - the Soviet leaders gained, 'precious time to strengthen the country's defense' - is bewildering: until June 1941, the military and industrial potential of Germany grew due to the occupation of Western Europe (primarily France, Belgium and Holland) many times more than the Soviet potential due to the newly acquired territories. This is the old mantra of Soviet historiography, the repetition of which at the current level of development of historical science sounds strange."

Aptekar also refers to another product of the 1939 agreement –the annexation of the Baltic States in 1940. He reminds Putin that these countries were essentially extended an offer that they could not refuse: "The President denies the fact of their occupation and believes that the accession of the Baltic states to the Soviet Union was 'carried out on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities.' Indeed, the governments of the three republics agreed to hold relevant referenda under Soviet control, with their own dissolution and accession to the USSR. But the nuances are important: one must understand that by this moment in the territory of all the republics there were already Soviet groups that outnumbered and especially in modern weapons the national armies. In this situation, the political elites of the three countries did not dare to actively resist and capitulated at gunpoint to Soviet tanks. It is hardly possible to call such accession voluntary and relevant international treaties."

Aptekar also recalls the Soviet Union's benevolent neutrality towards Nazi Germany including its supply of vital commodities to the German war machine. "It is important to indicate what the president did not say. In particular, the article does not speak of active trade and political cooperation between the USSR and Germany in 1939–1941. Soviet deliveries of petroleum products became one of the important elements of the success of the German Blitzkrieg in the West in May-June 1940..."

On the basis of these examples and others, Aptekar concluded that historical accuracy was not the main objective of Putin's essay.

Pavel Aptekar (Source: Radiomayak.ru)

 

[1] Ria.ru, June 20, 2020,

[2] Regnum.ru, April 7, 2020.

[3] Vesti.ru, June 26, 2020.

[4] Vesti.ru, June 26, 2020.

[5] Ria.ru, June 23, 2020.

[6] Dailystorm.ru, June 9, 2020.

[7] Rbc.ru, June 17, 2020.

[8] Nationalinterest.org, June 18, 2020.

[9] Apnews.com, June 19, 2020.

[10] Eng.lsm.lv, June 20, 2020.

[11] Rosbalt.ru, June 29, 2020.

[12] Regnum.ru, June 20, 2020.

[13] Regnum.ru, June 19, 2020.

[14] Ej.ru, June 19, 2020.

[15] Vedomosti.ru, June 20, 2020.

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