The controversy over alleged Russian "aggression" in Ukraine is already raining on the Kremlin parade with which Russia will mark the 70th anniversary of the Allies' victory over Adolf Hitler and the Nazis on May 9. U.S. President Barack Obama set the tone by turning down the Kremlin's invitation to take part in the celebration, and allies in Western Europe have been equally uncouth in saying No.
The fanfare on Red Square will be a "Last Hurrah" for most surviving World War II veterans, since few are likely to be able to be there for the 75th or 80th anniversaries. Though I was only five years old on V-E Day - marking the victory in Europe - I was delighted to receive an invitation to go to Russia this week for a smaller-scale celebration marking an equally important 70th anniversary - April 25, 1945, the historic day on which U.S. and Russian troops met at the Elbe River.
Tragically divided once again by hate, greed, and power-lust, Europe lies in the shadow of war, as the violence percolating in Ukraine threatens to result in wider, more open military intervention from outside. Equally sad, responsibility for the turmoil in Ukraine lies mostly at the doorstep of Washington. Worse still for one who normally pretends to understand what drives foreign policy, how shall I explain to my hosts what lies behind U.S. actions in central Europe, when - try as I may to come up with cogent explanations that make some sense - the reasons elude me.
U.S. leaders along with its foreign "vassals" - as Russian President Vladimir Putin has called them - have responded to the Kremlin's invitations to the V-E celebration with "regrets." Not so Chinese President Xi Jinping , whose plan to come for the anniversary observance was announced in January. The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, will also take part. Signs of the times.
It may be difficult for history-starved Americans to understand why it should be that most Russians react so negatively to what they regard as something more serious than a mere gratuitous snub. From watching Russian media one gets the clear impression that veterans and most men/women-on-the-street view the boycott as more serious than a petulant slight - but rather as a supreme indignity. The U.S. will be represented by U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft.
Putin then underscored what he sees as the importance of the anniversary observance: "We pay tribute to a generation of victors. We do this so that the present generation, both here and abroad, never forgets about this and never allows anything like this to happen again."
As journalist Martin Sieff keeps pointing out, the current crop of young Americans and Russians has grown up fairly ignorant of how crucially important the Grand Alliance of WWII was to the survival of both their great nations, but all serious Western historians recognize that the Russian people made the greatest sacrifices. The nearly 27 million total of Soviet military and civilian dead was more than twice the death toll of all Americans, Britons, Commonwealth citizens, French and even Germans killed in the war combined.
None other than British War Premier Winston Churchill publicly acknowledged, "It was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Wehrmacht." Over 80 percent of the German soldiers killed in World War II died fighting the Red Army.
These facts have been largely forgotten on both sides of the Atlantic, in the United States and Western Europe. At next month's anniversary observance, pity the squandering of such an excellent opportunity to remind the world that there is strength in unity.
In his extended Q & A on April 16, Putin made an unusual allusion to that dark period in addressing "the ugly nature of the Stalin regime" and the reaction that persists to this day. He conceded: "[It] "may not be very pleasant for us to admit. But in truth, we, or rather our predecessors, gave cause for this. Why? Because after World War II, we tried to impose our own development model on many Eastern European countries, and we did so by force.
"This has to be admitted. There is nothing good about this and we are feeling the consequences now. Incidentally, this is more or less what the Americans are doing today, as they try to impose their model on practically the entire world, and they will fail as well."
The Ukraine crisis and other circumstances now clouding the May 9 celebration are perhaps the inevitable consequence of another lost opportunity, the chance for an enduring peace in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That hope was squandered by Western leaders who reneged on earlier promises to welcome a very new kind of Russia into European security arrangements, as the Soviet empire fell apart.
Despite promises by top U.S., German and NATO leaders not to move NATO to the east of a reunited Germany (which joined NATO in 1990), 12 new members - all of them to the east - subsequently joined, bringing total NATO membership to 28. Worse still from Moscow's point of view, a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest declared on April 3, 2008: "We agreed that these countries (Ukraine and Georgia) will become members of NATO."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had sternly warned U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns two months earlier that the Russians would say a loud NYET to that. They did. Accordingly, it should have come as no surprise that the Russians decided that the U.S.-arranged coup d'état of Feb. 22, 2014, in Kiev was one "regime change" too many.
I have watched many government overthrows - oops, sorry, the present term of art is "regime change" - but the way this coup was advertised in advance, for me, that was a first. The key U.S. dramatis personae - Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador in Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt - had been overheard plotting the coup more than two weeks before Feb. 22 in an intercepted telephone conversation that was posted on YouTube. George Friedman, head of the well-connected STRATFOR think tank, has said, "It truly was the most blatant coup in history."
What prompted the Kremlin's strong reaction? Was it the coup d'état on Moscow's doorstep or the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO or the risk of losing Russia's only warm-water naval port to NATO or was it concern over U.S. plans for missile defense? The correct answer, of course, is all-of-the-above; indeed, they are inextricably linked.
Putin has been very upfront about what moved him to action on Feb. 23, 2014, the day AFTER the putsch in Kiev. By the way, there is not one scintilla of evidence that either Putin or any other Russian leader planned to annex Crimea BEFORE the Feb. 22, 2014 coup.
After the Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to be rejoined to Russia, Putin permitted himself a somewhat jocular passage following a serious one, in addressing this very serious missile issue in a speech on March 18, 2014. to the Russian Duma and other officials at the Kremlin:
"Let me note too that we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and [the naval base at] Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO's navy would be right there in this city of Russia's military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this. ...
"NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round."
Putin has not disguised Moscow's motives regarding the annexing of Crimea. This, for example, is what he said on April 17, 2014, during last year's marathon Q & A on live TV:
"I'll use this opportunity to say a few words about our talks on missile defense. This issue is no less, and probably even more important, than NATO's eastward expansion. Incidentally, our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this." (emphasis added)
Clear enough? In Putin's eyes, missile defense systems in European countries near Russia and in adjacent waters would pose an existential threat to the forces upon which Russia relies as a deterrent. In recent weeks, several top Russian national security officials have weighed in strongly on this issue.
This is not only a mark of their genuine strategic concern; Russian leaders also see it as increasingly difficult, in present circumstances, for the U.S. to justify a European missile defense system by using the same paper-thin rationale that such is needed to defend against missile attack from Iran.
During an interview on April 18, Putin again drew attention to George W. Bush's unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 - a key anchor for deterrence. Putin listed it high on the list of serious problems with the U.S.
(On Dec. 13, 2001, President George W. Bush gave Russia notice of the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, in accordance with the clause that required six months' notice before terminating the pact. This was the first time in recent history that the United States has withdrawn from a major international arms treaty.)
Speaking the day before at an International Security Conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov insisted on the need for "joint efforts based on respect for the legitimate interests of all partners," if peace is to be preserved. He, too, focused on the U.S. missile defense programs as the primary cause of concern:
"Ground-based missile defense systems will be deployed in Romania this year and in Poland by 2018. More ships with missile defense systems are being deployed. We perceive all this as part of a global project that is creating risks for Russia's strategic deterrence forces and upsetting regional security balances.
"If the global missile defense program continues to be implemented without any adjustments, even as talks on the Iranian nuclear program are making headway, ... then the specific motives for establishing the European missile defense system will become obvious for everyone."
Lavrov was more soft-spoken than the official statement issued by his own ministry a week before on April 10. That statement quoted President Obama's public assurance in a speech in Prague in April 2009 about how the elimination of the "Iranian threat" would also eliminate the main reason for the deployment of a missile defense system in Europe.
The Russian Foreign Ministry statement adds: "Against this background, the statements that 'the missile defense program is not directed against Russia' look even less convincing."
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. During his 27-year career as a CIA analyst, he served as chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, and was in Moscow for the signing of the ABM Treaty and other agreements concluded in May 1972. He is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
An intense movement of NATO aircraft was reported at Poland's Rzeszow airfield near the Ukrainian border