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Vladimir Putin Brings Judo Tactics To Poland

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- political judo master?
In his long "Letter to the Poles" published on the eve of the commemorations in Gdansk marking the anniversary of Nazi Germany's attack on Poland in 1939, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave a clear and (as of now) definitive official Russian view on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

(See the Russian official version in English here, and the published Polish version here.) It is characteristically clever, meriting careful reading to distil out what he was really saying.

Putin: "No judge can give a totally unbiased verdict on what was in the past."

Translation: There's no real "truth" or honest standards in all this. Those who assert such standards fail to live by them, so what they say cannot count. Let's all be...responsible.

Putin: "Did not the borders in Europe begin to crumble much earlier than 1 September 1939? What about the Anschluss of Austria and Czechoslovakia being torn to pieces, when not only Germany, but also Hungary and Poland in fact took part in the territorial repartition of Europe."

Translation: Germany was "humiliated" by Versailles, so what did you expect? Plus things were falling apart anyway before we started taking our slices. That means you, Poland (Note: Good Point.)

Putin: "There is no doubt that one can have all the reasons to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But a year before, in Munich, France and England signed a well-known treaty with Hitler and thus destroyed all the hope for a united front to fight fascism....

"Today, we understand that any kind of collusion with the Nazi regime was morally unacceptable and had no prospects of practical implementation. However, in the context of the historical events of that time, the Soviet Union not only remained face to face with Germany...but also faced the threat of waging war on two fronts, because precisely in August of 1939 the flame of the conflict with Japan on the Halkin-Gol River reached its highest."

Translation: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the inevitable consequence of what others did. "One" might condemn it -- but I don't. Russia always resists being encircled. Events thousands of miles away left us no choice but to invade Poland. Strange, but true.

Putin: "The Soviet diplomacy was quite right at that time to consider it, at least, unwise to reject Germany's proposal to sign the Non-Aggression Pact when USSR's potential allies in the West had already made similar agreements with the German Reich.... The moral aspect of policies pursued is particularly important. Our country's parliament unambiguously assessed the immorality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact."

Translation: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was assessed as "immoral" by the Soviet parliament in 1989. But it would have been "unwise" for the Soviet Union not to sign the pact. What's immoral about not being unwise? So you stupid media people in the West need to say that I have condemned the pact as "immoral," even though I have not done so. Got that?

Putin: "It is impossible to set up an efficient system of collective security without involvement of all countries of the continent, including Russia."

Translation: If we are not happy, look what we do. That's just the way it is. You Americans -- represented in Gdansk by some junior lackey -- relax and stay at home.

Putin: "The people of Russia, whose destiny was crippled by the totalitarian regime, fully understand the sensitiveness of Poles about Katyn where thousands of Polish servicemen lie. Together we must keep alive the memory of the victims of this crime.

"Katyn and Mednoye memorials, just as the tragic fate of the Russian soldiers taken prisoners in Poland during the 1920 war, should become symbols of common grief and mutual pardon."

Translation: Be grateful, sensitive Poland, for our liberating you, even though we murdered and imprisoned thousands of Poles to do so. And let's remember the victims of the Katyn crime, but not talk about the criminals who committed it. You have your massacre victims, Poland, we have ours. No double standards.

Putin: "Our obligation to the past and gone, to the very history, is to do everything in order to make the Polish-Russian relations free from the burden of mistrust and prepossession.... To turn over the page and start writing a new one.

Translation: All this historical stuff is tedious. Poland and Europe won't wear Russia down into apologizing for anything. Perhaps some oil/gas deals instead?

Political Flips

Vladimir Putin is a judo master and is adept at flipping opponents, using their strength against them. He knew that in Gdansk the Poles would be loath to come over as churlish hosts. So he seized the rhetorical initiative. His letter struck a balanced, sensible tone, while conceding nothing on the hard-core post-Soviet view of World War II.

A black belt in judo, Vladimir Putin (right) knows how to use his opponent's strength against him.
The Munich Agreement is presented as no different from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, even though France and the United Kingdom struck a deal with Hitler to avoid war, not to launch it by annexing great slabs of other countries.

Katyn is compared to the messy aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 (another attempted land grab). Did Poland's top leaders back then order the murder of thousands of Red Army prisoners?

Warsaw's "courageous" resistance is mentioned, but there's nothing about Stalin's refusal to intervene as the Nazis razed the city in 1944. There's nothing about post-World War II Soviet crimes.

Putin boldly puts all this in the context of Russian-German reconciliation. Poland was again sandwiched between Big Germany and Big Russia: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, keen to achieve substantive reconciliation on modern European terms, and Putin, nodding stiffly in that direction but in practice offering only Russian terms.

So what was Putin's message? "Poland and Europe, I will come to your so-called ceremony -- and assert my view of history, conceding nothing. I am strong. You are weak.

And what is the moral of the story? Be careful which VIPs you invite to a party. Some of them may show up -- and then it becomes their party

Charles Crawford served as British ambassador to Poland from 2003 to 2007. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL