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Opportunity at Katyn

13 April 2010

Opportunity at Katyn

By Gwynne Dyer

First, a tragedy that almost sinks beneath the weight of a huge historical coincidence. A plane carrying the political and military elite of today’s Polish society crashes, killing everybody aboard, while bringing them to Katyn forest to commemorate the murder of a previous generation of the same elite by Stalin’s secret police in 1940.

Then the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, whose early career was spent in a later, tamer version of that same secret police force, does something remarkable. He tells one of the main Russian TV channels to show Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film “Katyn” in prime time. It’s more than an apology. It’s a national act of penance.

And after that, the speculation starts about whether this tragedy might be the way that the two great Slavic nations, Russians and Poles, are finally reconciled.

Poland’s historic tragedy was to be located between Germany and Russia. Twice the country vanished entirely, partitioned between its more powerful neighbours – and the enduring symbol of the latter partition is the Katyn massacre of 1940.

When Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, dividing Poland between them, 22,000 Polish officers fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. Some were professional soldiers, but most were reserve officers who in civilian life had been lawyers, doctors, university professors: the country’s intellectual elite. Stalin had them all murdered in 1940, one at a time, by a bullet in the back of the head. That’s what happened in Katyn forest.

Stalin’s aim was to “decapitate” the Polish intelligentsia and make the absorption of eastern Poland into the Soviet Union easier, but Hitler betrayed and attacked his ally in 1941. When the invading German troops reached Katyn, they found the mass graves of the Polish officers and invited international observers to examine the site. That was when the Great Lie was launched.

Moscow insisted that it was the Germans, not the Russians, who had massacred the Polish officers. The US and British governments backed the Soviet story (though they suspected it was a lie), because Stalin was now their ally in the war against Hitler. Only after 1945 did they question it.

In the Soviet Union and Communist-ruled Poland, The Lie was the only permitted version of the story until 1989. Only in 1990 did Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, finally admit that the murders were done by the Soviet secret police, but the Russian public never really had their noses rubbed in the truth.

Whereas for Poles, Katyn is the central symbol of how the country was attacked by its neighbours and then betrayed by its allies. Since it was Russians who committed the actual crime, and Russian Communists who still kept Poland in semi-colonial subjection until 1989, Russians were seen as the worst enemy of all.

So the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre this month was a fraught event. Prime Minister Putin invited his Polish equivalent, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, to attend a memorial ceremony there, but President Lech Kaczynski was not invited. Tusk would settle for a vague expression of regret, whereas Kaczynski was an old-fashioned nationalist who wanted the Russians to apologise on their knees.

Tusk came, and Putin duly expressed his sorrow for the “victims of Stalinist terror,” but he didn’t even mention the word “Poles”. Great states never really apologise, you know. Kaczynski, enraged, basically invited himself to another ceremony three days later, and brought half of Poland’s political, military and journalistic elite with him.

Putin realised that something more was required, and showed up at Katyn again to meet him. When the news came through that Kaczynski’s plane had crashed, he looked utterly stricken. Finally, the grim reality of the place and the occasion got through to him.

Now the apology was real and specific. Now Wajda’s harrowing film on Katyn, previously only seen on a specialty channel, got a prime-time broadcast on Russian TV. Now Russians finally get why the Poles don’t trust them – and most of them have responded with regret, not denial.

The wave of sympathy in Russia for Poles past and present is genuine, and they can even feel it (with some astonishment) in Poland. These moments are rare, and they don’t last long. If you want to make the future different from the past, you have to act fast.

The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, has announced that he is going to Poland for President Kaczynski’s funeral. Before he goes, he should look at one photograph.

It was taken in 1984 on the First World War battlefield of Verdun, where a quarter-million French and German soldiers died in 1916. By 1984 France and Germany were in the European Union and NATO together, but after three wars in a hundred years they were still not really friends.

Then President Francois Mitterand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany went there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the First World War. Looking out over the killing fields torn up by forty million artillery shells, they did the only thing they could. They held hands – and Franco-German relations were changed for good.

If Medvedev can find a way to do something as simple but as powerful as that, he could turn the page and start a new chapter in Russian-Polish history. Right now, people are ready for that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 14. (“In the Soviet…enemy of all”; and “The wave…fast”)

The Wicked Poles

12 June 2000

The Wicked Poles

By Gwynne Dyer

In the old Soviet Union, the future was always certain; only the past was liable to change without notice. The signal that it had changed was often the publication of a pseudo-scholarly article that denounced the “Falsifications” of the existing version of history.

Here we go again. Last week Colonel Sergei Kovalev, the director of the scientific research department at the Institute of Military History, published an article on the website of the Russian Ministry of Defence entitled “Fictions and Falsifications in Evaluating the USSR’s Role On the Eve of the Second World War.” He says it was the Poles who started the war in 1939, not the Nazis.

The British and the French were to blame too, because earlier in 1939 they guaranteed Poland’s independence if it stood up to Hitler’s demands. That gave the Poles “delusions of grandeur,” unfortunately, and misled them into rebuffing Germany’s “very modest” requests.

Germany only made two demands to Warsaw in 1939. One was the return of Danzig, a German-speaking city that had been separated from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War. The other was a German road and rail corridor across the strip of territory (the “Polish Corridor”) that gave the Poles access to the Baltic Sea, but separated eastern Germany from the rest of the country.

Kovalev is right about one thing: Hitler’s demands were reasonable enough. By 1939 almost everybody agreed that the Versailles treaty had been wrong to blame the First World War on Germany, and that the five million Germans whose lands had been handed out to neighbouring countries under that treaty had been treated unfairly. But most historians also think that Hitler’s demands were just an opening bid.

The conventional wisdom is that Hitler was determined on world conquest from the start, and that if Poland had accepted his terms in 1939 it would just have faced further demands not much later. But the conventional historians may be wrong, for Hitler also offered Poland a secret alliance against the Soviet Union when he made his demands.

Poland’s military rulers rejected the whole package, trusting in the Anglo-French guarantee to protect them. From the day that the guarantee was issued in March, 1939, they refused even to discuss it with the Germans. That may have been a mistake, for when war came in September Britain and France were unable to help them militarily, and Poland was overrun in a month.

But this hardly explains why Kovalev blames Poland for causing the war, and why the Russian Ministry of Defence put his article on its website. The reason for that, most likely, lies with their need to rewrite the history of the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

That was the secret agreement of August, 1939 in which Germany and the Soviet Union carved up eastern Europe between them. The Russians got eastern Poland, all of Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and parts of Romania. The Finns fought back and managed to save most of their country, but all the rest succumbed.

This deal has always been hard for the Russians to defend, especially since the Nazis attacked them two years later anyway. They usually say they were just trying to win time, but Stalin clearly fooled himself into believing that he had a real deal with the Nazis. He was recovering almost all the lands that had won their freedom from the Russian empire after the First World War (and he wasn’t interested in the opinions of the residents).

The Soviet secret police killed or deported hundreds of thousands of “politically unreliable” people in the newly conquered territories.

(Twenty thousand Polish officers who had surrendered to the Russians were murdered in Katyn forest to decapitate any resistance movement.) So it’s not surprising that some people in the Baltic states welcomed German troops as liberators in 1941, and that very few people anywhere in Eastern Europe saw Red Army troops as liberators when they came back in 1944.

This has always infuriated the Russians, who see the Red Army as heroes and liberators. Col. Kovalev’s article blaming the Poles for the war was bound to appeal to Russian patriots just as much as it would appal Poles, Estonians, and all the other Eastern Europeans who had to live for decades under the Soviet yoke.

The Polish ambassador in Moscow protested and Kovalev’s article has now been removed from the Ministry of Defence’s website, but the broader trend in Russia is clearly to rewrite history in ways that rehabilitate the Soviet past. Indeed, last month Russian President Dmitri Medvedev ordered the creation of the Commission to Counteract the Falsification of History to the Detriment of Russian Interests.

That sounds slightly less weird in Russian, but not much. And there’s now legislation before the Duma (parliament) that would outlaw any portrayal of the Red Army as invaders EVEN ON THE TERRITORY OF FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS. Of course, Moscow could not enforce that legislation without invading (sorry, liberating) them again, so it has little practical effect, but it is indicative of the mood in the country.

Russia isn’t planning to invade anybody, but it is feeling spectacularly touchy and grumpy at the moment. So far Medvedev (and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) are managing to ride the tiger, but if they fall off they could be eaten up in a flash.______________________________________

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Kovalev…demands”)

The Missile Defence Scam

27 August 2008

The Missile Defence Scam

By Gwynne Dyer

Cynicism and hypocrisy are always part of international politics, but in the case of Poland and the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) missiles everybody is over-fulfilling their norm. Nobody involved in the controversy, Polish, Russian or American, believes a single word they are saying about this misbegotten missile defence system, whose principal characteristic is that it doesn’t work — never has, and probably never will. And yet we’re all expected to report what they say as if it mattered.

Washington insists that the ABM missiles are being put into Poland to protect the United States and its allies from Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles (which do not exist) tipped with nuclear warheads (which Iran doesn’t have either). Yet after months when U.S.-Polish talks on the subject were stalled, suddenly last Wednesday Warsaw agreed to provide a base for the “missile defence system” — because it would infuriate the Russians.

The Poles, who are anxious about Russia’s intentions in the light of recent events in Georgia, want to send a signal of defiance to Moscow and get a permanent American military base of some kind on their soil. They’re not worried about non-existent Iranian missiles — and if they do occasionally worry about very real Russian missiles, they are not so foolish as to believe that this American missile defence system would actually protect them. It doesn’t work.

So why are the Russians so upset about all this? Why did General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, publicly warn Poland last week that hosting the American interceptors could make it the target for a nuclear strike? Don’t the Russians know they don’t work?

Of course they do, but the Russian military, like any professional military force, need a dramatic foreign threat to justify their demands on Russia’s resources, and for that purely political purpose the American missiles work fine. Russian strategists claim that this system is actually intended to shoot down Russian ballistic missiles, and so undermine Russia’s ability to deter an American attack by destroying its ability to strike back.

It’s nonsense, of course. Even if the American ABM missiles did work as advertised, ten launchers on Poland’s Baltic coast are not going to make much difference given Russia’s 848 long-range ballistic missiles, including hundreds that can be launched from submarines that are much closer to the U.S. than the interceptors in Poland. The Russians are only pretending to be worried about the ABM missiles in Poland, although they are seriously annoyed by U.S. military bases there.

The symbolic importance of the U.S. opening a new military base so close to Russia in the midst of the diplomatic confrontation over Georgia is clear to everybody, and Moscow is reacting to that. Even so, to threaten a nuclear strike against Poland sounds a bit extreme — except that in reality it doesn’t mean a thing, and everybody knows that, too.

Poland is already a target for nuclear strikes in the most improbable event of a Russian-American nuclear war. Everybody in the American-led NATO alliance is. Yet they don’t lose much sleep over it, because such a war is so very unlikely. General Nogovitsyn didn’t announce a new policy; he just spoke more frankly than usual about a permanent reality, in the hope of intimidating the more naive sections of the Polish population.

It would make about as much sense militarily if this mini-crisis were about the basing of a crack American team of kung fu dancers in Poland. The new American missile defence base in Poland gives all the interested parties a way to make their political points, while having no serious strategic importance whatever. But why has the United States spent between $120 billion and $150 billion on this ludicrous white elephant of a system since President Ronald Reagan first launched the “Star Wars” project in 1983?

Precisely because ever since 1983 the missile defence project has provided American senators, congressmen and presidents with the opportunity to pour enormous amounts of money into the pockets of defence industry, in return for much smaller but politically vital campaign contributions by those same companies. The technology can never be made cost-effective, but the project is impossible to kill because so many politicians benefit from it.

How can we know that the technology will never be cost-effective? Because even if the technology could finally be made to work to specifications, the whole notion of ballistic missile defence is ridiculous. It will always be ten to a hundred times cheaper to evade the ABM defences by adding decoys and other “penetration aids” to the incoming warheads, making them manoeuvrable, etc. than it is to upgrade the performance of the interceptors.

That performance, after a quarter-century’s work, is so poor that only two out of the last five tests worked. And those tests are rigged in the ABM system’s favour, with the defenders knowing the incoming missile’s type, trajectory and destination. In more recent tests, they have used no decoys at all in an attempt to get the hit rate up. And yet they have deployed the system anyway, first in Alaska and now in Poland.

This is fantasy strategy in the service of the military-industrial complex, and no strategist in the know takes it seriously. But it does allow the owner to make quite impressive symbolic gestures, albeit rather expensive ones.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Cyberwar in the Baltic

17 May 2007

Cyberwar in the Baltic

By Gwynne Dyer

Estonia is one of the most wired countries in the world — people even vote on-line — but for the past three weeks the country has been under a massive cyber-attack that has disabled the websites of government ministries, political parties, newspapers, banks and private companies. Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip directly accused Russia of being responsible, and appealed to the NATO alliance do something about it. Things are getting seriously foolish in Eastern Europe.

NATO can’t do anything about it, because the treaty does not currently define cyber-attacks as a military act that would allow the victim to invoke the alliance’s provisions for collective defence. Besides, there is no obvious action NATO could take that would stop these attacks, which are being coordinated by Russian hackers who may or may not have been sent into action by the Russian government. And yet another reason for NATO not to get officially involved is that grown-ups have been conspicuously absent on both sides in this quarrel.

It was provocative for Estonia’s right-wing government to remove the Soviet war memorial from the centre of Tallinn on 27 April and re-erect it at a military cemetery on the outskirts of town. The Russians take their 30 million dead in the Second World War very seriously indeed: the Russian parliament immediately deemed the act “blasphemous and barbarous,” and urged President Vladimir Putin to break diplomatic relations with the small Baltic republic. He didn’t do that, but he may have found another way of making the Estonians pay.

This is all about history, and the passions run high on both sides. The Estonians got their independence from the Russian empire in 1918, but lost it again in 1940 as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which Stalin got a free hand to invade and annex Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and eastern Poland and Hitler got the rest of Poland.

The Soviet Communists only murdered about five percent of the Estonian population — “class enemies,” clergymen, Socialists, and other “unreliable” elements — during their occupation, whereas the Nazis eventually slaughtered about twenty percent of Poland’s population. But then the Soviets only had a year and a bit to work with, because Germany invaded the Soviet Union in mid-1941 and liberated Estonia.

At least, it felt like liberation to most Estonians, although for the country’s 5,000 Jews the arrival of the Nazis meant exile or death. When it looked like the Soviet army was winning the war in 1943-44, some Estonians even volunteered for the German army — and most of them were put into SS divisions because that was where most foreigners in the German forces served. But the Soviets did re-conquer Estonia in 1944, and they called that a liberation, too.

For the Estonians, it was the beginning of another 46 years of Soviet occupation, during which tens of thousands of Estonians were sent to the camps and so many Russian immigrants arrived in their little country that it is today almost one-third Russian-speaking. They always saw the huge bronze statue of a Red Army soldier that has now been moved from central Tallin as a symbol of occupation, not liberation. There is a lot of room for bitterness in this history, and plenty of opportunities for really nasty behaviour. Few opportunities have been missed.

Even post-Communist Russians cannot bear to have the Red Army in which most of their fathers or grandfathers served treated as just another invading army, not much better than the German Wehrmacht, but like it or not, that was the experience of many Eastern European countries. Moreover, the half-century of Soviet occupation is a lot more recent than the long-dead Nazi era, so the resentments are a good deal fresher. Now most of these Eastern European countries are in both NATO and the European Union, and they have brought their anti-Russian grudges with them.

This is not going to be solved by sweet reason, but it can be managed and contained if the authorities on both sides don’t exploit it for domestic political purposes.

The Estonian government, which says that at least a million computers worldwide were taken over by Russian hackers in order to launch three waves of cyber-attacks that paralysed Estonian websites, has largely solved the short-term problem by denying access to e-mail from all foreign addresses. Estonian defence minister Jaak Aaviksoo now concedes that “there is not sufficient evidence of a (Russian) governmental role.” It could have been outraged Russian nationalists acting on their own.

It would help if the Russian government could be a little more grown-up about it, too, and stop interfering with transport and trade ties with Estonia. If the Estonians had been more saintly, they would have left the statue where it was and just ignored it, but they didn’t desecrate it or destroy it. They just moved it to a less conspicuous place. It’s time to move on.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 2. (“NATO…quarrel”)