- As Russian military convoys continue the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has chosen to rehabilitate the alliance between Hitler and Stalin that began World War II. Speaking before an audience of Russian historians at the Museum of Modern Russian History, Putin said: “The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression agreement with Germany. They say, ‘Oh, how bad.’ But what is so bad about it, if the Soviet Union did not want to fight? What is so bad?”
In fact, Stalin did want to fight. The August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin. It led directly to the German-Soviet invasion of Poland the following month that began World War II. In speaking of this agreement, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as good foreign policy, Putin has violated both a long Soviet taboo and revised his own prior position that the agreement was “immoral.” What might he have in mind? What it is about rapprochement with Nazi Germany that is so appealing just at the present moment?
Today, the positive emphasis on a war of aggression goes well with tendencies in the Russian media, where defiant declarations of Russian anti-fascism are increasingly submerged in rhetoric that may seem rather fascist. Jews are blamed for the Holocaust on national television; an intellectual close to the Kremlin praises Hitler as a statesman; Russian Nazis march on May Day; Nuremberg-style rallies where torches are carried in swastika formations are presented as anti-fascist; and a campaign against homosexuals is presented as a defense of true European civilization. In its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has called upon the members of local and European far right groups to support its actions and spread Moscow’s version of events.
In the recent “elections” staged in the Russian-backed eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as in the earlier faked referendum in occupied Crimea, European far-right politicians have come as “observers” to endorse the gains of Russia’s war. Far from being an eccentric stunt, the invitation of these “observers” reveals why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is meaningful to Moscow today. Although Putin would certainly have been pleased if actual German or Polish political leaders were foolish enough to take the bait of agreeing to a new division of Europe, he seems satisfied for the moment with the people who have actually responded, in one way or another, to his appeal to destroy the existing European order: separatists across Europe (including the UK Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, calls Putin the world leader he most admires); anti-European right-wing populist parties (of which the most important is France’s National Front); as well as the far-right fringe, including neo-Nazis.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was not only about territory in Eastern Europe but also about the entire European legal order. In making his alliance with Hitler, Stalin had a political logic. He imagined that in supporting the Nazi state as it began its total war he would turn the German armed forces to the west, away from the Soviet Union. In this way, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist world would be exposed, and Germany, France, and Britain would collapse simultaneously. In his own way, Putin is now attempting much the same thing. Just as Stalin sought to turn the most radical of European forces, Adolf Hitler, against Europe itself, so Putin is allying with his grab bag of anti-European populists, fascists, and separatists. His allies on the far right are precisely the political forces that wish to bring an end to the current European order: the European Union.
It should go without saying that a return to the nation-state in Europe would be a catastrophe for all concerned, including, in the end, for Russia. But there is an important difference between Stalin in 1939 and Putin in 2014. One can at least credit Stalin for attempting to resolve a real problem: Hitler did indeed intend to destroy the Soviet Union. In allying with Hitler he compromised his ideology and made a strategic mistake, but he was certainly responding to a real threat. Putin, on the other hand, had no European enemy. Without any apparent cause, in 2013, for the first time, the Russia government designated the European Union as an adversary. In its media and indeed in official foreign policy pronouncements it has characterized the European Union as “decadent,” in the sense of about to disintegrate.