Unprecedented breakdown does a disservice to the memory of mutual struggle and sacrifice
This article originally appeared at Valdai Discussion Club
There are few more vivid manifestations of the deadlock in relations between Russia and the West than the effective boycott of attending the seventieth-anniversary victory celebrations in Moscow on 9 May. What should have brought the former allies together to celebrate a common victory now acts as yet another instrument of discord. Worse than that, even European leaders who were planning to attend have been forced to change their plans. For example, the Czech president Milos Zeman had announced that he would be going, but somehow or other he was pressured not to go.
All this is witness to a breakdown in relations that is unprecedented in its depth, but also frightening in its lack of global vision. After all, the commemorations are not designed to enhance the status of Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin, but are part of an enduring memorialisation of the greatest and most destructive war waged by humanity, against a regime that was unparalleled in the systematic application of bureaucracy to achieve cruelty on an unprecedented scale and for uniquely evil purposes. It would be appropriate for all world leaders to meet and remember the divisions and misunderstandings that led to that war.
Instead, Western leaders, and above all the United States, are perpetuating these divisions and souring relations to the degree that a new conflict can no longer be ruled out. In a recent article in The National Interest Graham Allison and Dimitri K. Simes warned that Russia and America could be stumbling to war. And this would be a war once again fought in the European continent. Where is the leadership and courage in Europe to stand against the tide and to fulfil the promise so often mouthed but so seldom meant since 1945: ‘never again’?
All this attests to the dangers of the emerging new Atlanticism. Having blundered into confrontation over Ukraine, the Atlantic alliance is now trying to impose a bloc discipline on its members that is reminiscent of the worst periods of the Cold War. In some ways it is even worse, because even at the height of the Cold War Britain under Harold Wilson refused to participate in the Vietnam War, France under De Gaulle pursued its own vision of European continentalism, and West Germany established a fruitful energy relationship with Russia that endures to this day. Who can imagine these countries really standing up for an alternative vision of world order based on dialogue and recognition of difference against the US today?
Instead, the commemorations in Moscow will only confirm that alternative ideas are coming from outside the Atlantic system. Hence, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping plans to attend, together with the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee. They understand that the event on 9 May is something that transcends the immediate and is about remembering the dead who sacrificed themselves to save Europe from a cruel domination. To her credit, the German Chancellor does plan to fly to Moscow at that time to lay a wreath, although she will not attend the 9 May parade.
The boycott is part of the ill-advised sanctions policy. And that in turn is reminiscent of another anniversary this year, the fortieth anniversary of the US defeat in Vietnam in April 1975. Nick Davies in The Guardian on 22 April reminds us what the veteran British poet and correspondent James Cameron wrote in 1965 about how America escalated the pointless and vindictive conflict. Reflecting on the path to war, he noted ‘It was clumsy and cruel and thoughtless and without consideration. Step by step, the west blundered and floundered into a dilemma they never completely comprehended and never in fact sought: from the very beginning, they argued in clichés’.
Let this stand as a terrible warning of how we are once again floundering to war, accompanied by a spiteful pettiness that only accentuates the enormity of what is at stake. Let us honour those who died and the last few who will march across Red Square on 9 May by avoiding the mistakes of that generation.