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Vladimir Putin’s Memory War

Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper of record, published an article by Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 22. The date, which marks the 80year anniversary of Operation Barbarossa (Adolf Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union) was intentionally chosen by the author. Moscow has been using World War II history as a weapon in its ongoing “memory war” for a long time. Putin’s message centered on how Germany specifically, but also the West in general, should agree that the staggering human cost at which the Soviet victory in the east eventually came legitimizes his regime and gives it special rights in the part of the world he defines as “his.”

The article is filled with what can, at best, be called historical “half-truths.” Putin claims that June 1941 marked the beginning of “The Great Patriotic War” – a framing of the conflict in Europe that conveniently omits September 1939 when the Soviet Union, together with Nazi Germany, invaded Poland in accordance with the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Lines like how the Red Army “saved Europe and the whole world from enslavement” and “the Soviet soldier did not set foot on German soil to take revenge on the Germans” are obvious attempts to erase the subsequent occupation and imposition of satellite dictatorships in Eastern Europe, as well as the horrors of mass-rape against German civilians.

It becomes almost comical when Putin argues that after the war, the peoples of Europe “set course for integration” given the extremely clear division of the continent imposed by the Soviet Union with the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall throughout the Cold War. The Russian leader clearly seems to lament that division since he then goes into the tired trope on how NATO supposedly violated “promises” when the alliance accepted new members once the captive states had become free.

In an excellent recent report, Chatham House lists 16 myths and misconceptions in the Russia debate. The claim that NATO agreed not to accept new members is at the top. Aside from being factually wrong since no such agreements were made, what really needs to be said is that the entire premise is false – Russia is not entitled to the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. These countries do not belong to Putin. They belong to the people who live in them. Those people wanted to join NATO, a voluntary alliance unlike the Warsaw Pact. Giving Russia veto power over such decisions would hand Moscow the final say in the security matters of sovereign states – exactly what those who toppled communism in Eastern Europe, which helped America win the Cold War, wanted to get as far away from as possible.

Putin claims he stands for partnership and cooperation, but this simply rings hollow. Russia does not believe in the rule-based order or the values that tie the U.S. and our allies together. Notably, Putin says he seeks “a unified continent” from “Lisbon to Vladivostok.” In no way is this a novel idea. It’s simply an old Soviet case for cutting America loose from Europe. As Senator John McCain said so clearly in his last speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2017, Russia seeks to divide us because they have nothing to offer the world and therefore, have no meaningful allies of their own.

It’s common to assume that the other side probably has at least somewhat of a point. But Putin simply does not. Calling the Ukrainian people’s bid for freedom and dignity in 2014 a U.S.-organized coup that “provoked the exit of Crimea from the Ukrainian state” is a lie. And a pretty rich one coming the person who has openly bragged about his own key role in stealing territory with military force from another country for the first time in Europe since World War II. Let’s hope Die Zeit offers Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a chance to write a rebuttal. After all, his country was far more devastated from the Nazi invasion of 1941 than modern-day Russia.

In a way, it’s hard to blame Putin for trying to guilt Germany into cooperating with him using painful historical memories since it seems to be working. Just last week, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, once again, made the same old mistake when they argued for new “meetings at leaders level” between Russia and the E.U. It took the hardline stance of Poland and the Baltic states, who know Putin all too well, for the European Council to instead set demands for the Kremlin first and threaten new sanctions if Russia’s “malign, illegal and disruptive activity” does not end.

That is the way to go. The West doesn’t have common interests with Russia. Our disagreements are not the result of some misunderstanding, too little dialogue or unwillingness on our part to be “open”, as Putin argues, but rather, that our values are simply irreconcilable. We should accept that.

If Putin seeks “security and strategic stability,” as he writes, he should stop sounding like a broken record and instead end his wars of aggression, illegal occupations, assassination attempts with nerve agents, cyberattacks and shooting down of civilian planes.

Cooperation must be built on something meaningful. Buying into an authoritarian leader’s attempts to use history as weapon won’t get us there. That road leads only to more instability and in the end, more conflict.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Aaron Korewa
Publish Date
June 30, 2021