US Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling today to Sochi to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Putin met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend.
Russia just did a big 70th anniversary celebration of Victory Day, with the usual show of military personnel and equipment. Things are relatively quiet in the Donbas, although low-level fighting continues and there are concerns that Russia will begin another invasion.
The meeting with Merkel seems not to have gone well (photo). Merkel’s position has been that Russia must end hostilities in the Donbas. At the press availability after the meetings, Putin made an argument he has made before about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Here’s the full quote:
Question: Mr President, at a meeting with historians at the end of last year, you asked a rhetorical question: “What was wrong with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact?” Recently, Minister of Culture Mr Medinsky, called this pact a triumph for Stalin’s diplomacy from the point of view of the Soviet Union’s state interests.
Such words stir fears in Poland and the Baltic states. Yesterday, at the parade, you spoke of the need for a new security system. How can we build a system that would take into account the interests of Poland, the Baltic states, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine? What can Russia and Germany do to assuage these nations’ fears?
Vladimir Putin: This is the sort of question that we could discuss all night long. But when it comes to assuaging fears, this also has to do with the internal state of those who have these fears. They need to step over their fears, move forward, stop living with the phobias of the past and look instead towards the future.
Concerning the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, let me draw your attention to the historical events, when the Soviet Union… It is not even so important who was in charge of diplomacy at the time. Stalin was in charge, of course, but he was not the only person thinking about how to guarantee the Soviet Union’s security. 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 realised 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. This is my first point.
Second, I remind you that after the Munich Agreement was signed, Poland itself took steps to annex part of Czech territory. In the end, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the division of Poland, they fell victim to the same policy that they tried to pursue in Europe.
We need to remember all of this, not forget any of it. If you paid attention to what I said yesterday, I said that a truly effective security system must be built not on a bloc basis, but on the basis of an equal approach to security for all actors in the international community. If we could build our work on these principles, using the United Nations as a base, I think we would achieve success.
His first point is that the rest of Europe left the Soviet Union to face Hitler alone, and the second is to argue that the Munich Agreement also led to one nation annexing another’s territory. His net conclusion is that there must be a broad (and “equal”) approach to security.
Why would Putin want to re-emphasize his support for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which immediately contributed to war in Europe in 1939, at a meeting with the German Chancellor? It hardly seems likely that she looks favorably on that agreement.
Putin likes to use history to justify his present course of action. He is fairly transparent about this in the quote above: Russia is left to face a menace abroad by itself, and it must find a way to its own security. The menace abroad is the United States, which foments rebellions against established authority and revels in chaos. Security can be built only when Russia’s interests are taken into account.
The Baltic States, Poland, and others of Russia’s neighbors have been very aware of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its agreement to carve up the space between the Soviet Union and Germany. The Soviet Union’s western republics and satellites were those areas described in the Pact. Some of them were Russian possessions or Russian-influenced territories under the Tsar. Justifying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also justifies Russia’s dominion over those territories.
Timothy Snyder has written a much more detailed account of the history of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and speculated on other possible motives for Putin’s supporting it.
As usually happens when I try to understand what Putin is doing, I find my brain spinning. How much of this does Putin believe? How much is directed solely at others to justify Russia’s recent actions? How much at those within Russia? So much is at odds with facts and with my understanding of the world. It’s important to understand the thinking of major players. But what if their words are intended to confuse? Snyder believes this may be the purpose:
The rehabilitation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is not the reflection of a clear ideology, but it may be something worse: an embrace of nihilism as a defence of incompetence. To embrace the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is to discard the basis for common understanding in the western world for the sake of a momentary tactic that can destroy but cannot create.
Putin has been very tactical throughout the Ukraine crisis. Tactical military moves have taken him to an untenable position: sanctions combined with plummeting oil prices have damaged the Russian economy; Crimea is a logistical and financial nightmare; adding the Donbas to Russia’s responsibilities compounds that nightmare; it is becoming ever more obvious that Russian military are involved there.
Putin doesn’t like the post-USSR world order. He is willing to take a realist position with regard to NATO expansion and Russia’s military vis-à-vis Ukraine’s, but not with regard to America’s military and economic strength relative to Russia’s. His trump card is Russia’s nuclear arsenal, which ultimately is unusable if he continues to understand Mutual Assured Destruction, still in effect. As some of the nuke-rattling has decreased, it begins to look like he understands that.
Russia and the US continue to work together on the Iran nuclear talks, the New START Treaty, and other nonproliferation initiatives. The removal of chemical weapons from Syria was a joint operation. The solution of other conflicts in the Middle East could be an area of cooperation. Russia’s values are part of that security apparatus.
Russia’s complaints about not being included in security arrangements ring hollow for those of us who were involved with thinking about NATO issues in the 1990s. For a while, we thought that Russia might become part of NATO. In fact, Russia still has a place at NATO headquarters, which they have abused.
What Putin seems to mean when he complains that Russia’s concerns aren’t taken into account is that Russia does not have a top decision-making position in the security apparatus. That, perhaps, Russia can’t order Ukraine and the Baltic states around to its satisfaction. But he is not specific, so we can’t be sure exactly what it is he wants, except by watching his attempts to intimidate his neighbors.
Putin’s words have been less threatening over the past few weeks, and the fighting in Ukraine has been at a lower level. Perhaps his willingness to meet with Secretary Kerry for the first time in two years signals that he is ready to back off from some of the untenable positions his tactics have put him in.