September 27, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1531

Russia And China Recruit WWII History To Solidify Their Claim For Moral Advantage Over The U.S. And To Promote Multilateralism

September 27, 2020 | By Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
Russia, China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1531

A Chinese parade formation in a military parade at Moscow's Red Square marking the 75th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War. (Source:, June 24, 2020)

World War II plays a major role in Russia's and China's national ethos. For this reason, both countries are recruiting the history of the war to gain for themselves moral standing and advantage in world politics over the West and, more specifically, over the U.S. The year 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. This year, Russia planned to remind the world, in the Moscow Victory Day Parade on May 9, that the Soviet Union had played a decisive role in the "Great Patriotic War," with the aim of challenging the significance of the West's contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany. Moscow's plans were, however, disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, on June 18, ahead of the parade that had been pushed back to June 24 because of the pandemic, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an analysis in The National Interest, stressed Russia's moral superiority. In the analysis, he strongly exonerated the August 1939 Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Pact, in order to absolve the Soviet Union of responsibility for WWII.[1] He also accused European leaders of seeking to "sweep... under the carpet" the September 1938 Munich Pact, aka the Munich Betrayal, signed by Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy, that provided the cession to Germany of Czechoslovakia's Sudeten German territory.[2]

"Today, European politicians, and Polish leaders in particular, wish to sweep the Munich Betrayal under the carpet. Why? The fact that their countries once broke their commitments and supported the Munich Betrayal, with some of them even participating in divvying up the take, is not the only reason. Another is that it is kind of embarrassing to recall that during those dramatic days of 1938, the Soviet Union was the only one to stand up for Czechoslovakia. The Soviet Union, in accordance with its international obligations, including agreements with France and Czechoslovakia, tried to prevent the tragedy from happening. Meanwhile, Poland, in pursuit of its interests, was doing its utmost to hamper the establishment of a collective security system in Europe," Putin wrote, asserting that Russia held the moral high ground.[3]

However, Russia knows that given its shrinking economy, it needs China as a strategic partner, in order to survive as a global player and to continue challenging the U.S.'s international influence. Yet, even in this case, Russia seeks to portray this partnership as motivated by morality.

Earlier, on May 7, ahead of Victory Day, Sergei Naryshkin, who doubles as chairman of the Russian Historical Society and director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, addressed an audience of Russian and Chinese historians in a teleconference devoted to the 75th anniversary of the victory in WWII. In his speech, Naryshkin expressed satisfaction that Russia-China relations are strong and stable, and stressed their morality by pushing a slightly sanitized version of Sino-Soviet cooperation in WWII.

"The memory of the Great Victory unites and binds together Russia's society in its entirety... It is heartening that the people of China share this great holiday with us. A common historical memory serves as a solid foundation for our countries' strategic partnership... History teaches us how important it is to maintain unity in the face of such global threats," Naryshkin said, emphasizing that this solidarity, based on the WWII Russia-China alliance, is the foundation for the current strategic partnership.[4]

Russia's rhetoric on WWII is now being emulated by China in its approach to the West. In his September 22 address to the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese President Xi Jinping attempted to highlight China's morality by underlining its role in the "World Anti-Fascist War."[5] He added that the same moral conscience that had characterized China during the war is now being shown in the fight against the coronavirus. "Seventy-five years ago, China made historic contributions to winning the World Anti-Fascist War and supported the founding of the United Nations. Today, with the same sense of responsibility, China is actively involved in the international fight against COVID-19, contributing its share to upholding global public health security," Xi stated.[6] He then implied that the lesson of WWII is to "stay true to multilateralism."[7]

Earlier in May, Chinese expert Sun Zhuangzhi, director of the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote, in an article titled "Lesson of the Anti-Fascist War," that "in the 1930s, it was the lack of a well-established multilateral mechanism that led to the unjust international order in the post-World War I years" that had led to WWII.[8]

Stressing that China and Russia both advocate and practice multilateralism, and cooperate under multilateral frameworks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, G20, and BRICS, Sun Zhuangzhi added: "After the pandemic subsides, on the one hand, multilateralism will gain recognition from more countries and boost economic recovery worldwide; on the other hand, unilateralism and xenophobia will rise in a few countries. China and Russia ought to make more efforts to maintain the global strategic balance and defend multilateralism to create equal opportunities of development for emerging economies and developing countries. This is an important lesson that we can learn from the victory in the Anti-Fascist War."[9]

WWII is used not only to elevate Russia's and China's moral status, but also to push the idea that world stability can only be guaranteed through multilateralism. However, "multilateralism," as defined by Russian expert Andrey Kortunov, is not intended to "create additional opportunities for underachievers,"[10] but rather to be the core of the formation of a new world order that counters the U.S. liberal rules-based order while benefiting Moscow and Beijing and their interests. Commenting on Xi Jinping's address to the UNGA, Chinese columnist Shen Dingli wrote that Washington is "undermining" multilateralism, stating that the U.S. "is resorting to unilateralism and bullying, and using sanctions to coerce other countries into accepting its terms. It has been threatening not only some other major countries, but also many of its longtime allies... At a time when the world's sole superpower has been violating international laws and rules, China has to stand up and oppose its actions."[11]


Both Russia and China maintain that they deserve a better share of global influence. Multilateralism is a handy diplomatic tool that, for the time being, can help them to conceal their deeper ambitions. The leaderships of both countries, that are accused of suppressing any opposition, are attempting to take the retroactive high moral ground, with an intellectual show of profound understanding of long-range political processes. In this context, both are leveraging the 80-year-old history of WWII to depict their countries as playing the decisive role in the victory over Nazism.

Based on this logic, they are claiming not only a better share of global influence but also a more prestigious one. The aim is twofold: to create greater solidarity with their countries and to attract other countries to recognize their claim to the moral high ground.


* Anna Mahjar Barducci is Director of the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.


[1], June 18, 2020.


[3], June 18, 2020.

[5], September 22, 2020.

[6], September 22, 2020.

[7], September 22, 2020.

[8], May 21, 2020.

[9], May 21, 2020.

[10], June 27, 2018.

[11], September 23, 2020.

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