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Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Moscow is picking fights over the causes of the conflict and the events of the bitter decades that followed, when the Soviet Union imposed communism on a captive Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, a Kremlin-aligned analyst says Russia should package itself as the world’s “chief supplier of peace” -- despite a record that includes wars at home and abroad, with substantial civilian casualties, under President Vladimir Putin.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
'Insolence' And 'Regret'
In 2006, at the castle that towers over the Czech capital, during his only visit to Prague as Russian president, Vladimir Putin made headlines by acknowledging that Moscow bore “moral responsibility” for the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, when Warsaw Pact tanks and troops ended a brief thaw by crushing the Prague Spring.
More than a decade after Putin’s visit, his government is in a scrap with the Czech Republic over 1968 -- one that has prompted President Milos Zeman, who has shown more sympathy and support for Putin than most European leaders, to reconsider his decision to head to Moscow in May for celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat in World War II.
Zeman’s hesitation was prompted by what he called the “absolute insolence” of a December 18 statement in which the Russian Foreign Ministry voiced “deep regret” over a Czech bill -- which he signed five days earlier -- designating August 21 as the day "commemorating the victims of the invasion and subsequent occupation by the Warsaw Pact armies."
Russia asserted that legislation contradicted a 1993 treaty in which Russia and the Czech Republic expressed their desire to “close the books on the totalitarian past,” and slammed what it called “Prague’s determination to once again return to events that took place half a century ago with the purpose of including them in the modern political context.”
That argument is striking because that is what Kremlin critics say Russia has been doing with increasing adamance ahead of the May 9 ceremonies in Moscow: trying to harness the past for use as a weapon in present-day geopolitics.
Moreover, Moscow’s opponents in the disputes say that it is using a twisted version of history to do so -- one in which, for example, the pact under which Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland in 1939 was something closer to an instrument of peace than a license for invasion.
In the past year or so, the Kremlin has faced growing accusations that it is waging a campaign to rewrite chapters of World War II history, including by downplaying Moscow’s cooperation with Germany -- through the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret annex, which provided for the division of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe, as well as raw-material supplies -- before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Fighting Over The Past
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is at the center of a war of words between Russia and Poland, which escalated after Putin described a European Parliament resolution that blamed the war’s outbreak on the 1939 treaty as “sheer nonsense.” Putin asserted that what he called collusion by Poland and Western powers with Hitler paved the way for the war, and singled out archive documents that he claimed showed the Polish ambassador to Berlin at the time -- whom he called a “bastard” and “and antisemitic pig” -- lauded Hitler's plans to rid Europe of Jews.
“Europe has forgotten! Putin named the true culprits who are to blame” for the war, state TV news channel Rossia-24 said in a headline for a show that included grainy footage of Hitler and Western leaders.
The U.S. ambassador to Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, took issue, addressing Putin in a tweet that said “Hitler and Stalin colluded to start WWII. That is a fact. Poland was a victim of this horrible conflict.”
The Polish Foreign Ministry said that Putin’s words resembled “propaganda from the time of Stalinist totalitarianism,” and in a statement on December 29, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki accused Putin of telling “repeated lies” about World War II history.
The Kremlin, of course, has been at odds with the West and with the former Soviet satellites in Central and Eastern Europe over World War II since the collapse of communism. What is depicted invariably as the liberation of Eastern Europe is seen by many there as the beginning of decades of depravation and unfreedom under Moscow’s dominion.
In putting the spotlight on the start of the war and blame for its outbreak, Putin may be seeking to gloss over the conflict itself and its long aftermath, suggesting that discussion of those periods is essentially off-limits -- as the Russian Foreign Ministry argued in its criticism of the Czech bill on the 1968 invasion.
In any case, there is a new feel to Russia’s recent pronouncements.
Putin’s remarks in Prague in 2006, and similar statements in Budapest during the same trip, were seen as deeply pragmatic: He acknowledged Moscow’s moral responsibility for the Soviet actions -- which had, as he pointed out, been acknowledged years earlier by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin -- but said Russia “of course” bears no legal responsibility.
Translation: Don’t seek reparations.
Pragmatism And 'Lunacy'
While the statements by high Russian officials and history-bending reports on state TV are aimed in part at a domestic audience, the consensus among observers in the West seems to be that it is harder to see pragmatic grounds for the more assertive attitude. Even in these days of disinformation, mind games, and “hybrid warfare,” people are scratching their heads.
“Millions of Russians suffered under Stalin [and the] Communist regime as well as those in other #Soviet republics,” a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said on Twitter. “USSR's 1991 collapse gave #Russia an opportunity to distance itself from Soviet actions. Putin instead has chosen to defend [and] embrace those actions [and the] Soviet legacy.
“Trying to understand the logic of the Russian diplomats who decided that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the social-media hill to die on this week,” Shashank Joshi, a former analyst who is defense editor at The Economist, tweeted on New Year’s Eve.
“I tried, too, but gave up,” tweeted Kadri Liik, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
No need to look for logic: There’s none to be found, Moscow-based foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov said in a tweet.
“There are no foreign policy objectives behind this lunacy. Just the need to prove loyalty,” he wrote -- particularly “effective and creative loyalty,” adding that the Foreign Ministry was joining a “campaign it cannot watch from the sidelines.”
Kevin Rothrock, editor at the Russia-focused news outlet Meduza, suggested on Twitter that the Foreign Ministry might come to regret its recent spate of World War II-related remarks down the road.
“What does Moscow gain from this kind of diplomacy?” he asked about a Foreign Ministry tweet that said “Hitler’s war machine was created with the assistance of leading American companies” such as General Electric, General Motors, and Ford. “Hard to imagine looking back at this tweet in 10 years and thinking it was a good idea.”
It might be easier to imagine if a proposal set out before the New Year by Sergei Karaganov, a Kremlin-friendly Russian foreign policy analyst, is adopted and successfully implemented.
In an article in the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta providing a foreign policy prescription for the coming decade, Karaganov called for Russia to promote itself as “the main supplier of peace, the defender of sovereignty and freedom of choice for all countries and civilizations, and the guarantor of a new nonalignment and the prevention of hegemonism.”
The killing by the United States of one of the most powerful figures in Iran, military commander Qasem Soleimani is the kind of thing that Moscow might see as a chance to make the case for that.
The Russian Defense Ministry said as much several hours after the air strike that killed Soleimani in Iraq, calling the U.S. action “shortsighted” and warning that it would escalate tensions in the Middle East and could have “serious negative consequences for the entire global security system.”
Some observers opined that behind the criticism, Moscow may have cause to welcome the development.
In any case, Russia’s own recent record suggests that it could take a major shift in conduct to make the moniker of “peace supplier” less of a hard sell.
The second devastating post-Soviet war in Chechnya helped catapult Putin to power 20 years ago, and since then Russia has been heavily involved in at least three wars abroad: in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria. All those conflicts have caused -- in the hundreds, thousands, or many more, depending on the war -- which in some cases have been blamed on Russia.