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Putin Tries to Rewrite War History to Assert Russia's Position on the World Stage

June 26, 2020
Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
5 min read
The Russian premier penned a startling analysis of the Second World War this week that has incensed many historians
The Russian premier penned a startling analysis of the Second World War this week that has incensed many historians

Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.


Many historians around the world almost choked on their morning coffee last week when Russian President Vladimir Putin published a lengthy analysis on the Second World War in English in American conservative magazine The National Interest. In the review, Putin defends the actions of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. He partly blames the West for the war because it hesitated in acting against Nazi Germany and, allegedly, attempted to play off Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union against each other. 

The analysis has sparked fierce responses from historians, some of whom have called it an attempt to rewrite history. Others called it a propaganda piece aiming to boost Russian nationalism ahead of the vote for constitutional changes. On July 1, Russia will formally decide if Putin can run for another two terms – meaning he could potentially remain president until 2036. We have previously reported on how Russian disinformation has increased to secure a stable pro-vote. 

"It was only when it became absolutely clear,” Putin wrote, “that Great Britain and France were not going to help their ally (Poland) and the Wehrmacht could swiftly occupy entire Poland and thus appear on the approaches to Minsk, that the Soviet Union decided to send in, on the morning of 17 September, Red Army units into the so-called Eastern Borderlines, which nowadays form part of the territories of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania.”

Putin went on to argue that Russia entered Poland to protect it, which he claimed was similar to how Russia later went into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. 

Putin's analysis of the Russian invasion of Poland is in sharp contrast to the mainstream interpretation: that Russia and Nazi Germany signed the non-aggressive Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939 and had carved up Poland between them after the invasion. 

"There is a broad consensus among historians that the Soviet Union was partly responsible because of its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany,” says Claus Mathiesen, an associate professor at the Danish Defence Academy. “However, it seems like Putin is trying to rewrite that part of its history. 

"It is almost pictured as a Soviet rescue mission in Putin's analysis. It is a very provoking analysis for the international community, where most historians will deny such conclusions. If we asked the around 20,000 Polish officers that were executed by the Soviet Union after the occupation – or the tens of thousands of Baltic citizens who were deported – I am sure they would not agree with Putin. This is a political piece without much historical ground.”


This Has Value for Putin Domestically

Putin blames the West for the Second World War because Western powers pushed Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War. It required Germany to disarm, give territorial concessions, and pay reparations for damages inflicted during the war. The Russian premier also blamed the United Kingdom and France for sacrificing Czechoslovakia during the war with the 1938 Munich Agreement, which gave Nazi Germany the right to the part of Czechoslovakia called Sudeten. 

"The partition of Czechoslovakia was brutal and cynical,” Putin writes. “Munich destroyed even the formal, fragile guarantees that remained on the continent. It showed that mutual agreements were worthless. It was the Munich Betrayal that served as a ‘trigger’ and made the great war in Europe inevitable.”

Putin also argues that the Soviet Union destroyed 75 per cent of all Nazi Germany’s war efforts and took more substantial loses than the US, UK and France. 

According to Mathiesen, Putin's analysis is an attempt to convince Russia to reconceive of the Western version of the war and return to a time where only the Kremlin's version of the truth is acceptable.

Pavel Havlicek, a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs, agrees. "It serves its purpose to boost nationalism inside Russia before the vote,” he says. “However, Russia also tries to play different countries off against each other with this new analysis. They know that it is provocative and blames different countries: with the hope of turning one European nation out against each other, which will benefit the Kremlin."


A Way to Achieve Political Goals

Havlicek says this is not a new strategy, but instead a continuation of what the Kremlin has done before when it comes to using disinformation as a tool to achieve political goals. He sees similar things happening around Europe, where the disinformation concerning Ukraine and the war in the Eastern part of the country is just one example. 

According to Mathiesen, disinformation is one of the few tools that Russia has with which to assert itself international. It is, therefore, possible that we will see more of this in the future, he says. 

Also in this series: 

Missing Data, Mud-Slinging and “Miracle Cures”: Why Disinformation Is Bad For Your Health

Iranian Online Network Still Peddling Coronavirus Disinformation

Putin’s Domestic Problems Eclipse Russian Disinformation Campaigns

China's Campaign to Protect President Xi against Coronavirus Criticism

Chinese Embassies Work Overtime to Diffuse International Fury Over Coronavirus

Russia Bans Coronavirus "Fake News" and Slams US Over Press Freedom

China Blocks Investigations Amid Refusal to Shut Down Wet Markets

From Coronavirus to the Second World War: On the Frontlines of the Russian Disinformation Battle

Russia Blames West for Propaganda While Reporting Unlikely Number of Covid-19 Deaths

As Criticism of China Falters, Time for a NATO for Human Rights?

Guest Post From Russia: How do You Put the Brakes on a Fake News Machine?

Has China Really Given Assent to a Global Coronavirus Review?

Russian Disinformation Back to Targeting Ukraine as Putin Declares Covid-19 Peak has Passed

Will the Post-Coronavirus World Stand Up to China's Bullying Business Tactics?

Coronavirus: An Opportunity to Advance Russian Interests in Latin America

The Shi Zhengli Identification Criteria: How Do We Know Where Coronavirus First Emerged?

Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter Unrest Targeted by Russian Disinformation

Occupy First, Talk Later: China Turns Border Conflict Into PR Opportunity


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