Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 10 once again justified the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a statesmanlike act of defending Russia’s national interests. This time Putin did so with German Chancellor Angela Merkel next to him. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—the 1939 deal that split Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—was a death warrant for millions of Poles, Jews, and other East Europeans and paved the way for World War II. From his repeated justifications of the pact, one can derive six important insights into the mentality and objectives of Putin and Russia’s elite.
First, Russian diplomacy has long sought a partnership with a major power, often Germany, to define the European status quo. Each has a distinct sphere of influence. This desire confirms just how deep-rooted the idea of partnership with Germany is among Russian policymakers, and it confirms the depth of Russia’s belief in a bipolar world. When Russia was prostrate twenty-five years ago, Russian analysts described Europe as a bipolar system in which the United States dominated NATO and the European Union, while Russia should control Eurasia. Given Putin and his entourage’s hostility to Western governance, it should come as no surprise that he believes the major powers should exercise untrammeled control in their spheres of influence.
Second, Putin refuses to acknowledge that the pact resulted in the death of millions of Poles, Jews, and other East Europeans. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder notes in Bloodlands, both sides knew the pact would lead to a war from which they both hoped to profit and these civilians would be left to their fate. While Germany has visibly repented for its crimes, Russia cannot bring itself to talk honestly about Stalinism. As long as Russia refuses to reckon with its past, it will turn a blind eye to these crimes since the descendants and students of their perpetrators are still in power and think like their predecessors and teachers.
Third, the ongoing justifications of this criminal pact validate other states’ fears that for Putin and his government Russian interests are superior to those of everyone else and Russia is not accountable to anyone. Russia aspires to present itself as an independent sovereign state, duplicating the nature of its domestic autocracy.
Fourth, by praising the pact in front of Merkel, Putin and his government believe they can…