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Historian: Russia can't offer eastern Europe much

Interview: Alexander Andreev / db, gswApril 3, 2015

Russia's president wants to establish a country that's united internally and that showcases its strength to the world beyond. The former Soviet Union is seen as a natural imperial framework, says historian Gerd Koenen.

Historian Gerd Koenen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

Deutsche Welle: Observers have claimed time and again that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to recreate the USSR. At the same time, a new form of nationalism is on the rise in Russia. The Soviet Union, however, was a multi-ethnic state founded on "socialist internationalism." How does that fit together?

Gerd Koenen: It's not about Putin wanting to "re-establish the USSR." He didn't shed a tear for socialism or "socialist internationalism," quite the opposite's the case. He called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," and for him, it only meant a weaker Russia. So he saw the USSR as a mere expansion, more or less the natural imperial space and framework for the Russia "lasting a thousand years" he referred to back then. Trying to stop the collapse by cancelling the "Capitulation of Khasavyurt" [the peace accord with the Chechens] and instead reverting to the historic path of "collecting Russian soil" [according to the wording of ancient Russian imperial mythology] - that was the essence of Putin's speech at the start of his second presidential term in 2005.

You write about the eclectic composition of the new Russian value system (Czar and Stalin). But it seems most Russians don't notice this approach at all - or are they simply ignoring it?

Of course many notice, and initially, they are relieved. There is quite a need to join in historic memory what was separated as radically and lethally as possible in the history of Soviet Russia: that is, Stalin and the Czar, the Whites and Reds, henchmen and victims, atheists and Orthodox priests etc.

This is understandable and, to a certain extent, it's even necessary and makes sense. It gets fatal when state-dominated ideological authorities - and these days that may simply mean Putin himself as a kind of chief lecturer to the nation - try to harmonize everything. That turns Russia's entire, incredible, tragic 20th century history into some kitschy, patriotic hero story - instead of authorities actually facing the real damages of this interior rupture, and most importantly investigating its causes. This lays the groundwork for an almost endless self-adulation, in which a grand Russia strides from one victory to the next, surrounded by a jealous world of enemies it has heroically withstood time and again.

It seems many Russians feel deeply humiliated. They believe the West lied to them. Is this stance irrelevant?

Of course, it's not irrelevant, but in general, it's unfounded or a product of an overheated propaganda machine that's both monotonous and monomaniacal. For the most part, these allegations have a compensatory function. If the Russian Federation hasn't established a broader and more sound footing in the past 15 years of the Putin era - apart from the prosperous years of the oil and gas boom - then, as usual, the foreign enemies' malevolence is to blame. This glosses over the fact that Russia has been accepted - with equal rights - into all (in particular Western) international economic and political bodies. G7 became G8. Many red carpets were rolled out for Putin. The problem is that he's still fixated on a global political "parity" with the US - a notion that ruined even the old USSR, which was better positioned from a socio-economic point of view.

It's understandable that many Russians are nervous when faced with the fact that the Europeans and the Americans are still united in NATO, while the Warsaw Pact dissolved. But people who speak of a "NATO advance" should simply take a look at a map to see that scenarios of Russia allegedly being surrounded are nothing but figments of the imagination. If the Kremlin claims it "effectively" faces NATO troops in eastern Ukraine, then really that's simply patronizing and agitating its own people.

Vladimir Putin
Koenen: Moscow is senselessly rehashing old geostrategy gamesImage: Reuters

It's even more absurd to regard the European Union - moaning and groaning from all its joints as it miraculously manages to somehow keep itself together time and again - as a threat to Russia.

If this is about overcoming "the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," what would the plans be for the Baltic States? They played a very important role in the USSR's geopolitical strategy - today, they're NATO members.

The Russian leadership's current policies continue in the vein of the fatal political combination of self-isolation and overextending their global reach, some key contributing factors to the USSr's collapse. These rehashed geostrategy games - in which the tiny Baltic republics are taken to have some real strategic importance for Russia or its opponents, rather than being seen as small, potentially friendly, open neighboring countries - completely distort the perspective. These small states, annexed in 1940 by Stalin (in almost the exact way Crimea was annexed), may be NATO members since they gained independence once again in 1991, but they never had NATO bases or NATO troops. Now, faced with the threat of concealed "hybrid" warfare like in the Donbass region, there will be some small, more symbolic, bases.

But why are Finland or Sweden now thinking about joining NATO? Those are questions Russia should ask itself. Why does it trigger such fear and mistrust among its neighbors, and so little friendship and compassion, even among close allies like Belarus and Kazakhstan? If they asked, they would have to give an answer: Because what hit Ukraine could happen to them tomorrow, too.

And how much danger do you see there being for the former East Bloc states? What are the possible (and likely divergent) strategies towards Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and other countries in southeastern and eastern Europe could Putin's advisors develop?

Without being a major expert on these issues, I don't at all see any big or somehow coherent Kremlin strategy at work - just the constantly repeated attempts here and there at chipping away at things, or connecting with certain interest groups, parties, nostalgics or frustrated individuals. I don't see what great things Russia could offer these countries. You can certainly try to court members of the political elite. You can sound the call of the old Orthodox solidarity, as is being attempted in Moldova, Bulgaria, Serbia and also Greece. But Moscow cannot "save" Greece if it goes bankrupt, nor can Moscow draw the country permanently into its orbit.

Intensive efforts are being made at cobbling together a network of old left-wing and new right-wing groups, platforms and media. There's also the phantom-like launch of the "Eurasia" project - as a counter to Europe's transatlantic relations. Politically, however, that's all largely destructive and hot air. And by the way, even today when it comes to Russia's Eurasian orientation and its entanglement in the war in Ukraine, you could say: The winner is - China!

Gerd Koenen is a German commentator and historian. His primary academic interests lie in German-Russian relations during the 20th century as well as the history of communism.