Why World War II is so important to Putin
This year, the international community will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over the Third Reich. This date is extremely important for the entire civilized world, which suffered huge human and material losses.
In fact, everything regarding World War II is of particular value to Russia's President Vladimir Putin. During his visit to Israel, he once again emphasized the need to preserve the memory of all victims of the War. There are various points of view explaining the Kremlin’s motivation. Liberal thinkers see Putin's emphasis as a tool he uses for manipulating Russia's population by offering an agenda of the past, instead of specific programs to improve the social and economic situation in the country. As for conservatives, they emphasize the moral side of the issue because the state is obliged to protect the legacy of victory as more than 20 million citizens died for it. In fact, Putin's careful and scrupulous attitude toward this topic can be explained by a complex of objective and subjective reasons.
Firstly, there is an ideological aspect. The history of the Russian state is full of continuous wars of various forms and scales: from the struggle against the Tatar-Mongol yoke to the confrontation with the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Textbooks on Russian history pay attention to each of the military conflicts. This is done for one goal - to ensure the patriotic education of the following generations. The Great Patriotic War has special ideological value, playing a central role in the formation of national identity. The concept of Putinism assumes that the preservation of the country's territorial integrity (where more than 190 peoples of different origin, religion, and mentality live) is possible only if there is this solid historical memory of a common victory over Nazism. In other words, Russian citizens should be proud that regardless of narrow ethnic, religious and political convictions, their ancestors sacrificed their lives to destroy the global threat.
Secondly, it is soft power. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, sixteen separate independent republics arose. For objective reasons (economy, security), some of them began to focus on Moscow (for example, Belarus and Armenia). Others (Georgia and Ukraine) headed for political, economic, military and civilizational integration with the West. Unlike the United States and European countries, Russia does not have an attractive model of soft power. For this reason, its entire strategy of keeping the former Soviet republics in its sphere of influence is based on the classic stick and carrot tool. A stick is the use of raw materials or military-technical dependence, and a carrot is loans (as a rule, they are given free of charge) and discounts on weapons and energy (oil and gas). In the struggle for the minds and hearts, the only non-resource-based mechanism is the common historical past, where victory in the Great Patriotic War takes the central place. Moscow actively supports events dedicated to commemorative events. For example, the “Immortal Regiment” when people with portraits of their relatives who died in the War go out on multi-million marches. The Kremlin also supports distributing the ribbon of Saint George that have been considered a symbol of victory since the days of the Russian Empire.
The Kremlin reacts very nervously to any attempts of various post-Soviet countries to revise the Soviet stage of their history, including the elimination of monuments, renaming of streets and squares, heroization of personalities who, according to Moscow, fought against the USSR (there is strongly negative attitude towards the Ukrainian Stepan Bandera). It is also crucial for Putin to lobby this issue internationally. In addition to the personal moral side (his father took part in the War, and his older brother died in infancy in besieged Leningrad), World War II has a geopolitical significance for Putin. He is trying to convince the leaders of the great powers that breaking the balance of power in the world always leads to such tragic consequences as the War of 1939-1945. As an example, Putin emphasizes the pragmatism and wisdom of the leaders of the USA, the USSR, and Great Britain. Despite all the ideological contradictions, they managed to build the system of international relations that allowed the great powers to compete without crossing the red lines.
Den Kalmyk, Ph.D., was a senior lecturer at Yale University and Oxford University.
Image credit: Kremlin.ru // CC BY-SA 4.0