Are we heading towards World War 3? - opinion

It is not World War III yet, but we have now entered a decisive stage in the long war against Moscow.

 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects via a video conference call at a residence outside Moscow, on Monday.  (photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting of the Council for Strategic Development and National Projects via a video conference call at a residence outside Moscow, on Monday.
(photo credit: Sputnik/Kremlin/Reuters)

Some historians view the two world wars as a single military conflict with a twenty-year truce in-between. In other words, it was a long European war to contain Germany. And while Germany under the kaiser was quite different from Hiter’s Reich, it is possible to trace the roots of Nazi brutality all the way back into German history.

There was another long conflict in the 20th century, the war between the democratic West and anti-democratic Russia. However, it is only now, when it is entering its second, “hot” stage, that we are becoming aware that it has been waged all along, and also with prolonged truce in-between active engagements.

Actually, it began as a war that didn’t happen. In September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany because they had been committed to defend Poland from a foreign attack. But Hitler’s tanks were not alone to violate the Polish border. Less than three weeks later Stalin’s Red Army marched in from the east. Their actions were coordinated by the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which stipulated exactly how much of the Polish territory each dictator would grab.

It can even be argued that the deal encouraged Hitler to attack Poland. Had Stalin joined the two western democracies in opposing the German attack, or even remained neutra instead of jumping on an opportunity to divvy up Europe in alliance with the Nazis, the history of World War II could have been quite different.

After crushing Polish resistance, the two armies held a joint military parade in the town of Brest-Litovsk. Stalin then executed some 22,000 Polish military officers and other Poles. While the Soviet NKVD didn’t target Jews specifically, better off Polish Jews were rounded up as class enemies; their numbers included business owners, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Those Jews from nazi-occupied Poland who were able to escape into the Soviet-held territory were often sent to inhsopitable parts of Central Asia or put into labor camps.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw building  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw building (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The USSR's World War 2 double-play

For nearly two years thereafter, the Soviet Union provided material support to the German war effort, enabling Hitler to crush France and bomb the British Isles. Yet, even though the USSR had been, along with Germany, an aggressor in the war against Poland, and for all intents and purposes remained Hitler’s ally, Britain never declared war on Moscow. Apparently, Churchill figured that the two dictators would eventually fall out.

Indeed, their honeymoon ended when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, bringing it into the anti-Hitler coalition. Hitler’s attack changed its status from an enemy to an ally, but didn’t in any way change the nature of Stalin’s regime. The war on Soviet Russia that should have been declared in 1939 was merely postponed by a decade.

BY THE end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union and the West were locked in what became known as the Cold War. No longer in alliance with Hitler, the Soviet Union carried on exactly as if it still were. Countries in Eastern and Central Europe, including Poland, went from German occupation to Soviet oppression and suffered wave after wave of brutal purges. Stalin even emulated Hitler by turning violently anti-Semitic and unleashing a brutal campaign against the Jews in the USSR and Eastern Europe under the label of rootless cosmopolitism.

The two sides in the Cold War, armed as they were with nuclear weapons, didn’t face each other on the battlefield. However, proxy wars raged around the globe, from Indochina to Africa and from Latin America to the Middle East. Millions died in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In the end, the West won, Eastern Europe turned westward and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Initially, Russia appeared to move away from authoritarianism and expansionism. It seemed determined to build a democratic, peaceful state and break with its sordid past.

And yet, during the 1990s, Russia was often compared to the Weimar Republic. There was the initial enthusiasm for democracy, which was soon blunted by economic crises, inflation and lawlessness. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union grew and a “stab in the back” theory emerged, claiming that the Soviet Union collapsed not because of the discontent of its people, economic problems and ethnic tensions, but as a result of American machinations. This echoed the canard spread in Germany after the defeat in World War I, claiming that the army was betrayed.

In Germany, Hitler seized power abruptly. In Russia, the process was gradual, building up over the past twenty years. Vladimir Putin and his propaganda have been skillfully playing on and promoting Russian revanchist resentments that are not unlike the same sentiments in Germany that opened the way to power to the Nazis.

Modern Russia

The results in Russia are similar, too, and parallels can be carried further. The annexation of mostly Russian-speaking Crimea and the occupation of Donbas in 2014 echoed the seizure of the Sudetenland by Hitler, who also claimed to be bringing German speakers home to the German Reich. And of course the invasion of Ukraine in February of this year harks back to the invasion of Poland.

Since the fall of communism in 1991, there has been a truce between the West and Moscow. It has now come to an end. True, Putin’s Russia is a very different state than Brezhnev’s USSR, but Hitler’s Germany was also different from the Kaiser’s. Compared to the Soviets, Putin is more radical, resentful and ruthless. For some time now he and his propagandists have been saying that Russia is not just fighting Ukraine but is engaging in a war with NATO and, especially, the United States. Now, the West is waking up to this reality, as well.

It is not World War III yet, but we have now entered a decisive stage in the long war against Moscow.

Born in the USSR, the writer has lived in the US since 1975, having emigrated on an Israeli visa during the Let My People Go campaign for Soviet Jewry. He has worked as an economist for 35 years, including positions at Standard and Poor’s and The Economist Intelligence Unit. Over the past 10 years, he has published four murder mysteries set in Moscow in the 1960s.