Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Putin a Fascist?

What He Doesn’t Want Us to Know About the “Great Patriotic War

Avoidance, lies and accusations–somersaulting history–have undergirded Moscow’s aggression for centuries. Western ignorance, naivete and credulity have multiplied that asset, allowing  Russia to enrich the former to weapons grade. In Nezavisimaya newspaper earlier this year, Putin advisor Vladislav Surkov wrote expansively of Russia’s success in invading our brain and molding an “altered consciousness.”

More than ever before, Putin has retooled the history of Moscow’s role in WWII,  the “Great Patriotic War,” into a memorial without a memory  . . .  or rather, hyperlinked to  faux memories.  They are the domestic behavioral stimuli for Russia’s accelerating assault against the US and the rest of Western democracies, contempt for which Putin shares with Hitler.  They also have become the stimuli for us, subverting our ability to discern and counteract that assault.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov excoriated recent commemorations of D-Day as “false interpretations of history . . . with mystifications and pseudo-historical theories pertaining to WWII,” as “distorting the past.” The West was “colluding with Hitler.” The Red Army fought “a sacred liberation war.” Today, it is Russia’s “historical mission to guard the peace.” And a Russian spokeswoman intoned  that the D-Day invasion “did not have a decisive impact” on WWII and “should not be exaggerated.”   

Lavrov plays to misplaced Western empathy for “Russia” during WWII that has been hardwired into our minds.  He exploits the lacuna in Western understanding of WWII and, specifically, ignorance of our own attitudes and policies toward the USSR at the time. 

With no recital to that effect any longer necessary, Lavrov launches from the subliminal “but of course” that the Soviet Union (in our desiccated understanding, “Russia”) was an unsuspecting victim of Nazi Germany. Lavrov omits the cardinal precept of Moscow’s foreign policy for the decade before–using Germany as a catalyst for revolution in the capitalist West. For a period, on Stalin’s order Germany’s Communist party embraced right-wing extremists. In 1939, Stalin rejected a British and French request  to join an anti-Hitler coalition, intent on pushing Europe into war as an overture to “world revolution.” Speaking on August 19 to the Soviet Politburo, the perfidy was clear:  “The question of war and peace depends entirely on the Soviet Union [my emphasis]. If we conclude a pact with France and Great Britain, Germany will back off from Poland and seek a modus vivendi with the Western Powers. If we accept Germany’s proposal, she will certainly invade Poland, and the intervention of France and England is then unavoidable. The dictatorship of the Bolshevik Party will only become possible as the result of a major war.  Our choice is clear.” “Our task is to ensure that Germany be engaged in war for as long as possible and that Britain and France be . . . exhausted.”  

Moscow’s infamous 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact with Hitler was the launching pad for WWII. Its secret annex was a shared job description–Nazi Germany to attack Poland and Western Europe, and Kremlin to attack countries in its “backyard.”

So who was it that “colluded with Hitler,” the “inhuman ideology of Nazism,” as Lavrov wrote?

Second, Lavrov omits that “international  socialism” in Moscow was materially and proximately responsible for helping rebuild “national socialism’s” war machine after WWI.  Under the Treaty of Rapallo, the Kremlin worked diligently with Germany’s Reichswehr, providing it with massive infusions of sorely needed foodstuffs and raw materials, mostly plundered from Ukraine.

It didn’t stop there.  Deep in Soviet territory to avoid inspectors under the Treaty of Versailles, war and munitions factories were built, and German pilots and tank crews were schooled. Hitler boasted to Carl Burckhardt, himself a Swiss and High Commissioner of the League of Nations, of Nazi officers being “trained in Russia.” And tours of the GULag were de rigeur for future executioners in German camps. Mikhail Tuckhachevsky, the leading Soviet military theoretician, cheered: “Germany and the USSR can dictate terms to the world if we act together.” A  trade deal allowed Hitler to circumvent the British blockade, enabling Nazi invasion, among others, of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and Greece.  It was fuel from Baku in Russian occupied Azerbaijan that powered the Luftwaffe’s bombing of London.

Not exactly Lavrov’s “triumph of justice and the victory of light over darkness.”

Third, Germany’s invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on June 22, 1941, was hardly a surprise.  Ten thousand five hundred trains moving the Wehrmacht (and also Hungarian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Slovakian, Finnish, Spanish and Italian troops) toward the Soviet border were not a secret.  Further, by then the Soviet Union itself had massively increased its military capacity, hugely exceeding Germany’s.   How then to explain Germany’s lightning advance and overnight encirclement of hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops, complete with staggering quantities of weaponry and equipment? For a period, they did not want to fight for a genocidal regime and against an enemy that had not yet shown its own genocidal intent.  A Wehrmacht soldier reported, “The great majority of Red soldiers was not influenced at all by a spirit of resistance.”  This explains Stalin’s fear and near paralysis.  It took him eleven days to address his “brothers and sisters . . . my friends” in a radio broadcast on  July 3. How long did it take for FDR to address the nation after Pearl Harbor?  (We see the same fear of the populace today in Putin’s establishment of a personal and massive Praetorian guard.)

We don’t hear about any of this from Lavrov.

Fourth, Yale’s Timothy Snyder schooled the German Bundestag:  “The purpose of the second World War, from Hitler’s point of view, was the conquest of Ukraine.  The Ukrainians were to be the center of a project of colonization and enslavement. . . .  The idea was to create a slavery-driven, exterminatory regime in Eastern Europe with the center in Ukraine.” Lebensraum, food, raw materials, and industry was the prize. “The conquest of Ukraine would first insulate Germans from the British blockade, and then the colonization of Ukraine would allow Germany to become a global power on the model of the United States,” wrote Snyder in Bloodlands.

Ukraine was thus one of the few countries ruled directly from Berlin. It had no collaborationist government like Vichy France or Quisling Norway, nor was it another Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia, Finland or Italy, all in the Nazi camp as well.  A few years after Stalin’s starvation of Ukraine, Hitler drew up a “Hunger Plan” of his own; and Herman Goering declared that “the best thing would be to kill all men in Ukraine over 15 years of age, and then to send in the SS stallions.”

The Nazis overran the entirety of Ukraine, Byelorus and the Baltic nations, which were later overrun  again and re-occupied by the Red Army.  The Wehrmacht invaded only a small percentage of Russia. Warning of the difficulties in estimating the death roll, London’s Norman Davies however judged that significantly more than 5 million (upwards of 8 million) Ukrainian civilians were killed.  Even the lower range exceeds the combined military deaths of the United States (143,000), Canada, England,  France, Germany and Italy.  An additional more than  2 million Ukrainians were killed serving in the Red Army, and more than 2 million were deported for slave labor in Germany, most perishing.  This compares to 2-3 million Russian civilians killed, a nation with three or four times the population of Ukraine.

Edgar Snow concluded in the January 27, 1945 issue of The Saturday Evening Post: “The whole titanic struggle, which some are so apt to dismiss as ‘the Russian glory,’ has, in all truth and in many costly ways, been first of all a Ukrainian war . . . No single European country suffered deeper wounds to its cities, its industry and its humanity.” 

(Snyder’s reminder of an inconvenient truth punctures Germany’s apologetic instinct which, together with Russian money, undergirds Germany’s  Putinverstehers. That “20 million Russen died” in  the “Vernichtungskrieg gegen Russland” (the war of destruction against Russia”) is the Germans’ common mantra. Its imperial instinct is alive on its political right and left, as Russian money is disbursed across the spectrum. Instead of reparations for Ukraine, another embrace with Russia is clear in Germany’s continuing attitude toward the Nazis’ foremost geopolitical target, keeping the Nord Stream 2 natural gas deal with Russia on track.)

Fifth, Lavrov is silent about America’s massive amounts of military–and non-military–aid to the Soviet Union under Lend-Lease, often prioritized over even our own troops’ needs.  Khrushchev said to Life Magazine on December 4, 1970, “Just imagine how we would have advanced from Stalingrad to Berlin without them [half a million trucks and jeeps]!”  The quantities were so massive that it prompted even Stalin’s acknowledgment.

The military aid constituted only about half of the approximately $140 billion in today’s dollars, and yet itself far exceeded military requirements. Among them were icebreakers for the GULag Fleet delivering human cargo to the GULag’s northern ports.  Stunningly,  Lend- Lease also  included reams of information about our top secret Manhattan Project, including shipments of uranium and other critical material under overriding order of the White House. Was the US ever repaid? The NKVD used much of “Made in America” to crush the resistance movements in Ukraine and the Baltics, and uprisings in the GULag. (It was on display in 1944 when Vice President Henry Wallace, a vociferous Soviet sympathizer, visited the Kolyma GUlag. He was exuberant about the Potemkin villages.)

Sixth, Russia castigates the Western democracies for being late in opening up a second front in Europe, but remains silent about its own refusal to do so against the Japanese.  It maintained a neutrality treaty with Japan (reaffirmed in August 1942) until virtually the day of Japanese surrender.  Worse, Moscow traded to Japan Lend-Lease war material shipped by the US to the Soviet Far East, where Japan used it against our own  and Allied troops.  So intent was the White House not to “offend the Russians” that when US officials learned of the deception, they were “ordered by higher authority: drop the subject.” 

Seventh, Lavrov said more than he intended about Nuremberg:  “As you may recall, the Nuremberg Tribunal, whose rulings became an integral part of international law, clearly identified who was on the side of good and who was on the side of evil.” Tragically, the Nuremberg trials were in part a sartorial exercise.  Andrei Vyshinsky, in charge of the murderous  Moscow show trials, donned the mantel of justice– the genocidaire’s fixer sat equally on the bench with judges from Western Democracies. Telford Taylor, America’s chief counsel, wrote in his memoirs that the Tribunal did its best to protect the Kremlin from embarrassment. It  obliged Stalin’s demand that the ’39 Pact never be introduced into evidence so as not to “strain relations.” Moscow’s war crimes, such as Stalin’s massacre of Polish officers at Katyn’ in 1940, and its atrocities against civilians and military in and outside the Soviet Union during WWII, simply didn’t exist.

Eighth, truthtellers were deadly to the Kremlin, then as now. Lavrov does not mention that even before the Nuremberg proceedings, US and British troops took the baton from the NKVD in a dragnet of desperate ant-Soviet refugees, including those in the U.S.  We corralled them for NKVD Maj. General Davidov at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in Frankfurt, Germany. Disbelief, denial, ridicule, and insults–from the Allies–drowned the pleas of those who lived the truth, now desperate to warn the West.  The very name for the American operation, “Keelhaul,” betrays the mens rea and a resulting bloody campaign. American troops confiscated copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, translated into Ukrainian by one of the refugees and for which Orwell had written a special introduction.  We delivered the copies to the same Davidov. (The youthful translator, Ihor Shevchenko, went on to become the world’s pre-eminent scholar of Byzantine studies.)

Ninth, Lavrov is silent about the fact that the Cold War started with Moscow’s relentless espionage and influence operations against American since the 1930’s. During WWII both the US and Britain stopped their intelligence activities concerning the Soviet Union.  Moscow however penetrated every US federal agency of any consequence, whether military or civilian, including the vaunted Office of Strategic Services. Duncan Lee, top assistant to OSS head “Wild Bill” Donovan, was one of the traitors.  Had FDR passed away a few months earlier, Henry Wallace  would have appointed Assistant Secretary Harry Dexter White to head Treasury, and Assistant Secretary of State Alger Hiss to head State.  Both were direct Soviet agents.

Harry Hopkins’, FDR’s closest confidant, was identified by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky as the most important of all, more important than the Rosenbergs or Alger Hiss or the hundreds of others. (Gordievsky was later betrayed by  CIA traitor Aldrich Ames.) Hopkins was second in command after FDR in dealing with Moscow, steering and filtering information reaching FDR. Hopkins was also in charge of Lend-Lease.  “We are determined that nothing shall stop us from sharing with you all that we have,” was his pledge. It was Hopkins who authorized the shipment to Stalin of classified atomic bomb information and uranium.  FDR to presidential hopeful Wendell WiIkie: “you’ll discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins, who asks for nothing except to serve you.” 

Tenth, Lavrov is silent about the Kremlin’s dispositive asset:–President Roosevelt. He was bizarrely  enamored of Stalin and “determined to make himself liked.” FDR was convinced he could charm Stalin, and was the perfect ear for Hopkins. FDR told Winston Churchill, “Stalin hates the guts of all your people. He thinks he likes me better.”  This was before ever meeting Stalin. “I had come there [to Teheran, November 1943] to accommodate Stalin .”[sic]  “. . .  I couldn’t get any personal connection with Stalin, although I had done everything, he asked me to do.” Finally, the poker faced tyrant relented and smiled.  FDR felt victorious.

Among other matters, FDR refused to believe that Stalin had signed the ’39 Pact, or that Stalin had ordered the Katyn’ massacre. NORDEN, America’s high altitude bombsight that FDR didn’t dare share even with the British, was ceremoniously handed over to Stalin to curry favor though not even requested by Stalin. FDR had displayed this character trait and its accompanying credulity when he extended diplomatic recognition to Moscow in 1933.

Eleventh, American euphoria (fueled by Washington) for “Uncle Joe” (romanticized by Hollywood) knew no bounds. Toward war’s end, Soviet dominance in Europe was something not to be combated or counterbalance, but to be accommodated and assisted. “Russia [sic] must be given every assistance and every effort must be made to obtain her friendship.”  Stalin’s nomination (twice) for the Nobel Peace Prize was proof enough. The nation’s cold reception of Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in Fullton, Missouri on March 5, 1946, prompted Truman to invite Stalin to the US for a rebuttal, offering the USS Missouri as transport. It took years for Truman’s own and public opinion to reverse. Truman’s adoption, on November 24, 1949, of National Security Council paper NSC 20/4 as our “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union was too little, too late.

What are some conclusions?

Having immunized ourselves against our own experience, our altered consciousness continues to anchor Russia’s alternative reality about WWII. CNN recently posted an “analysis” captioned, Russia lost the most lives during WW2. So why wasn’t Putin invited to D-Day event? Leaving aside even the first sentence, the mere fact that that question is posed and also all previous invitations extended to Putin means that he represents the defunct USSR, the empire that goose stepped with the Nazis. Both are guilty of transfusing our and other innocents’ blood into the sands of Juno, Omaha, Sword, Utah and Gold beaches.   The tweets of two US ambassadors didn’t even hint at the phantasmagoria. To his credit, however, former ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer gave as one of the reasons for the non-invite Putin’s “biggest land grab in Europe since WW II.”

But our endorsement of Russia’s catechism about that war is only an example of a deeper, cyclical and therefore more pernicious phenomenon.  Amalgamating naivete  and ignorance, and with no historical context whatever, we transmogrified a stop-gap military cooperation with a genocidal regime (intent on our own destruction, no less) into a political/moral/civilizational marriage. The reality reversal ensured our freefall into a strategic sinkhole. Churchill would later write that “after all the exertions and sacrifices of millions of people, and of victories of the Righteous cause, we have not found peace and security and lie in the grip of even worse perils than we have surmounted.”[

On the day of Germany’s surrender, General George C. Patton addressed the press camp of the U.S. Third Army in Regensburg:   “Washington . . .[has] allowed us to kick hell out of one bastard and at the same time forced us to help establish a second one as evil or more evil than the first.  We have won a series of battles, not a war for peace. We’re headed down another long road. This time we’ll need Almighty God’s constant help if we’re to live in the same world with Stalin and his murdering cutthroats.  Unfortunately, some of our leaders were just damn fools who had no idea of Russian history. How Stalin must have sneered when he got through with them at all those phony conferences.”

It didn’t end there.  After WWII, we were preeminent globally.  And again after the fall of the USSR.  In each case our strategic posture vis a vis Moscow afterwards plummeted.  Why? What if in each case it had been the Kremlin that was in our position? Why does Putin know that his billions on deposit in Western institutions are secure?  What does it say about us?  Given the gravity of the issue, why does Western popular concern about Russia today barely move the needle? 

In Orwell’s 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” Putin cares about, knows, understands the past. We don’t because we don’t want to. He  knows the lapidary pattern of American behaviors, our psychological profile, national temperament, and perceptions or misperceptions. We don’t know our own and we certainly don’t know his.  He therefore can predict–with certainty.  Returning from Yalta after surrendering half of Europe to Stalin, FDR told his Cabinet that Stalin’s stint as a seminarian  ensures that “something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.”  Moscow took note.   On June 17, 1979  at the SALT II Treaty signing in Vienna Leonid Brezhnev enraptured a devout President Carter by intoning, ”God will not forgive us if we fail.” In June 1994, ex-president Carter visited North Korea, predictably finding  Moscow’s graduate Kim Il Sung “very friendly toward Christianity.” And, again predictably, we have the fable of Putin’s wooden cross that convinced an also devout President Bush that he had divined Putin’s soul.

The consequence of it all is that we are bereft of any predictive capacity of our own. It explains our floundering today vis a vis Homo Sovieticus across all fronts–Europe, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, China, Africa, the Arctic–and here at home.  It explains why Putin’s wrecking ball so easily slammed through our wall. It explains why that wall didn’t slow, but against all laws of physics accelerated, the velocity. 

But it takes no intellectual quasar to crawl out of the sinkhole.  We must have the humility and courage to confront facts that are hellishly inconvenient simply because they don’t comport with a professional or personal investment, or the political politesse or other dog whistle du jour.  We thus far have exhibited neither trait. We therefore have a problem.  A month before the end of WWII, speaking to Yugoslav communists in Moscow, Stalin looked to the future:  “The war shall soon be over. We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.” Note “another.”

Stalin and Hitler admired each other’s blood lust.  Putin celebrates Stalin. Putin cheers the 1939 Death Warrant signed by both.  What does that make Putin?  Do we know how to recognize a fascist? 

Victor Rud,

Past Chairman, Ukrainian American Bar Association

Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs