Friday, May 8, 2020

No parade in Moscow this year, but the "ring of fire" around Russia remains

This year, we won't see the traditional victory parade in Moscow (Парад Победы в Москва) that normally takes place on May 9 (above, an extract of last year's parade). It is another effect of the COVID epidemics, but the parade will be probably held in September. It has too much political significance for Russia to be skipped: it is a reaction against the perception of being surrounded by hostile powers. And that may not be just a sensation but it may derive some substance by noting the "ring of fire" of NATO bases in Western Europe along the borders with Russia. Of course, on this side of the world, we can't imagine that these bases are there for purposes different than the defense of our freedom. But you, you may perhaps understand that, on the other side, there may be a certain feeling that it could be otherwise.  

So, the yearly parade in Moscow is a political and military message directed to the West. And for a better understanding of how things are perceived in Russia, I think I could propose to you a recent talk by the Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov on the meaning of the WWII memory in Russia.

Shakhnazarov makes several interesting points, often forgotten in the West. Comparing the forces involved, he notes how at the start of WWII the Soviet Union was outnumbered in terms of population and weaker in terms of industrial production. And not just that: the Soviet Union was surrounded in 1940 by a "ring of fire" of hostile powers. It was not only Germany, on the Western front. There was a "second front" in East Asia, where Japan was a hostile power, and the Soviet Union also needed to keep troops ready against a possible attack from Turkey, and even from Iran. So, he concludes that the decision of the German government to attack the Soviet Union in 1941 was not so reckless as it is often described. It was a risky gamble but, given the forces available, it could have paid. For a while, the destiny of the world was uncertain but, eventually, the balance swung decisively against Germany -- it was a close call, though.

The second world war just followed an established pattern. It was not the first time that practically the whole Western World had ganged up against Russia: it had already happened in 1812 (Napoleon's invasion), in 1853 (the "Crimean War"), and also at the end of WWI, when there was a moment in which Russia was invaded by Western armies, even by an American one, although this story is mostly forgotten in the West (but not in Russia). And, of course, the idea of surrounding Russia with a "ring of fire" is still alive and well today, as we all know. But why?

In the 1950s in Italy, we had a typical propaganda story that said that we should have feared that the Russian Cossacks would have brought their horses to drink at the holy fountains of St. Peter's cathedral, in Rome. That, of course, never happened, but the fear of Russian armies sweeping through Western Europe remains embedded in the way of thinking of Western European leaders and military planners. Just like the fear of Western Armies marching on Moscow remains embedded in the way of thinking of Russian leaders and military planners. There is nothing rational in this idea, but it is grounded in the way things are after centuries of struggles.

So, are we - Western and Eastern Europeans - destined to remain in fear of each other forever? Possibly not. History never repeats itself, although it often rhymes. Empires come and go, but there are things that last longer than empires. One is the backbone of Eurasia: the road that connects the Eastern and the Western part of the continent. It was once called the "silk road" and now it goes under the name of the "Belt and Road Initiative." It is a connection that has been existing for more than two millennia and that survived the vagaries of states, empires, and battles. It will survive more states, empires, and battles. One day, it will make the wars in Western Europe look like what they are: petty squabbles among statelets. It will take time, but history is never in a hurry.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)