European Affairs

Barrett--The motherland’s obligation to protect Russian speakers abroad.
--Use of energy exports for geopolitical gain.
-- Propaganda laced with lies to promote nationalist fervor.
--Nostalgia for the territorial grandeur of yore.
--Transgressions against weak neighbors.
--Blaming outsiders – read: Americans – for the tensions.

No mystery as to the sum of these parts: Vladimir Putin’s brutal abuse against Ukraine ever since Ukrainians ousted his ally from power in Kiev. With some variation, Moscow’s earlier bullying of Georgia also fits. Throw in feints that prompt angst among several one-time constituents of the USSR, and the Russian president’s status as Europe’s mischief maker extraordinaire is secure.

As the European Union’s ambassador to Washington, David O’Sullivan, observed recently at a European Institute meeting in D.C.: “Mr. Putin has torn up the rule book.” But in eerie and fascinating ways, Putin has been following the history book written by Romanov czars and Bolshevik commissars.

“The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939 – 1941” by Roger Moorhouse inadvertently brings the parallels into focus. A British popular historian, Moorhouse finished the book before the Ukraine crisis erupted. He avoided then-and-now comparisons. But it is difficult to read this colorful, thorough narrative without noting the similarity in dynamics.

His account of the cynical deal between rapacious dictators who despised each other, little remembered today though it served as the laissez faire into the charnel house of World War II, received sparse attention when published in the U.S. last year. That is a shame. The book deserves a large audience because the Hitler-Stalin agreement was as consequential as it was bizarre.

Adolf Hitler was willing to put aside his disdain for the “Jewish tyrants.” For a while he would stop calling Bolshevism “a crime against humanity.” What he needed in 1939, among other things, was peace with the Soviet Union as Germany consumed smaller Continental prey, then turned its guns on France and Britain. Germany also required oil, grain, rare metals and other commodities in the Soviet Union’s inventory.
Josef Stalin, who had earlier predicted that Hitler’s evil minions “would drown in their own blood,” was happy to provide those in exchange for machinery and weaponry. He also wanted time to strengthen his debilitated military forces. To Stalin, the prospect of remaining neutral while his enemies exhausted each other in the imminent war had vast appeal. But that was merely a near-future possibility. An immediate certainty: the Soviets would be free to push out their eastern frontier, creating the buffer zone craved by Moscow’s rulers for centuries.

As Stalin and the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, parsed the text, Stalin observed that flowery prose would be jarring. After all, he said, the two regimes had been heaping excrement on each other’s heads for years. Yet they were now consummating the German-Soviet Treaty of Non-aggression Pact, undertaking neither to attack each other nor to assist each other’s enemies. That was the bland published version. The Secret Additional Protocol contained the high-octane substance. It assigned “spheres of influence,” including boundary markers, allowing each party a free hand in specified areas of eastern Europe.

The treaty was signed August 31, 1939. One week later, Germany invaded Poland, eliciting declarations of war by Britain and France. On September 17, Soviet forces entered Poland from the east. Poland ceased to exist.

One justification offered, apparently without irony, was that Moscow had an obligation to protect “its brothers of the same blood, the Ukrainians and the Byelorussians…inhabitants of Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia.” Actually the Kremlin was describing territory that most of the world regarded as eastern Poland.

When Berlin blamed machinations by British and French imperialists for the instability prompting the invasion, Moscow seconded the motion. (Stalin hated the venerable British empire as much as he feared the new empire Germany, Italy and Japan were building.)

The parallels with recent Russian rhetoric are obvious. Western meddling, rather than Ukrainian public opinion, inspired the change of government that so offended Moscow. Maltreated Russian speakers in Ukraine needed protection. The desire of Crimean residents to return to the motherland brought about the strategic territory’s annexation. And who knows where those shock troops without insignia on their uniforms came from.

That Russia was a signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukraine’s sovereignty in exchange for its surrender of nuclear weaponry positioned there before the USSR imploded, posed an inconvenient fact when Moscow annexed Crimea. Putin flicked it away with the airy explanation that the rights of Crimean Russian speakers took precedence.

In 1939, one justification for the Soviet invasion of Finland was that fascist elements infested the country. In 2013 – 2014, Moscow bemoaned what it perceived to be fascist influence in Kiev. The New York Times last month published a darkly amusing account of a conference of European right-wing fringe elements, including neo-fascists, held in Moscow. Participants lauded Putin as a strong guardian of traditional Christian values.

Finland’s Balkan neighbors tried diplomacy rather than military resistance. Under Soviet prodding, each signed a “mutual assistance” treaty ostensibly to protect its borders. Stalin then ignored those agreements, just as Putin would disregard the Budapest Memorandum. Instead of protecting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the Kremlin used salami tactics to slice away their independence.

The Soviets demanded, and got, military basing rights for the sake of “mutual security.” While promising no political interference, the Soviets increased the deployments. Then came complaints that local citizens were insulting or threatening Soviet personnel and other perceived provocations. These maneuvers led to demands for regime change – change that would result in “popular” initiatives leading to conversion of the independent republics to constituents of the USSR.

Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s main operative in these machinations, lectured recalcitrant Lithuanian officials. Moorhouse recounts the spiel: “You must take a good look at reality and understand that in future small states will have to disappear. Your Lithuania, along with the other Baltic nations, will have to join the glorious Soviet Union.”

Again, there are recent echoes. In 2008, in what he thought was a private conversation with President George W. Bush on the sideline of a conference, Putin said: “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to them by us.” The comment later leaked. The following year, Russian media quoted Putin as referring to Ukraine as “Little Russia” – a paternalistic term dating to czarist times.

Stalin, as an heir to Lenin, labored to bring socialism to other nations ostensibly by converting the masses. But that was a long-term proposition barely tethered to reality. The pact with Hitler provided the immediate gratification of restoring most of the lands Lenin’s new regime had lost in 1918 as a result of its early, separate peace with the Kaiser’s Germany in World War I.

Stalin gloried in that achievement until Hitler reclaimed all that real estate, and more, when he abrogated the treaty by blitzkrieg in 1941. Destruction of the Third Reich brought about a still larger, albeit temporary, empire ruled by the Kremlin. Putin has lamented the fragmentation of that last empire as a catastrophe.

Using mostly economic leverage and political blandishments, Putin has worked to restore Moscow’s influence and standing, if not its territorial holdings. But his filching of Crimea and the hold on eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian forces are far a more frightening expressions of the primordial irredentism present in the Kremlin’s DNA.

Putin’s apparent conviction that the West isn’t sufficiently united or determined to trump his latest gambits provides one last echo of events 75 years ago. Britain and France had been negotiating with the Soviets for months, hoping to enlist them in an anti-Nazi alliance. Stalin let the talks go on even as Molotov conducted more serious discussions with Ribbentrop.

In 1942, in a Kremlin meeting with Winston Churchill, Stalin tried to justify his decision to ally himself with Hitler. As Churchill recounted the conversation in “The Gathering Storm,” Stalin argued that Britain and France had neither demonstrated the will to stand up to Hitler nor mustered the military forces to do so. Churchill more or less believed him, concluding sadly: “The fact that such an agreement could be made marks the culminating failure of British and French foreign policy and diplomacy over several years.”

Putin’s 2008 land grab in Georgia that resulted in two small pseudo-nations under Russian protection, a similar frozen conflict in Moldova, combined with the relative unpreparedness of European NATO states and the general consensus that Crimea annexation is non-negotiable create a chilling sense of déjà vu.

Somewhere in tyrants’ Valhalla the shade of Josef Stalin is chortling. Everywhere in the west officials are – or should be – wondering where and when Vladimir Putin will lay down a new challenge.

Laurence Barrett was associated with Time Magazine for 32 years as Correspondent and Editor. He is the author of several books including “Gambling with History: Reagan in the White House.