Kremlin’s campaign to restore Russian pride includes dangerous Soviet mythology — and weapons aimed at Europe
By Henry Meyer
October 10, 2016 — 10:19 AM EDT — Updated on October 11, 2016 — 4:30 AM EDT
This time, the ramped-up rhetoric follows the collapse of cease-fire efforts in Syria. As the U.S. and Russia accused each other of sinking diplomacy, Moscow increased its military presence in the Mediterranean and Baltic regions, and suspended a nuclear non-proliferation treaty. A prime-time news program warned that the U.S. wants to provoke a conflict.
The sudden escalation puts the relationship back into the deep freeze it was in at the peak of the crisis over Ukraine in 2014, which also sparked a wave of hostility in state media. That anti-U.S. campaign ended as the Kremlin sought an easing of Western punitive measures imposed over the Ukrainian crisis — hopes that now seem to be in tatters.
“Offensive behavior toward Russia has a nuclear dimension,” Russian state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov said in his “Vesti Nedelyi” program on Sunday. “Moscow would react with nerves of iron to a Plan B,” he said, referring to any possible U.S. military strike in Syria.
The Kremlin’s control over Russian media has in part helped keep President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating above 80 percent during the country’s longest recession in two decades and portrayed military deployments in Crimea and Syria as victories against western encroachment.
The rise in tensions could lead to new sanctions against the Kremlin, which some members of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party have sought to penalize Moscow over Syria. It risks blowing off course efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, which provoked the worst standoff since the Cold War after Putin annexed Crimea and backed pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Following the collapse of months of diplomacy, Russia is pursuing an air campaign in Syria to bolster its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, against U.S.-backed rebels and establishing permanent bases there. The Obama administration suggested that Russian actions in Syria could amount to war crimes and blamed Russia for cyber attacks aimed at disrupting the U.S. election.
The result will be the “ossification of U.S.-Russian relations at an abysmally low level,” said Chris Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultancy. “Deep mistrust of Putin will now be structural and unanimous among U.S. policy makers.”
In a signal of the renewed rupture, French President Francois Hollande said in an interview released on Monday that he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll meet with Putin when the Russian leader comes to Paris on Oct. 19.
Putin still plans to meet Hollande next week to discuss the Syrian crisis, said Alexander Orlov, Russia’s ambassador to France. “Dialogue must continue, especially in difficult moments,” Orlov said Tuesday in an interview on Europe 1 radio.
There is a possibility that Putin will meet the leaders of Germany, France and Ukraine in Berlin the same day for “Normandy format” talks, Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters Monday in Istanbul. These talks are aimed at solving the military conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia supports separatists fighting the government.
“The world has got to a dangerous phase,” former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said in an interview with state news service RIA Novosti on Monday.
Over the past week, Russia stepped up its confrontation with the U.S. over its bombing in Aleppo, where it says it is fighting terrorists and a quarter million civilians are trapped. Russia on Oct. 8 vetoed a French-proposed United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an end to air attacks on the northern city.
Russia deployed the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria and reinforced its presence by sending three missile ships to the Mediterranean. It confirmed Western media reports it’s stationed Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad exclave sandwiched between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. Poland’s defense minister said the action caused the “highest concern.”
Both the Iskander and the Kaliber missiles carried by these ships can be fitted with nuclear warheads, Kiselyov said in his program. The presenter is known for making provocative statements critical of the U.S. He bragged in 2014 that Russia is the only country capable of turning the U.S. to radioactive dust.
After a strike by the U.S.-led coalition on a Syrian army base last month that the Pentagon said was a mistake killed dozens of soldiers, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it won’t allow a repetition. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an interview with state-run Channel One broadcast Sunday said Russian defenses can protect the Syrian army from any U.S. attack and warned the American military to desist from “dangerous games.”
Alexei Pushkov, a senator who headed the lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee until recently, in a Twitter post raised the specter of a confrontation like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war over the stationing of Soviet missiles on the Caribbean island.
Russia won’t back down, said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament. The risk of military clashes between the U.S.-led coalition and Russian military in Syria “is rising every day,” he said.
For Putin, the only strategy is to raise the bets, said Eurasia’s Kupchan. “He’s masterfully playing a weak hand, to the detriment of U.S. security and economic interests,” he said.
Putin backs WW2 myth in new Russian film
A new film showing Red Army soldiers outnumbered by invading Germans but battling on heroically has become part of the Kremlin’s campaign to restore Russian pride.
State television showed Russian President Vladimir Putin watching the film last week, alongside Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the Central Asian leader’s capital Astana.
The clear message was that Russia and Kazakhstan are maintaining Soviet-era bonds of friendship, despite tensions in other parts of the former USSR. But the film itself – Panfilov’s 28 Men – is based on a communist myth.
Presidents Vladimir Putin (left) and Nursultan Nazarbayev watch the war film Panfilov’s 28 Men. SCREENSHOT, 1TV
The film depicts an heroic act of self-sacrifice outside Moscow in November 1941.
According to the Soviet mythology, 28 guardsmen from the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, mainly recruits from the Kazakh and Kyrgyz Soviet republics, stood unflinching against the advancing might of Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
The men, led by Maj Gen Ivan Panfilov, were all killed, but destroyed 18 German tanks before they fell.
The 28 were immortalised – posthumously decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union – and Soviet children learnt about their last stand in school.
Yet historians say the story is not true.
An official Soviet investigation into the event, compiled in 1948, concluded that the story was the “invention” of a journalist from the Red Army’s newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. The reporter’s account was at best exaggerated, and several of the men survived. The results of the probe were kept secret.
But the themes of the story chime with the Kremlin’s worldview, and the state partly sponsored the new film.
The Kremlin promotes the idea of World War Two as a heroic victory that united the Soviet state against fascism – and still unites Russia today against a similar threat they say has resurfaced in Ukraine.
The USSR suffered the heaviest losses in the war – more than 20 million civilians and military – though scholars dispute the exact toll.
WW2 veterans at the memorial to Panfilov’s men in Dubosekovo, near Moscow. Getty Images
The film shows Kazakhs, Russians and other Russian speakers standing shoulder-to-shoulder to defend the Motherland. It echoes a Russian foreign policy concept: a Moscow-centred “Russian World” united by a common language.
When, in June last year, Russian State Archive director Sergei Mironenko, citing historical documents, said the story was in fact a myth, he earned a sharp rebuke from Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
Mr Mironenko was removed as head of the archive in March this year.
On Victory Day – 9 May – President Putin warned against “falsification of history.” Getty Images
In February 2013, President Putin ordered a single history syllabus for schools, offering a standardised narrative. A new state “History” TV channel was launched that year too.
Supporters of Mr Putin’s bid for a “canonical” history say it is needed in order to keep such a large state together. Yet critics see it as an attempt to impose one official version of the past.
Mr Putin and other officials have repeatedly talked about the need to counter the “falsification of history” or “rewriting history”. They oppose interpretations of World War Two or other episodes of Soviet history that deviate from officially approved narratives.
Mr Putin’s father was seriously wounded as a soldier on the Leningrad front.
The annual Immortal Regiment march honours World War Two sacrifices in St Petersburg. Getty Images
Mr Medinsky, the culture minister, defended Panfilov’s 28 Men, saying “even if this story was invented from start to finish, if there had been no Panfilov, if there had been nothing, this is a sacred legend that shouldn’t be interfered with. People that do that are filthy scum.”
It is not the first time Russian officials have suggested that certain chapters of Russian history are sacred.
In January 2014, independent liberal broadcaster Dozhd TV came under attack. It was accused of smearing the memory of WW2 veterans by asking whether residents of wartime Leningrad could have been saved by surrendering the city to Nazi forces.
The public discussion of WW2 history has also been curbed by a controversial 2014 law against the rehabilitation of Nazism.
Under this law, Vladimir Luzgin, a blogger from Perm region in the Urals, was fined 200,000 roubles ($3,200; £2,500) for reposting an article about the war on the Russian social network VK (VKontakte), the daily Kommersant reported in July.
The court ruled that Luzgin posted an article with knowingly false information about a joint invasion of Poland by German and Soviet forces on 1 September 1939.
According to the prosecutors, Luzgin realised that the text might instil in many people “a firm conviction about negative actions of the USSR” in the war.
The court said Luzgin had falsified history by stating “that the communists and Germany jointly attacked Poland, unleashing World War Two, or in other words, that Communism and Nazism co-operated honestly”.
In September, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that the punishment of Luzgin was justified.
Nazi Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939 – the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In a secret protocol, they agreed to carve up Poland between them.
Nazi troops invaded Poland on 1 September and Soviet troops, from the east, on 17 September.
A photo (undated) shows Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (L) with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
In another incident, last year, the authorities in Sverdlovsk region banned the works of two British historians – Antony Beevor and John Keegan – saying they were imbued with Nazi propaganda. The Vedomosti daily described (in Russian) the order to remove the books from public libraries as “full of nonsense from start to finish”.
Promoted by the state and personally previewed by Mr Putin, Panfilov’s 28 Men may well prove a box office hit when it comes out in November.
Many Russians may not know how the state embroidered the tale of Panfilov’s men – but many may not care either.
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