By Gregor Razumovsky
The year 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven`s birth; undoubtedly a reason to celebrate for both music afficionados and Austrian tourism agencies alike. Yet with all due respect to one of mankind greatest composers: the destruction in 1945 of Adolf Hitler`s regime of terror will presumably be better remembered by future generations. In memory of the hardships their citizens overcame and the victory they fought for from 1945 until the end, the 16 former member states of the USSR will celebrate the 75th commemoration of the triumph of the Allies on the 9th of May 1945 over the national-socialist dictatorship of the German “Third Reich”.
Not entirely surprisingly, in an obviously well-orchestrated series of public speeches, President Putin has been trying to highjack the victory over Nazi-Germany and create a new myth. That of Russia being the sole real opponent of Germany, having overcome the “Third Reich” on the eastern front and virtually the whole rest of the world.
Apparently, Russia`s President – who seems to be determined to secure himself a life-long Presidential power position – is trying to appropriate all the joint accomplishments of the nations united under the Soviet regime for the purpose of aggrandizing Russia`s historical role.
According to your author, this act of propaganda serves primarily domestic purposes. The aim is to strengthen the cohesive forces in the Russian Federation in a situation where overall national economic conditions have rapidly been going from bad to worse to utterly disastrous. Mr. Putin`s revamping of his country`s self-image could be interpreted as serving only the cause of rallying his voters in support of his de-facto well prepared coup d`état as it was supposed to be sanctified in April.
But the Russian government`s behaviour is suspicious in a more alarming way than the usual nationalist posturing. Mr. Putin has repeatedly demonstrated how little he respects international treaties signed by his predecessors. When Russia`s troops invaded Georgia 2008 it was in clear contravention of the CIS-Treaty of 1992 and when Russia effectively went to war against Ukraine over the Donbas in 2014, it broke not only the OSCE Final Act, the CIS treaty but also the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 deposed with the UN. Mr. Putin`s aims should perhaps be seen as a preparation for Russian re-conquista. His often-reiterated claim that “Russia is a country of winners” should make of the West aware of the danger of the Kremlin`s interest in further expansion into perceived “Russian lands”. Moscow, so says the credo, is responsible for the safety and well-being of all Russians, no matter where they are. The combination of this assertion in combination with the claim that Ukrainians are an integral part of the Russian nation is somewhat threatening.
Differing dramatically from what Russia became after the Soviet Union fell apart, was one of the world`s super-powers. The current Russian Federation chose to declare itself the “legal successor” of the USSR, which refers to Russia`s upholding international obligations signed by the Soviet Union.
Each of the republics of the former USSR paid a high price for the joint vanquishing of the national-socialist ideology of the “Third Reich”. In Ukraine, which also became the main battle-ground in eastern Europe, up to seven million citizens were mobilized for the war-effort, which amounted to a quarter of the military of the Red Army. Ukrainians made up a significant part of the high command of the Red Army, with several hundred generals and admirals partaking in the war.
In addition to Russians and Ukrainians, men and women from Uzbekistan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia served in the war started by Adolf Hitler.
Without in any way wishing to lessen the unimaginable sacrifices that were brought by Russian citizens, military and civilian alike, it should still be noted that in Uzbekistan more than 1.4 million people were drafted for the ranks of the Red Army, of which more than 650,000 were killed or disappeared. More than a million people were mobilized in Belarus for the Red Army. Belarus, which had been under German occupation for more than three years, lost about three million inhabitants. In Kazakhstan, more than a million citizens were recruited for the war effort, which amounted to almost a quarter of the total population of the Republic. Of these, half a million perished during the war. Georgia sent more than 700 thousand troops to the Red Army, of which more than a third died. Azerbaijan contributed more than half a million soldiers, of which every second died. Armenia sent more than half million of its citizens, half of which did not survive.
Mr. Putin`s claim to Russian fame will sound preposterous not only to citizens of the 15 non-Russian states of the Soviet Union, but also to the historically interested western reader. Helplessly underequipped and logistically unprepared to fight the German divisions, the Red Army would very possibly have lost against the invasion forces had it not been for the billions of US $ spent to finance and supply the USSR with war material, tanks and guns in from 1941 onwards. I believe that not only US citizens will not have forgotten about D Day on the 6th of June 1944. Altogether thousands of British, French, US-American soldiers and innumerable other allies fell in combat against the German Wehrmacht.
From our point of view, Mr. Putin`s declarations may well seem silly at best, but again for this author the question to ask is “why”. Why reinvent history 75 years after it happened; why now?
The Soviet Union suffered unimaginable losses, both on a human scale as well as economically through WWII. Nevertheless or possibly exactly for that reason, Stalin, the Soviet “Vozhd” – a term synonymous with titles accorded to other European dictators of the time, such as “il Duce”, “der Führer” or “el Caudillo” – came out strengthened by WWII. The war had united the Soviet people more than his reign of terror ever could. Perhaps the memory of WWII will be strong enough to serve the same or a similar purpose.
The British weekly magazine The Economist quotes Mr. Sergei Lavrov, Russia`s foreign minister on the development in Libya saying “… we do not approve the statement that Field-Marshal Haftar will now single-handedly decide how the Libyan people should live”. In this, it is remarkable how hard Mr. Lavrov is working to secure his president exactly the same power in Russia.
In 2020 we do not only celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory Day, but also the 75th of yet another important but rather more ambivalent event: The advent of nuclear threat.
Some 50 years later, in 1994, three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Russian Federation and the United States of America – signed a memorandum in Budapest with Ukraine. The remaining two permanent members of the Security Council, the Republic of France and the People`s Republic of China joined in a few weeks later.
Object of the memorandum was that Ukraine, at the time armed with an impressive nuclear arsenal, expected its decision to unilaterally scrap all its nuclear weapons to be met with an unequivocal guarantee concerning the inviolability of its borders. In return for this nearly unprecedented act, the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, including Russia, gave Ukraine the following – as it turned out rather hollow – promises:
“Welcoming the accession of Ukraine to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon State,
Taking into account the commitment of Ukraine to eliminate all nuclear weapons from its territory within a specified period of time,
Noting the changes in the world-wide security situation, including the end of the cold war, which have brought about conditions for deep reductions in nuclear forces,
Confirm the following:
1. Member states of UN Security Council …
reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
2. (The members of the UN Security Council) …reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;
3. (The members of the UN Security Council) …reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind;
(4. and 5. refer to threats of nuclear aggression against Ukraine and are not material to this article)
6. Ukraine and … (the members of the UN Security Council) … will consult in the event a situation arises that raises a question concerning these commitments.
The memorandum was submitted to the 49th Session of the General Assembly, Security Council, on the 19th of December 1994. Not entirely without irony, the representative who signed the letter on behalf of the Russian Federation was none other than that very same Mr. Sergei Lavrov, at the time a steadfast servant of the Russian ministry of foreign affairs under President Boris Yeltsin.
All the of the above being said, it should be noted that the OSCE Final Act was first violated by NATO in the alliance`s war against Yugoslavia in 1999, which led to the secession of the Kosovo. But let us not confuse “pretext” with “justification” or “reason”. The argument that what happened in Yugoslavia justifies a step by step dismembering of Ukraine because somehow those regions were always “Russian” should not be permitted. Tolerating aggression is no less endangering for peace than rewarding it; if the European history of the first half of the 20th Century has taught us one lesson, it was this.
Mr. Putin`s behaviour should not be interpreted as the careful reaction of a conscientious head of state to a perceived potential threat. Nor is it a sign of exaggerated alertness, a signal that Russia is possibly overreacting in its preparation to defend itself. In reality, the Russian President is instrumentalising rampant apprehension, misgivings and envy felt in Russia against the “Western World”, to secure his position as ruler of Russia. When the Russian Federation will have its new constitution, the country will have its very own new Vozhd. But will he be able to control the populism, encouraging of xenophobia and isolating Russia from the rest of the world? Perhaps things will work out for the best and Minsk will not become the new Munich. This is to be hoped, even though appeasement policy vis à vis the Kremlin seems to be the discrete consensus between politicians in EU and NATO alike. Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.