By Nina Bachkatov & Andrew Wilson
For years now, the allies of the second world war are unable to celebrate a common victory over Nazism. This is especially true in the West where the former enemy and invader (Germany) is now at the core of the Western alliance; while the former ally, the USSR, or its successors, is no longer mentionable. That was especially evident during this year’s celebrations of D-Day, with the aggravating factor that while the Western allies were rewriting history in Plymouth and Normandy, presidents Putin and Xi were preparing the future in Moscow.
Many Russians have been shocked by the successive attempts to reduce the sacrifice of their soldiers and civilians for ideological reasons. Often the change of tone is justified by the Russian operations in Ukraine, but in fact joint celebrations of the end of the second world war started earlier, soon after the enlargement of EU and NATO to former communist countries, including some with a history of collaboration with Nazis.
The new Western narrative is that WWII did not finish in 1945, but in 1989 when the “other Europe” was liberated from the other evil regime – communism. Even the numbers of Soviet victims are now reduced, and responsibility goes not so much on German brutality against civilians in occupied zones as to Stalin who “sent soldiers to clear minefields with their bodies”.
Putin shares the indignation of the population, but he was sincere when he said that not to be invited in Normandy was “absolutely not a problem”, while the spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry added that one does not have to exaggerate the importance of D-Day as the issue of the war was decided by the Red Army’s victories in Stalingrad or Kursk that broke the Germans enough to allow the possibility of Normandy.
In fact, Putin sees all those changes from a geopolitical angle, with Western countries celebrating a revisited past (albeit much criticised by French diplomats and historians) while Russia prepares the future together with the continent that will matter more and more – Asia. During the celebrations of D-Day, the Chinese president arrived in Russia for a three-day state visit first in Moscow and then in St Petersburg where he was as a guest of honour at the 23rd Economic Forum. Both presidents attended the China-Russia Energy Business Forum. This high-profile visit minimizes the picture of an isolated Russia and of the reluctance of Western investors to risk money in “Putin’s Russia”, notably as American investor Michael Calvey is still under house arrest.
While the US and China are engaged in a trade war, and that EU has an incoherent Chinese policy, Putin and Xi demonstrated that they understood two factors: that they share many interests and that they face common threats that none of them can contain alone. They also share the conviction that the West is still the dominant power, but is divided by interests and strategic choices, and on the declining side.
In many aspects, this embrace of China by Russia reflects the failure of the Europeans to have capitalised on Russian will to anchor itself on the European continent during the 80thies and the 90thies. Moscow was weak, open to concession, wanting to join the “European family”. But the Europeans were inebriated by their “victory of the Cold war” and unable to imagine a special form of cooperation which was specific, free of conditions imposed on a candidate to membership.
Brussels missed the turn when Russia and EU could have formed a solid bloc, rich in money, technical skills and natural resources, capable to be a third force next to the USA and China. Instead of that, both the West and Russia find themselves on opposite sides in many political crises, and consider each other as a security threat. The West is accusing Moscow of attempts to destabilise European and American democracies; Russia accuses the West of attempts to encircle it with hostile forces on all its borders, and of leading an economic war to reduce its economic development.
Chinese and Russians are pragmatic, and the best they could do was to declare each other’s “best friend”. More importantly, they decided to “raise bilateral relations to a new, higher level – increasing mutual support and assistance, and promoting our relations in a new era”.
They celebrate the 70th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic ties by signing numerous cooperation agreements based on a win-win approach, including in the key fields of energy and high tech; and they have exchanged views of common efforts to safeguard multilateralism and improve global governance. Putin invited Chinese companies to invest in Russia, but made clear that Russia was not building a military alliance with China. Xi and Putin have met nearly 30 times on bilateral and multilateral occasions since 2013 when Xi was elected president.