By Vincent J. Truglia
Most of you have probably heard about the results of the European Parliamentary elections held between May 22-25. The big news was that Eurosceptic and nationalist parties made big gains across most parts of the EU. Preliminary results show that in the new parliament, these parties may hold slightly more than 17% of the seats. The only far left Eurosceptic party to win big was Syriza, which triumphed in Greece, and will likely do quite well in the next Greek elections.
The National Front and UKIP
Most importantly, in France, the far-right wing National Front Party won a plurality of votes for the first time ever in a national election. In the UK, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants the UK to leave the EU, also won a plurality of the votes, easily outdistancing the ruling Conservative Party.
Why does this matter to Russia?
The answer is easy to understand if we remember that countries have a collective memory based on their history. How many times have you heard that Germans will not tolerate inflation because of the their experience with the effects of inflation on their country following World War I? This German view is simply taken for granted and affects ECB policy-making to this day.
World War I
Countries ruled by ultra-conservative, and/or Fascist regimes since World War I have invaded modern Russia on at least two occasions (three if you count the anti-Communist “invasion” by the Western powers following the 1917 revolution). World War I is complicated because the war began under the Czar, an autocratic regime by almost any standard. More relevantly, when the Bolsheviks or Communists came to power, Western powers came to the assistance of anti-Communist forces within Russia and actually sent troops to try to overthrow the new Communist government. Obviously they didn’t succeed. In fact, Western intervention made the Ukrainian situation so risky for the new Communist government, that it didn’t move the capital of the Ukraine back to Kiev until the 1930s.
World War II
World War II is the real turning point in modern Russian history. The invasion by Nazi Germany, and many of Nazi Germany’s allies, caused the death of tens of millions of Russians and others within the Soviet Union. Known as the Great Patriotic War, it is etched into Russia’s collective psyche.
Looking back, Russians know that a small right wing party, the Nazis, slowly took over the German government as its electoral strength increased. This obviously proved disastrous for Russia.
Let’s fast-forward to today. What we witnessed across the EU was a surge in far right parties. In Greece, the Neo-Nazi, New Dawn party, which uses a modified version of the swastika as one of its symbols, will hold seats in the new parliament. In addition, the rise of ultra-nationalists in Austria and Hungary are surely viewed with alarm in Moscow.
If you remember, the constant Russian refrain against the Ukrainian government is that it is full of “fascists.” Frankly, they are not totally off the mark, because the Svoboda Party, which is blatantly anti-Russian and anti-Jewish, plays an important part in the existing Ukrainian government. Svoboda Party members are also often supporters of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which reveres Ukrainian Nazi collaborators from the World War II period.
Looking at the Ukrainian situation from Putin’s perspective, he and most Russians are worried about the growth of the right wing in Europe. To make matters worse, NATO has moved further east including not just Poland, but the Baltic republics. In addition, the newly elected Ukrainian President has indicated that Ukraine will likely sign a trade pact with the EU. He has also said that he will take back the Crimea, now an integral part of Russia.
As I have written before, Putin wants the Eastern Ukraine, if not all the Ukraine, to be a full member of the Eurasian Economic Community. The Ukraine’s tilt towards the West will make this less likely.
My forecast is that the Ukrainian Civil War will continue, and likely grow worse. Those who think there will be an accommodation by both sides in the war are simply deluding themselves. The EU election results only solidify my views regarding how Russia will deal with the Ukraine, Russia’s traditional border region. Given Russia’s modern history and political developments in Western and Central Europe, it is appropriate for Putin to be concerned. The events in Odessa where hundreds of pro-Russian supports were burned to death in a locked building while the police did nothing, reminded every Russian of how the Nazis did the same thing to them during WW II. This is felt far stronger than German concerns over inflation. This is life and death from a Russian perspective.
As always, Clear and Candid.