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The Western Threat to Russia

Map of Eastern Bloc, 1948.

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, Mar 6 2023 (IPS) - Putin’s regime recently suspended Russia’s participation in a nuclear arms agreement with Washington. After the decision Putin declared that the move was a retaliation for the US’s, France’s and Britain’s “targeting” of Russia with nuclear weapons. He was forced to take action to “preserve our country, ensure security and strategic stability”:

    “the West lied about peace, but was preparing for aggression, and today it admits it openly, no longer embarrassed. And they cynically use Ukraine and its people to weaken and split Russia.”

Such rhetoric finds fertile ground in Latin America and Africa, which suffer from a long tradition of Western exploitation carried out under the false flag of peace keeping, democratization and progress. On 26 February, Putin added that a:

    “new world is taking shape, being built only on the interests of just one country, the United States. […] I do not even know if such an ethnic group as the Russian people will be able to survive in the form in which it exists today.”

The statement is part of a recurrent discourse suggesting that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an act of self-defence, an answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization/NATO’s expansion. In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were added to NATO; in 2009 they were followed by Albania and Croatia, in 2017 by Montenegro and in 2020 by North Macedonia.

In 2014, after Ukraine’s corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted, pro-Russian unrest erupted in eastern and southern parts of the country. Unmarked Russian tanks and troops moved into Crimea, taking over government buildings, strategic sites and infrastructure. Meanwhile, armed pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings in the Donbas region.

In 2014 the Donbas was the industrial heartland of Ukraine with 35 per cent of the country’s mining, 22 per cent of its manufacturing industry, providing 20 per cent of energy supply and 18 per cent of water supply. Recently vast amounts of natural gas have been detected underground.

The separatists received considerable support from Russia and Ukrainian attempts to retake separatist-held areas were unsuccessful. In October 2014, Ukraine’s new government made joining NATO a priority. Putin at once declared that the Russian involvement in Crimea and Donbas was a reaction to NATO’s threatening expansion.

Part of Putin’s discourse, repeated by influencers all over the world, is that during a summit in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachov accepted the reunification of Germany within the framework of NATO, he was given an assurance that NATO would not expand further. The Historian Mary Elise Sarotte has recently tried to disentangle the thorny issue, underlining that no written document of the promise exists. Gorbachov later declared that:

    “the topic of NATO-expansion was not discussed at all, and it wasn’t brought up in those years. [What was agreed] was that NATO’s military structures would not advance in the sense that additional armed forces would not be deployed on the territory of the then-GDR, after German reunification. Everything that could have been and needed to be done to solidify that political obligation was done. And fulfilled.”

During a 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin declared himself to be a stout defender of democracy, nuclear disarmament and international solidarity. Contrary to the US, which had “promised” that NATO was not going to expand beyond the borders of Germany. Putin stated that:

    “unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension. […] a situation in which countries that forbid the death penalty even for murderers and other, dangerous criminals are airily participating in military operations that are difficult to consider legitimate. And as a matter of fact, these conflicts are killing people – hundreds and thousands of civilians! […] As Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the first few days that the Second World War was breaking out: “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.” […] I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself, or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?

The answer is beyond doubt. However, as a proverb states “Evil cannot with evil be defended.” Can Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine actually be defended by alluding to the encroachment and support to brutal dictatorships that “democracies” like the US, France and Britain have been guilty of around the globe?

Putin repeatedly refers to “history”. He labels Ukrainian leaders as Nazis, while stating that Ukraine has always been part of Russia. Glaring exaggerations – if not outright lies.

History tells us that Russia’s past, like that of other nations, has its hidden skeletons. In 1939, the Soviet Union annexed more than 50 per cent of Polish territory. From 1939 to 1941 about one million Polish citizens were arrested, or deported; including approximately 200,000 Polish military personnel held as prisoners of war; 100,000 Polish citizens were arrested and imprisoned of whom approximately 30,000 were executed. The total loss of lives was 150 000.

On 30 November 1939 the Soviet army attacked Finland. The war ended after three months. The Soviets suffered severe losses and made little headway. To avoid more bloodshed Finland ceded 9 per cent of its territory. In spite of superior air force and heavy tanks the Soviet losses had been considerable – 168 000 dead or missing. The Finns lost 26 000 dead or missing.

In the previously independent Baltic States the Soviets had during 1940-41 carried out mass deportations. They became even more extensive after Soviet Union finally conquered the area. In March 1949, Soviet authorities organised a mass deportation of 90,000 Baltic nationals. The total number deported from 1944 to 1955 is estimated at over half a million: 124,000 from Estonia, 136,000 from Latvia, and 245,000 from Lithuania. The estimated death toll among Lithuanian deportees had between1945 and 1958 been more than 20,000, including 5,000 children.

When the Soviet Union fell apart and archives were declassified it was revealed that, between 1921 and 1953, 799,455 executions had been officially recorded. Approximately 1.7 million prisoners had died in Gulag camps, some 390,000 were reported dead during forced resettlements in the 1930s, and during the 1940s at least 400,000 persons died during deportations.

After World War II, the Soviet Union subdued several nations in Eastern Europe, introducing a political system aspiring to gain total control of all citizens and backed by an extensive, repressive apparatus.

Opposition was initially essentially liquidated, while steps towards an authoritative communism were enforced. The General Secretary of a nation’s Central Committee became the most powerful figure, while a Politburo held sway over a party machine lacking a popular foundation, since it in accordance to Leninist ideology favoured a group of three to fourteen per cent of a country’s population. Members of this exclusive group enjoyed considerable rewards, like access to shops with a selection of high-quality foreign goods, as well as special schools, holiday facilities, well-equipped housing, pensions, permission to travel abroad, and official cars with distinct license plates.

Suppression of opposition was a prerequisite for retaining power. Citizens were kept under surveillance by political police with raw power and violent persecution of dissidents. In East Germany were Stasi, Volkpolizei, and KdA, in Soviet Union the KGB, in Czechoslovakia STB and LM, in Bulgaria KDS, in Hungary AVH and Munkásörség, in Romania Securitate and GP, in Poland Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego, Słuźba, and ZOMO. Nevertheless, people occasionally revolted.

During one day in 1953 an uprising took place in Berlin. It was violently suppressed by tanks and soldiers of the Soviet German forces. More than 150 persons were killed, or missing.

In 1956, a two day protest in Polish Poznan resulted in more than 100 deaths. About 400 tanks and 10,000 soldiers under the command of the Polish-Soviet general Popalavsky suppressed the demonstration. Among the dead was a 13-year-old boy, Romek Strzalakowski, eventually hailed as a patriotic martyr.

During two weeks in November 1956, USSR troops killed 2,500 revolting Hungarians, while 200,000 sought political refuge abroad. Some 26,000 Hungarians were put on trial by the Soviet-installed János Kádár government, of those 13,000 were imprisoned.

During the night between 20 and 21 August 1968, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia came to an abrupt end when Eastern Bloc armies under Soviet command invaded Prague. The invasion comported with the Brezhnev Doctrine, compelling Eastern Bloc states to subordinate national interests to a Soviet right to intervene. A wave of emigration followed, with a total eventually reaching 300,000.

The pattern of Soviet invasions of neighbouring states has continued, for example in Georgia and Moldova. In 1991 Tjetjenia declared itself independent and in 1994, 40 000 Russian soldiers invaded the recently proclaimed Tjetjenien Republic. After a year of harsh fighting the capital Grozny was conquered, but another war erupted in 1999. The rebels were vanquished after an effective but exceedingly brutal war. Tjetjenia is now governed by a Moscow-allied clan leader.

Estimated losses of the two wars are 14 000 Russian and 16 000 Tjetjenien soldiers killed, while at least 25,000 civilians were killed and 5,000 disappeared.

One month before the Russian attack on Ukraine, Kazakhstan plunged into political unrest. At the request of President Tokayev, Russian forces headed an intergovernmental Eurasian military alliance, CSTO, which invaded the country. After “pacifying” the protests, CSTO forces evacuated the country after a month.

Considering this history, paired with the Russian destruction of Syrian and Ukrainian towns, it is somewhat difficult to consider Russia as threatened by NATO’s expansion. It is actually not so strange that Russia is feared by its neighbours and that Finland and Sweden are seeking membership in NATO.

The Swedish government is currently supporting an expansion and restoration of Sweden’s once comprehensive, but now neglected network of nuclear shelters, introducing obligatory conscription of youngsters fit for military service, and strengthening the defence of Gotland, a strategically important island located in the middle of the Baltic Sea.

After World War II, the Soviet Union usurped an enclave which actually ought to have belonged to either Poland or Lithuania – Kaliningrad, situated by the Baltic coast and equipped it with the highest density of military installations in Europe. It became headquarter of the large Russian Baltic fleet. In Kaliningrad, Russia has recently built up a formidable military presence encompassing nuclear weapons and tens of thousands of soldiers.

Not being a supporter of policies and actions United States has exercised in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, cannot overshadow the fear that most Europeans nurture while facing the powerful giant of the East, which, admittedly, does not have an impressive record when it comes to protecting human rights.

Some sources: Putin, Vladimir (2007) Speech delivered at the MSC Sarotte, Mary Elise (2022) Not One Inch: America, Russia and the Making of Post-Cold War Stalemate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Pucci, Molly (2020) Security Empire: The Secret Police in Communist Eastern Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

IPS UN Bureau


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