VE-Day tarnished by new war of words between Russia, the West

After the end of the Cold War, VE-Day became the occasion to bring former wartime allies Russia and the West together. Today, amid the tensions over Ukraine, it seems to have become a week simply to unleash history's demons, Brian Stewart writes.

Once joint celebration has become new high-water mark in Cold War II

Russian soldiers march in a rehearsal for the Victory Day Parade on May 9, a national holiday to commemorate the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany. (AFP/Getty Images)

Only a few years ago it was still possible to imagine Russia and the West coming together to celebrate a shared moment of history — the end of the Second World War in Europe 70 years ago.

That was then. Now we're in a much harsher world in which this week's normal celebratory sentiments have been swept aside by bickering and official snubs as the U.S. and most European leaders make it clear they want nothing to do with Russia's massive military "victory parade" in Red Square on May 9.

There's a stark sadness to such infighting in this of all weeks, which, after all, commemorates the greatest combined achievement of Russia and its war-time allies: their destruction of the genocidal Nazi regime at such enormous sacrifice.

The official surrender took effect late on May 8, but it was already the 9th in Moscow, which explains the later VE-Day there, a national holiday of almost spiritual importance for Russians.

This difference always made it possible for Western leaders to celebrate both anniversaries, first at home and later in Russia. But not this year.

To get a sense of how far relations have soured, consider that a decade ago then U.S. president George W Bush made a point of flying to Moscow to stand with "my friend" Vladimir Putin during the victory parade in order to thank the Russian people directly "for their sacrifice."

Such niceties already seem quaint, part of a brief interregnum before this new Cold War II that we seem to be entering. 

Regrets only

In the wake of the Crimea and Ukraine crises and resulting Western sanctions, Europe's leaders certainly don't want to be in Moscow, to be pictured lined up in the shadow of the Kremlin applauding impressive displays of Russian military might and Putin's muscular brand of nationalist fervour. 

Almost all European leaders have spurned his invite outright, though German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced she will travel to Russia a day later for a relatively modest wreath-laying, which hardly appeases Russian anger. 

Russia's Vladimir Putin has lashed out at the West for not sending high-level delegations to his VE-Day commemorations this year. Even North Korea backed out, for reasons of its own. (The Associated Press)

This cascade of snubs has Russia seething, and Putin has responded by stirring up more anti-EU and anti-U.S. sentiment in the Russian media, which is not difficult given how much VE-Day means in that country.

He accused Washington of orchestrating the European attempt to besmirch even "this day of pride for our entire nation, a day of supreme veneration of the victorious generation."

"Their goal is obvious: to undermine Russia's power and moral authority," he said, "to divide peoples and set them against each other and use historical speculation in their geopolitical games."

Putin gave no example of this "historical speculation," though it seems to refer to Western attempts to downplay the Soviet Union's pre-eminent role in Nazi Germany's destruction. 

There is little evidence for this charge, however, for few in the West and no serious historian would deny the Soviet Union's crucial part in winning that war.

The mighty Red Army

Russians bore the brunt of fighting Germany's massive ground forces, and best estimates are that 25 million Russian soldiers and civilians died in that conflict.

Without Soviet endurance and fighting power it's hard to see how the Western allies, including Canada, could have forced Germany's unconditional surrender.

Fully 80 per cent of all German soldiers killed in the Second World War died fighting the Soviets, causing even British leader Winston Churchill to remark, "It was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Wehrmacht."

A profound ceremony on all sides. A member of Germany's armed forces lays a cardboard coffin containing the remains of recently discovered World War II German war dead last week. The 123 military and civilian dead were killed in ferocious fighting in the countryside around Berlin between German troops and the advancing Soviet Red Army in April 1945, in the final weeks of the war. (Getty Images)

Today, it is certainly not denial of Russia's war sacrifices that is behind the boycott of the Moscow parade.

Rather it is the growing concern that Putin's aggressive foreign policy may again threaten large parts of Eastern Europe and is primarily responsible for the nervous Cold War-like distrust settling over the continent. 

What's more, combative rhetoric on both sides of the divide has stirred up the kinds of dark WW2 emotions that divide rather than unite. 

In recent months, Moscow has accused the Ukrainian government of being dominated by Fascists and neo-Nazis, and Putin has pushed overstatement to the point of comparing the Ukrainian army's campaign in the eastern breakaway belt to the Nazi siege of Leningrad — which killed over 700,000 civilians.

For their part, the leaders of those Eastern European nations that were occupied by the Soviets after Germany's defeat have been unnerved by this new hostility and some are firing back in kind. 

The Polish government infuriated Russia by pointing out Germany started the war by invading Poland in 1939 only after Hitler and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in order to brutally split Eastern Europe between them.

It has also reminded neighbours that the entry of Soviet troops in 1944-45 essentially replaced German tyranny with an oppressive Soviet one that lasted decades.

'Revision is provocation'

Moscow's full sensitivity was on display last week when its foreign ministry denounced, as "sacrilegious," Warsaw's refusal to allow a small pro-Putin motorcycle club to enter Poland on the way to VE-Day events in Berlin.   

Some nations, including China and India, will still send leaders or their representatives to the Kremlin parade. But Moscow's anger is undiminished. 

Alexander Zaldostanov (front) also known as "Khirurg" (The Surgeon), leader of the pro-Kremlin Night Wolves bikers' club, heads to a press conference in Brest on April 28. Ten of the pro-Kremlin bikers, on a controversial ride to Berlin for VE-Day, were denied entry into Poland. (AFP/Getty Images)

When Latvia, one of the three Baltic states once occupied by the Soviets, suggested recently it might even remove Soviet-era war memorials from its territory, Moscow roared an ominous warning: "Revision of history is a provocation, and Russia cannot tolerate this."

Given the current poor climate of East-West antagonism, this infighting over VE-Day is a very worrying development.   

Soon after the end of the Cold War, VE-Day became one of the key occasions to bring Russia and the West together.

If it is now to become a week simply to recharge and unleash old historical feuds, we're in even more trouble than we realize. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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