Why Putin Treats Fantasy as History
President Vladimir Putin's latest attempt to justify the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which allowed Germany and the Soviet Union to divide up Poland in 1939, holds a clue to the Kremlin's behavior in the Ukraine crisis.
Here's what Putin said after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday:
The Soviet Union made tremendous efforts to put in place conditions for collective resistance to Nazism in Germany and made repeated attempts to create an anti-Nazi bloc in Europe. All of these attempts failed. What’s more, after 1938, when the well-known agreement was concluded in Munich, conceding some regions of Czechoslovakia, some politicians thought that war was inevitable. Churchill, for example, when his colleague came back to London with this bit of paper and said that he had brought peace, said in reply, “Now war is inevitable.” When the Soviet Union realized that it was left to face Hitler’s Germany on its own, it acted to try to avoid a direct confrontation, and this resulted in signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In this sense, I agree with our Culture Minister’s view that this pact did make sense in terms of guaranteeing the Soviet Union’s security.
Putin was simply rehashing here what Soviet historians said throughout the post-war years. Their version of events was that in April 1939, after Munich, Stalin offered an anti-Hitler union to France and the U.K. that would have guaranteed protection to Eastern European countries in case of German aggression. The European powers, however, sabotaged the idea, sending low-level negotiators and stalling for time, so that Stalin was forced to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler instead.
In recent years, Putin's former colleagues in the Russian foreign intelligence service, or SVR, have taken steps to bolster this Soviet version of history. In 2008, it declassified documents that showed Stalin had offered the U.K. and France to send a million troops to the German borders, in case Germany made a move in Eastern Europe.
"This was a chance to save the world or at least stop the wolf in its tracks," Lev Sotskov, the former SVR general charged with publishing the documents, told the Daily Telegraph at the time. The Western powers missed that chance, leaving Russia exposed.
The problem with this version, of course, is that it ignores the existence of a secret addendum to the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, signed by the countries' foreign ministers, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, on August 23, 1939. This protocol described the Soviet Union's and Germany's "spheres of interest." It divided Poland and the Baltic states between them and gave Stalin leave to grab Bessarabia, a territory that is now divided between Ukraine and the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova. A German diplomat handed over a copy of the document to the U.S. and it was published in 1948, but Soviet historians denied its authenticity. Molotov himself maintained until his death in 1986 that there had been no secret annex to the pact.
The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, apparently knew that the Communist Party's top secret archive had the original of the protocol, but as he tried to prevent the secession of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from the Soviet Union, he, too, denied the existence of the single-page document.
Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Communist President, finally ordered the protocol declassified in 1992 -- so Putin can't go back to denying that Stalin and Hitler agreed to split Poland and the Baltics. He can, however, ignore it. During Putin's 15-year rule, the official line on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact has gone back to the Soviet version, a remarkable feat of selective memory. That fits Putin's general approach to the Soviet past, in which he erases anything that doesn't fit his worldview.
That's exactly what he has done during the Ukraine crisis. As Putin denies the presence of Russian troops in the conflict zone, he simply ignores hard evidence such as the deaths of Russian servicemen in eastern Ukraine. Since a Malaysian passenger airliner was shot down over the Donetsk region a year ago, Russian propaganda has put forward a number of implausible scenarios in which it was shot down by the Ukrainian air force, rather than by a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missile, but there is no official version of the event. Putin prefers to avoid discussing what happened to Flight MH17, and his omissions are lies. To him, though, they are a form of reality management.
That's why it's so difficult for the straightforward German chancellor to negotiate with Putin. His omissions irritate Merkel and she's unable to ignore them for the sake of politeness. On Sunday, too, she felt compelled to argue with her host, even though the purpose of her visit was to show Germany's continued contrition and gratitude to the victors who defeated Hitler.
"From my point of view, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is hard to understand unless you take into consideration the extra secret protocol," Merkel said, after listening to Putin's version.
The Soviet narrative about the pact has been decisively proven wrong. Britain and France were unwilling to do a deal with Stalin in 1939, because he demanded passage through Poland for his troops. This would have amounted to Russian occupation, which the Western powers suspected to be Stalin's true goal. The secret Molotov-Ribbentrop protocol and its implementation validated those suspicions. The allies, of course, proved much more amenable to Stalin's expansionism once Hitler was nearly crushed, but their 1939 reservations were understandable, even in hindsight.
Being wrong doesn't stop Putin, though. In his picture of the world truth doesn't matter, only winning does. Merkel's pained facial expression during Sunday's meeting with him shows how difficult it is for her to live with his approach, but this may make her the ideal negotiator with Putin on the Ukraine crisis. Merkel isn't interested in macho one-upmanship, she just grimly rejects his fantasies.
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