Staunton, July 2 – The analogies people use to describe their situation often say far more than do their direct declarative statements because the former, unlike the latter, often provide the unspoken context for the thinking of those involved. That is what makes some of the analogies being drawn in Moscow now both instructive and terrifying.
In a commentary on the IARex.ru news agency, Mikhail Aleksandrov says that “the current diplomatic maneuvers around the situation in Ukraine bring to mind certain historical parallels,” specifically that Putin’s Russia today finds itself in the same position Hitler’s Germany did just before World War II.
“The current political situation in Europe in its essentials very much recalls that which existed on the eve of the second world war. The same unjust Versailles peace arrangement, the same dismemberment of the German nation, the same discrimination of German communities in the newly-formed petty states, the same policy of the West around Germany,” he writes.
But then he concludes “Only now instead of Germany, there is Russia.”
As disturbing as this suggestion that Moscow now is in the position of Berlin in 1939 and by implication should act in the same way, even more worrisome are Aleksandrov’s analysis of Stalin’s mistakes in the pre-war period and his call for Putin to use military force in Ukraine and elsewhere lest Moscow again find itself facing a new invasion.
President Putin has said that “the Russian leadership will never again permit a repetition of the catastrophe of June 1941.” It is certainly the case, Aleksandrov says, that “the crisis in Ukraine has created a mortal threat to Russian statehood,” but by “an irony of fate,” the Kremlin leader of today is acting as if that is not the case and thus repeating “the mistakes of his great predecessor, I.V. Stalin.”
In 1925, Stalin prophetically said that a war in Europe was inevitable, that the USSR would be drawn into it, and that, in order to prepare for that, Moscow must arrange things so that the country would become involved as late as possible, Aleksandrov recounts, adding that “this plan seemed ideal.”
For 16 years, Stalin followed it consistently, but “life turned out to be more complicated than any plans.” And the Soviet leader took steps that ultimately led to exactly what he did not want and could have avoided.
In the early 1930s, Aleksandrov says, “Soviet diplomacy bean to conduct a policy directed at the creation in Europe of a system of collective security.” But given Western interests and attitudes, “this course was not realistic.”
One result was the Soviet-French treaty on joint guarantees to Czechoslovakia, an agreement in which Moscow agreed to act only after Paris did. “If the Munich crisis of 1938 had led to war, then Stalin’s plan could have been realized,” with a war in Europe “beginning without the direct participation of the USSR,” giving Moscow the opportunity to pick its time.
But war did not begin over Czechoslovakia but rather over Poland. Stalin believed that he has done the right thing again by concluding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and thus eliminating the threat of a German attack. But that was not to be, Aleksandrov says, and he suggests that Stalin miscalculated because he thought the second world war would be like the first.
But this time around, France capitulated quickly, and Stalin found himself confronted with a united and antagonistic Europe, on the one hand, and a Japanese threat in the Far East, on the other. The USSR would have been better off to denounce Molotov-Ribbentrop and move Soviet forces into eastern Europe.
In late 1939 or early 1940, Soviet forces could have “relatively easily defeated the armies of the allies of Germany, Romania and Hungary, freed Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and turned to its side Bulgaria.” Then Moscow could have formed “pro-Soviet divisions from among the ranks of local anti-fascists,” putting Germany on the defensive.
But “Stalin missed his chance.” Both his confidence in his earlier judgments and his decision to fulfill all international agreements even when no one else was “led to tragic consequences,” Aleksandrov writes. In December 1940, Hitler offered Stalin an alliance, but Moscow rejected that viewing this as “a soft swallowing of the USSR without a war.”
At the same time, however, the USSR made concessions to Berling that in effect let it in the position of “a protectorate of Germany” and ultimately at risk of invasion. Stalin dismissed suggestions that Hitler would violate his promises and thus put the Soviet Union at risk of what happened in the summer of 1941.
During this period, Soviet thinking was “disoriented,” and “the Germans were presented not as enemies but as friends or as it is now fashionable to say “partners.” As a result, “neither the society nor the army was morally and psychologically prepared for war.” Because of “the subjective mistakes” of Stalin, “the peoples of the USSR had to pay a very high price.”
Many in Moscow and even in the Kremlin view the situation in Ukraine as marginal, as something that Russia can resolve by cooperating with the West and making concessions. But that is a mistake just like the one Stalin made 70 years ago. In fact, he says, “the fate of Russia and the entire world depends” on whether Putin follows in Stalin’s footsteps or makes the right choice.
At present, the commentator says, the situation in Ukraine has left Putin with only three choices: The first is to agree to be a protectorate of the West and fulfill all its demands, including the surrender of the Donbass, Crimea, Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and giving “freedom to homosexuals, sectarians, Islamists and all other Russophobes” at home.
The second is to launch a first strike, to introduce forces into Ukraine, to take Kyiv, and to install in power there “people from the south-east regions of the country.” Such people will “carry out de-Nazification, defeat the Banderite underground, carry out federalization, and hold new democratic elections.”
This variant, Aleksandrov continues, would also involve “Russian recognition of the independence of Transdniestria and Gagauzia” and a purge of “representatives of the pro-Western fifth column” in the Russian government and mass media.
Of course, this action would lead to a confrontation with the West, but the West is not that united and doesn’t control as much of the world’s economy as it did in the past. Russia could survive any of its sanctions and could even come out of them stronger because of the development of its own industrial base.
And the third variant Putin might choose is “the model of Stalin’s behavior in1940-1941,” a combination of rejecting concessions demanded by the West, not launching a first strike, and seeking to avoid having the Ukrainian crisis grow into something larger. “This variant does not mean inevitable defeat, but it raises the price of victory many times over.”
If Putin chooses this path, one resembling the one Stalin selected, it “will lead to extremely negative consequences for the national security of Russia.” Without Russian intervention, Donetsk and Luhansk will “inevitably” be defeated, and Ukraine will be transformed into “a militarized and anti-Russian country with a population of 40 million.”
Then, Ukraine backed by the West will “renew its claims on Crimea, put up obstacles to economic activity on the Black Sea shelf, and impose a harsh blockade of Transdniestria.” Moscow will then have to choose again between yet more concessions or “a military confrontation with this new Ukraine.”
In short, the Moscow commentator says, “the third variant will not bring Russia any real benefits and on the contrary is connected with additional constraints and losses as a rest of which it will be scarcely better than the second variant and perhaps even worse.”
At present, Putin seems attached to this third variant because it flows from the pattern of decisions he has already made. But that is a mistake, and he has a chance now to go in a new direction. The Russian president has strengthened Russia at home but in the pursuit of good relations with the West, he has undermined Russia’s position abroad.
Hoping that concessions will change the interests of the West is a fool’s errand. Nothing Moscow can do will be enough to do that, Aleksandrov argues. Such a change “has not happened and cannot take place,” whatever the Kremlin offers. Consequently,Russia must pursue its own interests.
“The time has come,” Aleksandrov says, “for a re-assessment of Russian foreign policy in the Euro-Atlantic direction … to publicly acknowledge that the strategy toward the West conducted since the 2000s has suffered a defeat, and to draw corresponding conclusions” from that fact.
And the Moscow analyst suggests four conclusions that he believes Moscow should reach. First, he says, opportunities for cooperation with the West are “quite limited” and carry “essential risks.” Sacrificing Russia’s security interests to preserve economic cooperation is “unacceptable.”
Second, he argues that efforts by Moscow “to play on the contradictions and create a split between the US and the EU are a senseless waste of time and resources.” The two agree at a strategic level if not always at a tactical one. It would be better to force the West into talks by threatening its interests elsewhere in the world.
Third, given that the West is ignoring international law despite Moscow’s appeals, Moscow should not worry about following it either. And fourth, “only a demonstration and application of one’s own force can give a positive result,” as was the case in South Ossetia and Crimea. “Exactly the same approach must be applied to Ukraine.”