The news from Mr. Putin gets more peculiar. Some held out hope that his Ukrainian adventure would be the “high water mark” of his ambitions in Eastern Europe. In fact, there is no reason to think so. And the latest news out of Russia suggests that it is not. Mr. Putin now has said something that should never be said in Europe — that there was “nothing wrong” with the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact.
Why is this a “no no”? The non-aggression pact was not just an agreement between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to be friendly. The pact also carved up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. So, for example, with Germany’s blessing, the Baltic region was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. And Poland? Well, Poland would be eliminated by invasion from the east and west. It is often forgotten that the Soviets also invaded Poland as per the agreement. And not just that —- the cooperation included sharing methods for liquidating opposition, where the NKVD had extensive experience.
No doubt, some will pretend that Putin did not mean to say that it would be ok to invade Poland again, or to forcibly incorporate regions into Russia and liquidate opposition.. It is too shocking to believe that these are his views about the future. But Mr. Putin said what he said for a reason. It was not an accident. He selected the subject and said what he thought in a clear way. One need not think hard to uncover his main point— the same smaller states in Eastern Europe that were subject to Soviet incorporation in Molotov-Ribbentrop should accept that they will be dominated once again by their larger neighbors (Russia). He wants this to be accepted as part of his world order.
This is commonly understood as a strategy to re-draw borders. But one might ask, why are these borders so important in the first place? After all, Europe has been working hard for decades to make internal borders less and less significant. This is supposed to be the post- nation state era. So why should borders between east and west become more, rather than less, important?
The answer is simple. If Putin accepted western values, borders between east and west would not be critical. There would be “welcoming arms” like one saw when the Berlin Wall was eliminated. One would be talking about “gateways” between east and west. Through these gateways, the best of the east and west could be exchanged. But Putin rejects western values. He wants Russia, once more, to lead the way in asserting non-western values.
And what does this non-western society look like? Let us be blunt. It is authoritarian. But it is not authoritarian in the traditional sense (where authority is legitimized through tradition). Traditions matter only as window dressing. Sadly, this assertion of authority glories in power for power sake. Power to stay in power because one can.
It was hoped, a while ago, that we had transcended this type of game. It was hoped that humanity would embrace less authoritarian values around the globe and that perhaps that we might have even seen “the end of history”. We begin to see now that this is not the case, at least not yet. Putin’s Russia is asserting a different sort of agenda. We might as well get used to it as one of the defining challenges of the next years to come.