Russia’s Long War &A Pivotal Moment in History
Canadian diplomat and politician Christopher Alexander argues that Putin is still fighting the wars of the 20th Century, and reversing his invasion of Ukraine could finally put those ghosts to rest
Vladimir Putin is still fighting his forefathers’ war. Of the four dictatorships that started the Second World War – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Empire of Japan and Stalin’s USSR – three were defeated.
Germany, Italy and Japan are thriving democracies today. Only Russia – a Nazi co-belligerent in 1939 and only briefly our de facto ally – has fought on.
Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union sealed their infamous pact in August 1939, then invaded Poland together in September 1939, as allies. It was a deep bond. Stalin had seeded Germany’s far-left and far-right for decades, while helping Germany re-arm from 1922 to 1933, making him a kind of authoritarian godfather to Hitler – so much so that leading scholars such as Richard Pipes saw “the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and Italian Fascism as having developed from the Bolshevik model”.
Stalin wanted to be the last dictator standing after the war. In January 1943, with the battle of Stalingrad not yet won, Stalin was a no-show at the Casablanca Conference, where Roosevelt, Churchill and de Gaulle agreed on the policy of ‘unconditional surrender’. Roosevelt still worried the Soviet leader might yet conclude a separate peace with the Nazis.
Russia’s biggest post-Soviet windfall has been new channels for its disinformation. Kremlin propagandists have lit up Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with rolling tidal waves of viral lies. RT (Russia Today) and Fox News took the Pandora’s box of Russian propaganda into every American home.
By 1945, Stalin was stronger than ever, with a license from the Tehran Conference later in 1943 (as well as Yalta) to strangle democracy in Central Europe – as Lenin had done in 1917-24.
Stalin never deviated from his subversive agenda. Igor Gouzenko, the Soviet defector whose revelations announced the Cold War, confirmed in excruciating detail to Canada’s 1946 Taschereau-Kellock Royal Commission that the USSR had never stopped spying on its ‘allies’. With Mao, Stalin launched the Korean War in 1950. His successor Khrushchev set up the Warsaw Pact and triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan bore the brunt of the ‘containment’ policy announced by American diplomat George Kennan’s long telegram, written just as Gouzenko’s disclosures were hitting home. But Soviet subversion, terrorism and war claimed millions of victims in dozens of states across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, many assumed their long war was over. They did not reckon with Vladimir Putin’s lifelong grudge – directly analogous to Hitler’s resentment of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles – that it was hiding in plain sight.
As a venal and forgettable mid-ranking functionary in St. Petersburg, Putin was complaining in 1994 about the loss of “huge territories” which – in his openly chauvinist view – “historically have always belonged to Russia”. As President of Russia, he was more explicit, telling the Duma in 2005 that the USSR’s collapse had been “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, he called NATO expansion “a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust”.
In 2008, he invaded Georgia. In 2011, he backed Assad’s genocide in Syria.
The Next Onslaught
Putin’s special obsession was Ukraine, which he sought to subjugate first by corruption, then by force, while continuing to occupy parts of Georgia and Moldova. His wars in Syria and Libya aimed to deepen Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, while destabilising dozens of democracies with massive flows of irregular migrants.
After a 2019 speech on Africa, Putin’s mercenaries played a role in five coups across the continent, while regaining their position as the top arms exporter to Africa and fomenting conflicts to drive a new flood of refugees northwards.
21st Century Russian malign influence has been greater than during the Cold War precisely because of the intimacy of Moscow’s post-1991 access. Russian oligarchs courted Western politicians. Kremlin surrogates backed fringe parties. Putin’s money flooded ‘grey zones’ of business, finance, the media and organised crime.
But the game-plan is ultimately unchanged since Stalin: to weaken or break the Euro-Atlantic unity. A book published in 1997 – three years before Putin became president – reads like a checklist for a quarter-century of Kremlin mischief.
Russia has cheered on the world’s leading state sponsors of terror, including Iran’s IRGC and Pakistan’s ISI. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Moscow, on the very day Putin launched his larger war in Ukraine, highlighted Pakistan’s role in forcing a humiliating US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer.
Russia courted terrorists after 1991. Credible evidence from the murdered Alexander Litvinenko (among others) shows Moscow used Ayman al-Zawahiri, who spent the first half of 1997 in Russian custody, to turn Al Qaida’s main effort towards US targets.
But Russia’s biggest post-Soviet windfall has been new channels for its disinformation. Kremlin propagandists have lit up Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with rolling tidal waves of viral lies. RT (Russia Today) and Fox News took the Pandora’s box of Russian propaganda into every American home. Corporate alliances, alongside digital channels like Breitbart, Info Wars or Rebel News, have torqued democratic debate in made-in-Moscow directions.
Putin’s crew have played hardball with US politics. Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn went from giving a lecture on ‘intelligence and leadership’ at GRU headquarters in Moscow hosted by the Russian general who later quarterbacked Putin’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, to being Putin’s guest at a RT dinner, a proponent of a military coup in the US, and an advocate of the QAnon cult. Paul Manafort went straight from advising Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, ousted in 2014, to being Trump’s campaign manager.
In Canada, Russia-directed assets helped to defeat Stephen Harper, who led the charge in ejecting Putin from the G8, sanctioning Russia for its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and scaling up training for Ukraine’s army in 2015.
The same assets have since backed anti-immigrant, Western separatist and anti-vaxx movements, further splintering Canada’s political spectrum. In late 2021, a large Bitcoin payment originating in Bulgaria was relayed through several US intermediaries to those behind Canada’s ‘trucker’s blockade’ – just as Putin’s war machine was kicking into higher gear.
The Final Rout
The Russian dictator’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, was a submariner, saboteur and soldier under Stalin, whose ideology fuelled decades of Cold War violence, as well as Putin’s recent wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine, Libya and elsewhere in Africa.
Ukraine now bears the brunt of this onslaught, which has cost our world so much.
By inflicting massive losses on Russian invaders, Ukraine has created an opportunity to defeat Russian aggression that we should now seize – by implementing a full energy embargo on Russia, including by use of secondary sanctions, and by providing the air assets, air defences, a no-fly zone and other weapons systems Ukraine needs to save lives and win the war.
Since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, we have never had a clearer path to stopping the war Lenin and Stalin started – and Putin has continued – to the enormous detriment of international peace and security, as well as democracy and freedom worldwide.
It’s not enough to see Putin ‘fail’: only defeat in Ukraine will end Russia’s war, at long last.