December 15, 2020

The Spirit of Yalta in Putin’s Article “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II”

AFP/Scanpix
Russian president Vladimir Putin giving a speech at the Victory Day parade in Moscow in Red Square on 24 June 2020.
Russian president Vladimir Putin giving a speech at the Victory Day parade in Moscow in Red Square on 24 June 2020.

The Munich Agreement cannot be considered the same as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

On 18 June, Russian president Vladimir Putin published an article titled “The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II” in the American neoconservative magazine The National Interest. Political observers and scholars have already analysed the Russian leader’s piece in the context of its potential political purposes1 and categorised it under the usual Russian practice of information impact.2 It seems that says it all. We have yet again been convinced that everything that comes out of Russia is propaganda, a lie to which we need pay no attention; or, vice versa, something we must keep a close eye on because such declarations tend to precede Russian aggression. Whatever the case, such propaganda needs to be met with a worthy counterstrike because it has been impressed on us that otherwise we will lose the propaganda war.

Alas, the impact of most such ripostes remains small. They disseminate the truth that the author and the like-minded consider irrefutable but which does not convince the doubters, not to mention those who hold “truths” that are entirely different. The writings of those who try to debunk propaganda often also contain questionable elements and exaggerations. Take, for example, this sentence by Vladimir Sazonov: “The so-called incorporation into the USSR was a de facto occupation and it was not in conformity with any international or national law in the legal sense either”.3 This wording seems to suggest that there can be several kinds of international law; besides, the annexation of the Baltic states was a much more complex case in terms of international law than is implied here.

Be that as it may, in responding to propaganda one should try to avoid the dogmatic approach characteristic of it. One should accept the fact that exploring the past is complicated; the truth is not relative but it does have several layers.4 Perhaps it is worth admitting that a short journalistic piece of writing is not suitable for refuting a propaganda text. Una Bergmane, for example, limits her attention mainly to highlighting contradictions between the Russian leader’s previous and current views,5 and it works. If a person’s views on the same event vary so much over time, even doubters should start asking whether the cause may lie in hidden political interests.

Militantly proclaiming one’s truth helps to reinforce the front lines and scores points in one’s own camp, but brings no success in the propaganda war. Admitting that the “opponent” may be right now and again is more effective. It is not credible to focus only on the details that interest the writer, such as topics concerning the Baltic states, and pay no attention to the main arguments. This is like an opponent to a doctoral dissertation only criticising the references and list of sources and leaving the main theses aside. One would question whether the examiner has read the dissertation at all or has some specific angle to consider. The same effect is at work in the case of Putin’s article if the author of a critique only explores the lines about the Baltic states but does not address the main topic—the claim that the blame for World War II breaking out is shared by other big powers besides the USSR and the Third Reich.

President Putin reveals the reason he wrote the article only in the second half of the piece, when he discusses the European Parliament’s resolution of 19 September 2019 on the “Importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe”.6 Putin ironically calls this “paperwork”, unworthy of the title “document”. To provide a bit of context: the European Parliament considered it necessary to condemn “in the strongest terms the acts of aggression, crimes against humanity and mass human rights violations perpetrated by the Nazi, communist and other totalitarian regimes” and called for remembrance of the deceased and honouring heroes such as Witold Pilecki.

Putin’s main argument is that the resolution covers the 1939 agreement known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact but does not mention the 1938 Munich Agreement, which the president considers the “trigger” that made a great war in Europe “inevitable”. Putin is naturally annoyed about the policy of appeasement that led to the Munich Agreement; he claims its “essence” was to direct Germany’s aggression towards the east, so that the Third Reich and the USSR would bleed out and leave the UK and France untouched by the war.

Putin thinks the policy of appeasement and Munich proved that the Western states did not take Moscow’s interests into account and would even create an anti-Soviet front. This is why entering into a pact with Hitler was reasonable. Naturally, Putin plays down the results of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and tries to present the union with Germany as a temporary matter, not the mutually useful and thus perfectly natural coalition of two revisionist states. He also hints that Poland deserved its fate after it participated in the partition of Czechoslovakia post-Munich and so on.

It is known that creating a fuss over the Munich Agreement was part of the USSR’s propaganda arsenal as well. It went hand in hand with the argument that the Soviet Union, which was not included in the Munich negotiations, was prepared to provide military aid to Czechoslovakia in the case of a German attack even if others, primarily France, failed to do their duty by that country. Putin reiterates all of this in his article.

However, let us still ask: should the European Parliament’s resolution mention the Munich Agreement after all? To put this half-jokingly, now that the UK has left the European Union, should we not re-evaluate the actions of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister and figurehead of appeasement, in 1938?

It is true that Czechoslovakia was betrayed and the Czechs are upfront about calling it a betrayal. France (which had obligations as an ally), the UK, Italy and Germany came together and decided to partition the country. This was undoubtedly a foul act by today’s legal norms and ethical standards. For example, following the 1975 Helsinki Accords it is no longer considered reasonable to shift state borders so as to regulate crises, not to speak of doing so despite the opposition of a concerned party. However, the Munich Agreement cannot be considered the same as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

As it is justly noted in the European Parliament’s resolution, the direct consequences of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact included Germany’s attack on Poland, followed by the USSR’s attack 17 days later, after which the Soviet Union began to exert military and diplomatic pressure on the Baltic states and launched a war against Finland. No war followed Munich.

It is known that Hitler was itching to start a war and felt cheated after the agreement. The war that Czechoslovakia was also prepared for was cancelled, at least in 1938. It also pays to understand the position of France—which was struggling with internal divisions, partly due to communists—and the UK. The British wanted to reach an agreement to buy time; they feared German superiority in aerial warfare. By 1939, the British had completed their air-defence system and felt more confident. In September 1939, the UK and France were prepared to start the war for the sake of Poland, which had been attacked by both Germany and the USSR, although the chances of exiting the war as victors were rather slim.7

The USSR and then Russia have always tried to claim that Stalin was prepared to rush to the aid of Czechoslovakia, which seemed believable, as the USSR was the only great power in Europe that was not included in the negotiations.

In the 1990s, Czechoslovakian historians proved on the basis of archive documents that this claim was false. For example, Czech president Edvard Beneš and the leader of the Czech communists, Klement Gottwald, met on 18 September 1938 but Gottwald emphasised that he had no authority to speak for the USSR. After the Munich Agreement on 30 September, Gottwald bitterly reproached Beneš but did not mention potential Soviet military aid. That is no wonder, since Stalin would have to have been mad to involve Moscow in a conflict with the possibility of fighting Hitler alone, without allies. Stalin’s fear of Hitler’s aggression being directed to the east could have become a reality.8

Let us address the claim that Hitler’s aggression was directed towards the east. Appeasement could indeed leave this impression but its actual purpose was to prevent war, not to try to set Hitler against Stalin.9 Judged by its own objective, appeasement was commendable, but its methods were suspect.

We could, of course, condemn the Munich Agreement as an example of great powers playing politics at the expense of small states’ security (even though the historian in me would argue against such an anachronism), but I doubt this is what Putin wants. The Russian president is not very concerned about large countries reaching an agreement, but rather the fact that the USSR was not consulted over decisions that affected the future of Europe. His article concludes with a call to awaken the spirit of Yalta and bring the victors of World War II—Russia, France, the UK, the US and China—back to the negotiating table to decide on important matters together. It is left to us to wonder: why those countries and why Yalta, not Vienna or even Westphalia?

 

This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.


1 Toomas Alatalu, “Putin Continues Victory Campaigns to Defend Historical Truth Using the Constitution”, Diplomaatia, 17 August 2020; Konstantin von Eggert, “Putini artikkel on tegelikult tormihoiatus Venemaa naabritele”, Eesti Päevaleht, 23 June 2020, epl.delfi.ee/eesti/konstantin-von-eggert-putini-ar….

2 Vladimir Sazonov, “II maailmasõja tõlgendused à la Kreml: Baltimaad kui vene ajaloo narratiivide sihtmärk”, RKK blog, 1 July 2020, icds.ee/et/ii-maailmasoja-tolgendused-a-la-kreml-b….

3 Ibid.

4 Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Vintage, 2013.

5 Una Bergmane, “How Putin is Rehabilitating the Nazi-Soviet Pact”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 28 July 2020, www.fpri.org/article/2020/07/putin-rehab-nazi-sovi….

6 www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2019-00….

7 Zara Steiner, “British Decisions for Peace and War 1938–1939: The Rise and Fall of Realism”, in Ernest R. May, Richard Rosecrance and Zara Steiner (eds), History and Neorealism, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 129–154.

8 Igor Lukes, “Stalin and Benes at the end of September 1938: New evidence from the Prague archives”, Slavic Review 52 (1993) no. 1: 28–48; Igor Lukes and Erik Goldstein (eds), The Munich Crisis, 1938: Prelude to World War II, Psychology Press, 1999.

9 Frank McDonough, Neville Chamberlain, Appeasement, and the British Road to War, Manchester University Press, 1998; Sidney Aster “‘Guilty Men’: The Case of Neville Chamberlain”, in Robert Boyce and Esmonde M. Robertson (eds), Paths to War: New Essays on the Origins of the Second World War, London: Macmillan, 1989, 233–268.