Russia vs. Rest of the World

Edvard Munch: The Scream // Public domain

President Vladimir Putin is proposing to renew cooperation with Europe, which is to be welcomed because Russia is an important country. I believe, however, that in taking this step we should remember the history.

We understand the pain of the former members of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, President Putin should equally understand the pain of those nations that suffered great injustices from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, there are erroneous and unacceptable passages in his article.

First of all, it was not Russia that was attacked by Germany first. As the territories belonged to the Belarusian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics, they were really attacked. Moreover, it was the Belarusians and Ukrainians who suffered the greatest losses in World War II. Putin does not mention this at all.

Second of all, he states that the Red Army saved Europe and the world from enslavement. This is a half-truth. The Red Army fought the Wehrmacht but, at the same time, imposed totalitarianism on half  of the continent.

After the defeat of the Third Reich, crimes against humanity and mass murder continued in Europe under the protection of the Red Army and in the shadow of the constant threat from it. Genocidal occupation was replaced by totalitarian occupation. This may be called “amelioration” but by no means “liberation.”

When it comes to the NATO expansion, about which Vladimir Putin complains, the Soviet Union did not receive any written guarantees about it. The reason why various countries wanted to join the NATO was because of Russia’s constant threats against them.

When I (Radoslaw Sikorski) was Polish Minister of Defense, we were constantly threatened by missiles with nuclear warheads located in the Kaliningrad region. And of course, because of the history of its relationship with Russia, Poland aspired to the NATO as an alliance of free democracies.

NATO did not “expand”, thoug.  As Poland really wanted to join, it just reluctantly accepted it. There were people in NATO countries, including me, who thought it would be good if Russia also met NATO’s conditions for membership, that is being a democracy, putting the army under civilian control, and resolving territorial conflicts with its neighbors. Russia could have been invited to join the Alliance. However, it decided not to meet all those criteria.

Vladimir Putin called the 2014 events in Ukraine an “armed coup”. This is not true. I organized a trip of three foreign ministers – together with Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius – to Kiev at a time when 800 thousand Ukrainians were peacefully demonstrating in support of an association agreement between Ukraine and the EU.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych initially promised to sign the deal. Nevertheless, at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November 2013, he reneged on his promise as he had been offered an injection of huge money from Putin. First Kiev students and then tens of thousands of Ukrainians came out onto the streets in the biting cold to have the decision reversed.

When we, the three foreign ministers, arrived in Kiev, there had already been casualties because Yanukovych’s security forces had been shooting at protesters. I can show President Putin the cemetery where the dead Ukrainian protesters were buried. In return, may he show me the cemetery of those who were allegedly shot by protesters?

Perhaps President Putin believes his own propaganda. Moscow’s very constructive representative, Ambassador Vladimir Lukin, also attended the negotiations with the foreign ministers in Kiev. Putin sent him personally. He also approved the agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition. However, he was later forbidden to officially sign because the Kremlin called for the federalization of Ukraine to gain control of the eastern provinces.

President Putin claims that Crimea “left” Ukraine just as Britain left the EU after Brexit. He also said that his “little green men” had nothing to do with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Why then did Putin decorate officers with various medals for the February 2014 military operation to detach Crimea from Ukraine? The forcible capture of Crimea was condemned by the UN General Assembly by the largest margin in UN history.

Putin asks why the U.S. “organized the coup in Ukraine” and why EU countries “zealously supported it”. This is completely untrue.

It is true that Yanukovych left Kiev when he lost the support of his own Party of Regions in parliament. Could it be that President Putin is claiming that when Russian soldiers invaded first Crimea and then Donbas, they were acting as U.S. agents? I don’t recall any U.S. troops.

The U.S. envoy, Victoria Nuland, had a few polite words to offer on Maydan. Then she said “screw the EU”  and that was the end of it.

The actual role was played by us, the foreign ministers. We were the ones who witnessed the agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition. It was Yanukovych who first announced that he would not fulfill this agreement. He left Kiev, which was a disastrous political mistake because it gave the impression that he was going to flee the country Furthermore, it led to a loss of support in central and eastern Ukraine. In the end, he actually had to leave the country with the help of Russia.

The fundamental problem was that years before the events in Ukraine President Putin had decided that Russia should become a separate pole of integration, consequently competing with the EU. The EU could make deals with both Russia and Ukraine. It was Putin who told Yanukovych:

“Do not join the association agreement with the EU. Instead you can join the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. But you cannot be a member of two customs unions at the same time.”

Yanukovych decided to go ahead with the Russian plan, which is why 800 thousand Ukrainians came out to the streets.

Russia overestimates its ability to integrate many countries into a multinational union. The Russian project forces countries to make a choice. Nevertheless, in case of Georgia or Moldova, they eventually chose the EU as the Union offers democracy, visa-free travel, and the raising of trade and civilization standards. Russia’s offer includes dictatorship and repression, as it is visible in Kazakhstan and Belarus.

There is a choice. I very much hope that one day Russia will correct its previous choice.

* The German-language version of the text appeared on June 23, 2021 on the pages of the daily newspaper “Die Zeit” as a response to the article of Vladimir Putin published in this newspaper.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Natalia Banas

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