05/10/2015 08:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Global Victory Day in Moscow


After the Cold War (1945-1989) ended and the "Berlin Wall" came down, the United States and Russia confronted each other on many issues. However, when it came to celebrating the Victory of the Allies over Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Presidents of Russia and the United States came together. Russia set Victory day as May 9th. Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin jointly marked the 50th Victory Day on May 9, 1995, despite America's reservation about Yeltsin's war in Chechnya. Ten years later (2005), George W. Bush was in Moscow next to Vladimir Putin, despite Russia's criticism of America's invasion of Iraq. However, this year, Barack Obama will NOT be attending the Victory Day celebration, even though this year's 70th anniversary is probably the last big celebration for many of the surviving WWII veterans.

Obama is not the only world leader who declined to attend in protest of Russia's policies in Ukraine. Of the 68 leaders invited to Moscow, more than half declined the invitation. Of course, Russia's president will not be alone: many European leaders will attend including Czech, Cyprus, Hungary, Slovakia and Greece among others outside the EU such as the heads of China, Brazil and India. The Secretary General of the U.N. will be there. But that hardly makes up for the fact that no single leader of the three nations who fought the Nazis shoulder to shoulder with Russia - the United States, Britain, and France - will join its former ally. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel will also be missing the celebration but be there the next day May 10th to honor Russia since Germany has always been sensitive about its deep gratitude to the Russian people for their pivotal role in defeating Hitler.


Obama and other western leaders are still concerned over the seizure of the Crimea in March 2014 and Moscow's subsequent meddling in Eastern Ukraine. Merkel is coming the next day to celebrate the WWII Victory for that reason. Yet Mr. Putin was thrown out of the G-8, and Russia became a subject of unprecedented economic sanctions. In most Western capitals, it has become politically untenable to make any conciliatory gestures towards Mr. Putin. The standoff between Russia and the West now has dragged into its second year, and it has turned into a geopolitical game of chicken with increasingly dangerous geopolitical consequences.


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Putin will undoubtedly use the Victory Day parade on May 9th as proof that his country has not been brought to its knees by the Western sanctions. Far from it. 2015-05-10-1431270759-3260627-ScreenShot20150510at11.11.55AM.pngOn May 9, Russia's new weapons will roll through Red Square, including its new T-14 tank (pictured on the right during the Victory Parade rehearsal). Sukhoi's new stealth fighter jets will fly overhead. The parade will no doubt produce a wave of patriotic enthusiasm and should lift the approval ratings for Putin's policies both domestically and abroad. The USA and other western nations are not the only world powers today. The Kremlin has not been shy about using the images and language that evoke memories of the Great Patriotic War. In fact, for Mr. Putin to get more support, he is taking a tough stance against Ukraine, saying that Russia is fighting against efforts to revive Nazi ideology in Europe.

The West dismisses Russia's description of the Ukrainian crisis as "propaganda." The fact is that propaganda is only one side of an issue. There are other sides known as data, facts and public policies. Besides, Russia is hardly alone in its effort to deploy historic memories for its present political aim, occasionally rewriting history in the process. Politicians in Ukraine, Poland or the Baltics have been doing the same thing. Ukraine recently passed a controversial "decommunisation" law, and gave public recognition to WWII militias implicated in Nazi atrocities against Polish people (Volyn tragedy). In Poland, the foreign minister recently amused historians by claiming that the Auschwitz was liberated by Ukrainians (Auschwitz controversy) Poland is even staging its own Victory Day parade in the town of Gdansk, where the first shots of the WWII were fired. Then in Lithuania, the government recently distributed a brochure to its citizens with instructions on how to conduct oneself in case of a Russian invasion that states: "Stay rational and don't panic. Shooting outside your windows does not mean the end of the world."


It is hardly surprising that politicians in Moscow, Kiev and other capitals have resorted to heated rhetoric involving war-time language, such as "fascism". Today fascism and its modern equivalent (that is the dominance and control of economies and governments by a few extremely wealthy people and companies) is growing in France, USA, UK and even Germany as well as other nations. The memories of the fascist impact and then WWII remain vivid and powerful across Europe, and recalling those notions whips up powerful emotions that blunt people's ability for rational analysis. As Noam Chomsky noted , the whole point of good propaganda is to stop people thinking about the issues (Noam Chomsky Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, 2002). In short, propaganda exists strongly in the western nations in what they call, "news". Hence when the mass media reports "news", it is often based on their point of view --- in short propaganda. The other side and angles are rarely reviewed. Today in the USA, there is more and more of this "false news" is reported, but in reality, it is only propaganda.

Both Kiev and Moscow need a good dose of "propaganda" to help their citizens forget the extent to which their respective government's policies failed. In short, they need to report the "breaking news" as the western nations do. The Ukraine, instead of reforming its economy, fighting corruption or developing a green economy that would reduce its reliance on Russian gas, has been spending blood and treasure on its civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has hardly been a winner either: its currency devalued by half, interest rates reached 20%, and the direct costs of the Crimea have publicized by Prime Minister Medvedev's own admission, at 25 billion Euros. Most Western countries also suffered damage from the closing of the Russian market. The sanctions that the West implemented against Russia a year ago generated plenty of economic pain, but failed to prevent escalation of the crisis.

Both Russia and Ukraine have scored partial news or propaganda victories: Mr. Putin's approval ratings exceed 80% domestically, while Mr. Poroshenko continues to enjoy laudatory coverage from the Western press. A recent Economist article condemned the Kremlin for cynically exploiting the memory of the second world war while praising Ukraine's decision to adapt a new wartime remembrance symbol, which turned out to be... the British crimson poppy.


Those European and American politicians who continue to support sanctions against Russia say that this is not about the economy, but about principles. Russia violated international norms of conduct, and unless the West teaches Russia a harsh lesson, the entire post-WWII global order is in danger. The principled Western powers state that they cannot accept that. In fact, some politicians in Brussels recently announced that Russia will face further sanctions unless the Crimea is restored to Ukraine. The Ukrainian president recently asserted that Russia and Ukraine will only be at peace when Ukraine recovers Crimea. When asked how long it could take, Mr. Poroshenko pointed to the conflict between North and South Korea as a "model." The fact is that all of this conflict is over basic philosophical and economic perspectives that separate the western nations today.

This is a vast exaggeration of the European borders issue and the significance of the Crimea. It would be good to remember the during the post-Cold War period, European borders were changed quite a few times. The entire state of Yugoslavia had been carved up, Czechoslovakia was split into two independent countries, while Eastern and Western Germany merged into one country. The process was not entirely peaceful or voluntary: in 1999, NATO planes bombed the Yugoslavian capital. And Ukraine and Russia themselves emerged as independent states by carving themselves out of the Soviet Union. responsible politician would condone Russia's seizure of the Crimea. Yet Russia has already been punished enough. Perhaps a wise way to resolve the standoff would be by allowing Russia to keep the Crimea on the condition that it hold an internationally monitored referendum on whether the Crimeans want to stay with Russia or come back to Ukraine.

It would also be useful to keep in mind that the Crimea, in the end, is not that significant. It accounts for only 5% of Ukrainian territory, and, unlike Eastern Ukraine, the Crimea houses no critical industries. It makes no rational sense for Ukraine to hold on to the Crimea at all costs, which is what Mr. Poroshenko seems to be firmly set on. In fact, the net economic and political effect of the transfer of the Crimea to Russia was mildly positive: the peninsula had been a drag on the Ukrainian budget, and its population had always historically supported pro-Russian candidates. So, it is not the loss of the Crimea that damaged Ukraine, but everything else that occurred after that.
Finally, it is worthwhile to recall when and how this all started. On February 27, 1954, the New York Times ran a small article reporting on the transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine, noting in the subsequent analysis that the symbolic nature of the transfer resulted in "little practical changes." Perhaps the West should go back to that characterization of the Crimea as an internal Russian-Ukrainian matter. Let's consider the change of Crimea's ownership as a psychologically important, but as a practically insignificant event. In fact, it can even be viewed as a positive sign that Ukraine is finally freeing itself from the vestiges of its Soviet past, of which Crimea was one.

By overcoming the obsession with one patch of land, perhaps the leaders of the West, Ukraine, and Russia can address what appears to be a real threat to global order: the loss of common ground among the former Allies that was so obvious during the May 9 Victory day parade. The bottom line is the economies of all these nations. And that is what we will address next: "connecting the dots."