Putin’s Poland obsession

The Bell

Hello! This week our main story is on why President Vladimir Putin has become fixated on Poland’s role in the events leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. We also look at a new wave of pressure on opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and why the biggest deal of 2020 could be the sale of banking giant Sberbank from the Central Bank to the government

Putin’s obsession with Poland’s role in WW2 outbreak

Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have a new hobby — ‘exposing’ Poland’s role in the events that led up to the Second World War. He is so consumed by his hobby that he brought up the subject at four different public appearances in the space of a week: including with leaders of neighboring countries and a group of prominent Russian businessmen. 

  • The first time Poland and the Second World War came up was during Putin’s annual press conference December 19 in response to a pre-prepared question. Putin said he is planning to write an article about the events of 1938-1939 using “materials from the archives”. The topic came up again the following day when Putin talked about Poland during a summit of leaders from eight post-Soviet states. On December 24, Putin spoke about Poland during a meeting at the Ministry of Defense, and it also came up at pre-New Year events with the State Duma and the Federation Council. Finally, he brought up the subject December 25 at a meeting with Russian business leaders. 
  • Putin’s obsession appears to be a response to a September resolution passed by the European Parliament, which stated that the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany “paved the way” for the beginning of the Second World War. Putin’s rebuttals echo those traditionally put forward by Russian conservatives: (i) European democracies bear the same responsibility for the war because, in 1938, they signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler (it’s difficult to argue with this); and (ii) Poland bears responsibility because, under the Munich Agreement, it took a piece of Czechoslovakia (this is debatable, but we will leave the argument to historians). 
  • The world marked 80 years since the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in September. It is a painful topic for Russia because state ideology today draws heavily on the importance of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany and the enormous price in human life that was paid. One symbol of the nationalistic euphoria that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 was bumper stickers reading “we can do it again”, meaning that, in a new conflict with a European power, Russian troops could again fight their way across the continent.
  • In 2020, Russia will celebrate a different anniversary — 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany. Lavish celebrations are being planned, and United States President Donald Trump has promised to attend the military parade on Red Square. 
  • Antagonism between Poland and Russia is nothing new. Russia has a long-standing conflict with the current Polish government over the destruction of Soviet-era war memorials, and Putin is known for his dim view of Warsaw politicians. And the feeling is mutual: last year, the Pew Research Group found that Polish people had Europe’s lowest level of confidence in Putin (7 percent) — a figure that has remained unchanged since 2007. 

Why the world should care

Many have suggested that Putin’s age (68) means he may be having ‘big thoughts’ about history, time and other existential issues. But political scientist Kirill Rogov pointed out (Rus) that Putin doesn’t just criticize Poland, he is also judging the West for its use of  “international law” to define territorial borders. It remains unclear exactly what Putin is hinting at here. It could be an attempt to justify the annexation of Crimea, or lay the ground for a future separation of rebel-held Eastern Ukraine region from the rest of the country. Or it could be a broader hint that Russia’s Western border remains an open question. 


The state ramps up pressure on Navalny

As Russia’s New Year holidays approach, opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have come under new pressure. First, Foundation employee Ruslan Shaveddinov was forcibly conscripted and shipped off to serve on the remote Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. Then, the Foundation’s offices were raided by police.  

  • Shaveddinov was taken in for questioning Monday by the Investigative Committee, and did not answer his phone for 16 hours. Eventually, he got in touch from Novaya Zemlya. All Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27 are required by law to serve a year in the army — but there are exceptions. Shaveddinov said his health means he is unfit to serve, and he has attempted to prove this in court. 
  • The Foundation’s Moscow office was searched Thursday. Masked police officers sawed through an iron door, burst into the office, and carried off all the laptops they could find. Officially, the search was related to the Foundation’s refusal to delete a video about corruption linked to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. 
  • Navalny believes — and it’s not unreasonable to share his suspicions — that the real reason for the pressure was a video he published later the same day. This video was about the private jets used by Medvedev’s wife, Svetlana, and journalist Nailya Asker-Zade, who is believed to be the lover of Andrey Kostin, the head of state-owned banking giant VTB (we wrote about the saga here). 
  • While VTB has said it sold the private jets in question long ago, Nalvalny’s new video showed this isn’t the case — the general director of VTB Leasing and the owner of Skyline Aviation, which manages the private jets, are the same person. 

Why the world should care 

This year’s main political event was opposition protests in Moscow over the summer, in which the Foundation and Navalny’s supporters played an important role — and this has re-focused law enforcement attention on the Foundation. But enforced conscription is a new tactic. In the summer, the authorities promised to go after draft-dodging protesters, and now this promise appears to have become a reality. It’s possible that, next year, forced conscription may become a much more common phenomenon. 



The state is looking to buy Sberbank — from itself 

The biggest deal in Russia next year looks like it could be the government’s purchase of a majority stake in state-owned Sberbank from the Central Bank. The reason for such a transfer of state assets from one pocket to another is dividends: at the moment, the Central Bank transfers them to the government’s coffers, but a special law is needed every year to mandate this process. If the government becomes the owner, then Sberbank’s dividends will automatically belong to the government. The mystery is what price will be used for such a deal: a source told The Bell that the Central Bank is only prepared to sell at market price ($45.1 billion). This week, Reuters reported (Rus) that the deal could be financed with the surplus from Russia’s National Wealth Fund, generated by excess revenue from oil sales, which currently stands at $29 billion. The original idea was to invest these funds in huge infrastructure projects, which may be benefit several of Putin’s old friends. Now, it appears the Central Bank is jostling for a place at the table. We will find out in 2020 how the deal will be structured, and if the money will come from the National Wealth Fund. 


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