2019 – A Year of Remarkable Anniversaries: What Do They Tell Us?

The years that end with number 9 have seen more notable events than those ending with other numbers. Therefore, it was not surprising that 2019 witnessed some pompous celebrations and commemorations. The 230th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, not being this year a round date, was relatively modest. Yet, this was not so with some more recent historical events. 2019 marked the 80 years since the beginning of the Second World War and 30 years had passed from the end of the Cold War, if we take the fall of the Berlin wall as the benchmark of the end of the bipolar world and the rivalry between the two superpowers and their respective alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact. If the latter ceased to exist, as it should have, with the declared end of the Cold War, the first not only survived but also expanded to the borders of Russia. This month it celebrated its 70th anniversary. If the above-mentioned round dates manifest certain Eurocentrism of world politics, there was one no less significant anniversary in Asia. Taking account of the geopolitical restructuring of the world, 1 October 2019, when the People’s Republic of China marked its 70th birthday, may have been even more momentous event of the passing year than the others. 

Beginning of WWII and the falsification of history

80 years ago, 23 August 1939, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim Ribbentrop signed The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which also contained secret protocols that divided respective German and Soviet spheres of interest in Eastern Europe. 24 December 1989 the Congress of the People Deputies of the USSR, having heard the speech of Aleksander Yakovlev, denounced the signing of these protocols. It so happened that I headed the working group of historians and lawyers in the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, that was working on the document for the Soviet leadership on the Pact and the protocols. The final draft of the working group was written by me, since the majority of the group, with the exception of Academician Aleksander Chubaryan, simply denied the very existence of the protocols. However, the First Vice President of the Academy of Sciences Vladimir Kudryavtsev, feeling where the winds were blowing from in the higher echelons, dismissed the working group and, based on my text, we prepared a document that was sent up to the leadership. The same year, I also published an article on the matter  , where I recognised that the protocols, due to their subject-matter that affected the vital interests of third states, were ab initio (from the very beginning) null and void. I still believe that our rather lawyerly text, like my article, being less emotional and less politically oriented than Yakovlev’s speech, gave more balanced legal analysis of the Pact, including its protocols, and their role in the chain of events leading to the war.

That is why, I was shocked when I read in the Resolution of European Parliament of 19 September 2019 On the importance of European remembrance for the future of Europe that ‘the Second World War, the most devastating war in Europe’s history, was started as an immediate result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet Treaty on Non-Aggression of 23 August 1939, also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocols, whereby two totalitarian regimes that shared the goal of world conquest divided Europe into two zones of influence’. As if the Nazi Germany hadn’t before August 1939 grabbed territories and annexed countries in Europe and was only looking for the consent of Stalin and Molotov to continue its aggressive foreign policy. The green light to Hitler’s expansions in Europa was given much earlier and not by the Soviets.

Demonising Russia and the Geopolitical Consequences
David Lane
As a consequence of Western misperception of Russia’s interests and potential power, Russia will develop its self-conception as an alternative civilisation to the West. Geo-politically, Russia’s growing alliance with China is an outcome of the West’s misguided hostility to Russia – expressed in the expansion of NATO, the abrogation of nuclear arms agreements, support for extra-legal political regime change and a series of destabilising economic sanctions.

Hadn’t there been another deal, done a year before, between Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Édouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain? The Munich betrayal was more shameless deal than the 23 August 1939 Pact (non-aggression pacts with Nazi Germany had signed Poland in 1934, Estonia and Latvia in June 1939), even with its secret protocols. Western democracies not only agreed to give to the Nazis what they did not own – a part of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. They did it openly, proudly, hoping to have their peace at the expense of a peaceful and democratic country in the centre of Europe and expecting to channel Hitler’s aggressiveness to the East. They also remained silent when in March 1939 Germany grabbed the whole Czechoslovakia. It is not a farfetched to presume that without the Munich betrayal there may not have been the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with its secret protocols. There wouldn’t have been even need for it. Let me quote what Eduard Beneš – the then President of Czechoslovakia – had to say about it: 

In September 1938, therefore, we were left in military, as well as political, isolation with the Soviet Union to prepare our defence against a Nazi attack. We were also well aware not only of our own moral, political, and military preparedness, but also had a general picture of the condition of Western Europe; as well as of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in regard to these matters. At that moment indeed Europe was in every respect ripe to accept without a fight the orders of the Berchtesgaden corporal. When Czechoslovakia vigorously resisted his dictation in the September negotiations with our German citizens, we first of all received a joint note from the British and French Governments on September 19th, 1938, insisting that we should accept without amendment the draft of a capitulation based essentially on an agreement reached by Hitler and Chamberlain at Berchtesgaden on September 15th. When we refused, there arrived from France and Great Britain on September 21st an ultimatum accompanied by emphatic personal interventions in Prague during the night on the part of the Ministers of both countries and repeated later in writing. We were informed that if we did not accept their plan for the cession of the so-called Sudeten regions, they would leave us to our fate, which, they said, we had brought upon ourselves. They explained that they certainly would not go to war with Germany just ‘to keep the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia’ (emphasis in the original, R.M.). I felt very keenly the fact that there were at that time so few in France and Great Britain who understood that something much more serious was at stake for Europe than the retention of the so-called Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia. The measure of this fearful European development was now full, precipitating Europe into ruin. Through three dreadful years I had watched the whole tragedy unfolding, knowing to the full what was at stake. We had resisted desperately with all our strength. And then, from Munich, during the night of September 30th our State and Nation received the stunning blow: Without our participation and in spite of the mobilization of our whole Army, the Munich Agreement – fatal for Europe and the whole world – was concluded and signed by the four Great Powers – and then was forced upon us. 

It is clear, for me, that the road to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact as well as to the Second World War was open in autumn 1938 in Munich. Poland, being the first casualty of this war (or maybe it was Czechoslovakia that was the first victim of WWII?), despite having in January 1934 signed The German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact, was not an innocent victim, though its guilt doesn’t in any way justify German aggression. Nazi Germany, and nobody else, unleashed the Second World War in Europe. The Polish army, prompted by Hitler, and as a result of the Munich agreement, moved in October 1938 into a part of Czechoslovakia annexing an area of 801.5 km² (309.5 mi²) with a population of 227,399. What the Soviet Union did 17 September 1939, when the Soviet troops moved into the Polish territories that according to secret protocols belonged to the USSR’s ‘sphere of interest’, was not much different from what the Poles had done in occupying and annexing in autumn 1938 a part of Czechoslovakia. As the Poles had taken those parts of the country that was attacked by Germany, which were inhabited mostly by Czech citizens of the Polish ethnic origin, so did the Soviet Union when it took parts of Poland, attacked by Germany that were populated mostly by people of non-Polish origin.

After the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, the occupation of the Sudetenland and then the whole of Czechoslovakia, coupled with massive rearmament programmes, it had become clear that Hitler was not going to be satisfied by these annexations. Chamberlain, Daladier and other Western leaders practiced the policy of appeasement, paying a terrible price for it. Stalin knew that the appeasement was not good enough. Concluding the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany, he hoped to delay the inevitable military confrontation with Germany and also to move the Soviet defence lines further to the West. If I may use in a somewhat loose and non-legal way a controversial concept of international law (called also as the Bush doctrine), the Soviet leadership practiced a kind of preventive self-defence. Nevertheless, the Soviet defence was not ready by 22 June 1941, when Germany attacked, and Stalin is to be blamed for this unpreparedness, since in his paranoia of seeing enemies and foreign agents everywhere, he had destroyed the better part of the Red Army and had not heeded to the warnings of his own intelligence (Richard Sorge) about the imminence of the German attack. However, the onslaught of the Nazis would have been much more painful for the USSR, and also for the allies who fought the Nazis, had it been launched even closer to the political, economic and military-industrial centres of the Soviet Union.

A Critique of Liberal Imperialism
Rein Müllerson
Modern democracy, originating in Western European societies, has had dialectical relationships (i.e., relationships, in which different phenomena, depending on concrete circumstances, have a kind of friend-enemy relationships) with three phenomena that have, on the one hand, supported democracy’s emergence and growth while also putting limits on its expansion and deepening. These three phenomena are nationalism, capitalism and liberalism.


The Resolution of European Parliament, by accusing not only Nazi Germany but also the Soviet Union for starting the war, without even mentioning the Munich Agreement of 1938 that had paved the way to the first, amounts to the distortion of history with the purpose of appeasing russophobic voices in Europe and is further dividing the continent. 30 September, the date of the signing of the Munich agreement in 1938, would better suit to commemorate the European Day of Remembrance. Moreover, it would have been perfectly possible to condemn the crimes committed in the name of communism, be it by Stalin or other dictators, without falsifying the history of the beginning of the Second World War. European unity cannot be built on such falsehoods.

70 years of NATO – from the fall of the Wall to the building of new walls.

In December of this year, NATO celebrated its 70th birthday in the Brexit-torn United (still?) Kingdom. There was certain symbolism in the choice of the venue of this anniversary summit. A few years ago, President Trump had defined NATO as ‘obsolete’, while shortly before the London summit President Macron had diagnosed the North-Atlantic alliance as being ‘brain dead’. Notwithstanding such statements, as well as serious disagreements between NATO members on Middle Eastern policies and other matters, leaders of the 27 found nevertheless NATO to be ‘the most successful Alliance in history’. However, they were shy of mentioning Alliance’s ‘successes’, wherever it had used its military muscle, be it in 1999 when bombing Serbia and creating a mafia state in Kosovo , nor did they refer to the 2011 bombing of Libya that instead of bringing peace, democracy and prosperity to the Libyan people, triggered a civil war in the country and created a launchpad for illegal migration from Africa to Europe. Finally, not only modesty could explain that NATO’s successes in Afghanistan were not mentioned in the 2019 Declaration of the NATO summit. Already in November 2008, my fellow countryman – the then Estonian Ambassador to Afghanistan Harri Tiido, having been given by the Brits a tour in the Helmand province, where Estonian NATO contingent was stationed, asked 'What the fuck are we doing here?    I read about this episode some years ago in a book by Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former British Ambassador to Afghanistan, who was haunted by the same question. However, NATO is still there and therefore the question – what ‘the most successful Alliance in history’ is doing there – remains.

The only success of NATO since the end of the Cold War is that, having expanded to the borders of Russia and attempting to embrace also Georgia and Ukraine, the Alliance has forced Russia to take active counter-measures that have allowed NATO, finally, to justify its existence, though even on this matter a massive propaganda efforts, semi-truths and lies have been necessary. Therefore, the celebration on 9 November of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall had also a fly in the anointment. Though the Wall in Berlin was indeed destroyed, it has been re-erected further in the East, on the border with Russia. If in 1962 these were the Soviets who had constructed the Wall, now it has been done by the West and not always only symbolically. This is quite an achievement, but NATO is not going to rest on the laurels since there are other dragons to slay.

In search of new dragons to slay

The London Declaration of NATO for the first time refers to China as a challenge to NATO, though it would be better to say that Washington has succeeded in coaxing its allies to use the Alliance not only against Russia, but also to hamper China’s rise. Neither China nor Russia are threatening the United States or any of its allies; by their insubordination they are only undermining the American dominance; they have made it evident that the XXI century will not be an American century. President Macron of France was right telling in summer 2019 to the French Ambassadors that ‘we all live in the world, and you know that better than I do, where the existing order has been propelled in an unprecedented manner and, if I may say so, with changes of historical magnitude occurring almost in all the domains for the first time in the contemporary history. This is, first of all, a geopolitical and strategic transformation and re-composition of the world. Without any doubt we are living through the end of the Western domination of the world’.   In such a situation, the simple logic requires that the European nations ‘have to build a new architecture of confidence and security in Europe, because the European continent will never be stable, will never feel secure if we will not have peaceful relations with Russia’.  However, the crucial question still remains, can he deliver? It is not enough to have degaullien ambitions. Even most correct ideas cannot be put into practice without political leaders with brain, and even more importantly, with spine, who happen to be in the right place at the right time.

The verity of Macron’s assessment has been recently confirmed by my personal and tangible experience. This year I spent three months in China, including the week of celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. However, this was not the military parade of 1 October that impressed me. I watched it with one eye while working on other issues. What impressed me most were the positive changes, since my first long stay in the country about twelve years earlier, in the Chinese economy, society and in the wellbeing of the Chinese people, that I saw with my own eyes. It was also the optimism and enthusiasm of the majority of the people I met in different cities and in the countryside. Naturally, together with the economic rise of China comes also the assertiveness, not aggressiveness, of China’s foreign policy. By militarising existing islands in the South China Sea and creating new ones by dredging up sediments and dumping them upon the submerged shoals, Beijing is responding to the presence of the US 7th fleet close to the shores of the mainland; it is using the ‘denial of access’ policies. Containment of Beijing and attempting to use NATO against China, instead of benefitting from and accommodating the Chinese rise, is wrought with serious risks. Fareed Zakaria is right when warning:

The United States risks squandering the hard-won gains from four decades of engagement with China, encouraging Beijing to adopt confrontational policies of its own, and leading the world’s two largest economies into a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope that will inevitably cause decades of instability and insecurity. A cold war with China is likely to be much longer and more costly than the one with the Soviet Union, with an uncertain outcome. 

Be that as it may with the Washington’s stance vis-à-vis Beijing and its recklessness of the dual containment of Russia and China, but Europeans have certainly better things to do than joining Washington’s new crusade. Can NATO’s pivot to Asia be an answer to the rise of China? How can such a turn to Asia be even thinkable for the American allies in Europe? Are they ready to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of Washington’s vain attempts to perpetuate its hegemony in the world? As if European nations haven’t already enough suffered from the confrontation with Russia? Such a provocative mindset is only confirming Macron’s words about NATO’s damaged brain.

A year ago Bernard Bajolet, a former French diplomat and ex-spy-chief, published a book entitled The Sun Does Not Rise Any Longer in the East.    Bajolet, having served as French Ambassador to several Middle Eastern countries and knowing the region well, is sceptical about the immediate future of the region. And rightly so. The region is indeed in turmoil and to a great extent its problems are due to the Western incompetent and counter-productive meddling. However, there is another East and while astronomical Sun will continue to rise from there till the end of the day, allegorical political Sun, instead of having for centuries risen from the West, is now also joining the astronomical Sun. Macron’s words that ‘we are living through the end of the Western domination of the world’ only confirm the obvious. The worst thing the West can do in response to this tendency would be to use threats, sanctions or force in the attempt to perpetuate its domination. Here not the military muscle of NATO, but the wisdom, creativity and the ability to think beyond the box (either we or they) are needed.

Next year, the most remarkable date will be the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the liberation of Europe from Nazism. There is no better occasion for European leaders to make a symbolic, but politically very important gesture for the sake of peace, stability and reconciliation in the Old Continent, than to celebrate this event on the 9th of May in Moscow. It would be also a brain, spine and consciousness test for some of them.    

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.