Historian Antony Beevor: Appeasement is ineffective when dealing with dictators like Putin

Vladimir Putin: Russia’s rulers will not win the war, says military historian Antony Beevor. (Source: Valery Sharifulin/imago-images-pictures)

According to British military historian Antony Beevor, history has demonstrated that Vladimir Putin wants to make Russia “great” again through war. But where does this murderous ideology come from? Military historian Antony Beevor points to the Russian Civil War and compares Putin to Hitler.

In an Interview with T-online magazine, Mr. Beevor highlights the importance of learning from history to prevent the repetition of past mistakes and the dangers of appeasement in dealing with dictators like Putin.

The notion that Vladimir Putin is a product of the Soviet Union is frequently reiterated. But Russia’s president is emulating entirely different figures in history: the white generals who have fought a cruel civil war with the Bolsheviks in Russia since 1917. But why does Russia wage its wars so brutally, is it merciless even towards its soldiers?

Antony Beevor, born in 1946, is one of the best-known military historians in the world. Beevor has published numerous World War II bestsellers, including Stalingrad, D-Day, The Second World War, and Arnhem. For his services, the historian was raised to the British peerage in 2017. His latest work “Russia. Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921” has just been published.

Antony Beevor: The military historian researched the Russian Civil War. (Source: Guillem López/imago-images-pictures)

t-online: Mr. Beevor, against the background of your decades of experience as a military historian: Who will win the war – Russia or Ukraine?

Antony Beevor: I get asked that question regularly, like at dinners with guests. Unfortunately I have to owe a satisfying answer. But I can put together a kind of tableau of the possibilities: In any case, Vladimir Putin will not win the war. Because for that he would have to conquer the whole of Ukraine, which it doesn’t look like.

Could defeat in Ukraine once again seal Putin’s political fate?

That would be my next thought. A palace coup is by no means unrealistic, but what would the consequences be? Putin’s successor could be even worse than himself. There are terrifying hardliners in Russian politics. The fundamental problem, however, is that Putin has not made any succession arrangements – because he always relies on the principle of divide and rule.

Would a new civil war in Russia be possible in the event of an attempted coup?

In any case, this possibility cannot be ruled out completely. Who knows what would happen if Russia’s army collapsed? In any case, a look at Russian politics reveals numerous ambitious men who have few scruples. In any case, a new Russian civil war would be a nightmare for the West. For an involvement in it would prove enormously dangerous. The West wouldn’t dare either. As I said, this is just a mind game. But definitely a possibility we shouldn’t rule out.

With “Russia. Revolution and Civil War 1917–1921” you have just published your new book about the Russian Civil War. A historic event that also plays a major role in Vladimir Putin’s mind.

Vladimir Putin is not actually a creature of the Soviet Union. That’s a big misconception about him. No, he rather follows the ideology that white emigrants once devised in exile and other places.

White émigrés were called those fleeing the victorious Bolsheviks during and after the Civil War.

Correct. There they sat in exile in Paris and elsewhere – fantasizing about a holy, Slavic and orthodox Russia with the right to control the entire Eurasian landmass. From Vladivostok to Dublin. These are dimensions of megalomania that can only be compared to Adolf Hitler. Based on their ideology, they believed they could occupy neighboring countries at will. Whether they liked it or not. Putin is just as shameless, he has never had any respect for democracy or people’s free will.

Putin thinks he is on a historic mission. He wants to restore the Russian Empire by force according to his ideas, as the generals of the so-called White Army did in the Russian Civil War as opponents of the Bolsheviks with their Red Army.

Two of the best-known white generals were Anton Ivanovich Denikin and Vladimir Oskarovich Kappel. Putin had your mortal remains transferred to Russia, and monuments were erected to you. That was a gesture that received too little attention. And take a look around today’s Kremlin: you won’t find a hammer or a sickle-like in the Soviet Union – but the double-headed eagle of the tsars.

For a long time, Putin was able to present the West as a trustworthy statesman. Has Russia’s president always had imperial ambitions?

Putin is obsessed with Ukraine, just as he mourns the loss of Belarus and Kazakhstan, for example. He never got over it. Just as his role model Denikin once defeated in the Russian civil war.

Let’s talk about this conflict, which, at least in our Western perspective, is overlaid by the First World War.

World War I was the original catastrophe of the 20th century. But the Russian Civil War of 1917-1921 proved to be the most influential conflict of the 20th century because of its aftermath. Because he created a never-ending cycle of fear and terror through the enormous number of victims and an almost incomprehensible power of destruction, which was overlaid by overwhelming cruelty.

Please explain in more detail.

The bourgeoisie was terribly afraid of the Bolsheviki, which contributed to the emergence of fascism and its spread in many parts of Europe. The left, in turn, feared the right, which threatened to crush liberalism. In the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, about which I wrote a book, this vicious circle of left-right rhetoric was clearly expressed. Francisco Largo Caballero, once described as the Spanish Lenin, threatened to crush the entire Spanish bourgeoisie. To give just one example of escalation.

After all, the dispute between capitalism and communism is decided in favor of the former.

We are now in the second Cold War, it is at this moment about the conflict between authoritarianism and democracy. This debate is going to be long as well.

Let’s stay with the Russian civil war, the course of which is difficult to predict. For example, after the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Red Army fought against the White Army, which consisted primarily of monarchists and ultra-nationalists, but also left-wing opponents of Lenin. There was also a Green Army, consisting of peasants, who fought the Red and White Army at the same time.

It is indeed a complicated story. In addition to the armies you mentioned, various Western troops were also involved in the Russian Civil War. Among them were the Czech Legion, Japanese and Americans, for example, while in Ukraine nationalists fought for the country’s independence. I actually wanted to write a book about the Russian Civil War back in the 1980s, but my publisher at the time said no. That was a good thing, I wasn’t that far yet. In addition, the archives were closed at that time.

Anton Denikin (3rd from left): The white general lost the Russian Civil War. (Source: Archive Gerstenberg/ullstein-bild)

Civil wars are often particularly violent, but reading your new book, the extreme violence of the Russian Civil War is striking. Heinous crimes were committed against Jews in particular. Where does the cruelty come from?

Some historians would point to the so-called Mongol invasion of the 13th century, which was a historically traumatic experience for Russia. On the other hand, some blame this peculiar notion in Russia that they are constantly surrounded by enemies. There may be a grain of truth in each, but if we’re honest, we weren’t any different in Western Europe until the Wars of Religion in the 17th century. Here, too, the population of cities was massacred if they did not surrender in time, and in certain instances, they were suppressed regardless.

The violence that Russia’s army is capable of is also used against its soldiers. The men are abused and humiliated to this day.

Soldiers in Western armies have been treated better since the 19th century, but little has changed in Russia. This is one explanation for the enormous violence in Russia’s wars in general and in the civil war in particular. Years ago I also wrote a book about the end of the war in Berlin in 1945, one point being the mass rapes by Red Army soldiers at the time. These men were treated inhumanely by their commanders. On whom did they vent their anger and resentment? To the weakest, the women. We are seeing something similar in Ukraine today. Unfortunately. There is something psychologically wrong with the Russian army. The brutalization of their soldiers on such a scale is deeply shocking.

Lenin: The revolutionary leader decided the Russian civil war for the Bolsheviks. (Source: dpa/ullstein-bild)

However, the fear of the Russian soldiers only strengthened the will of the Ukrainians to resist. How could Putin be so wrong in his grip on Ukraine?

The Bolshevik revolutionary leader Lenin, who also won the Russian Civil War in 1917, was in a way a genius. This was expressed in the fact that he was able to recognize the possibilities for action and weaknesses of his opponents. After the February 1917 revolution, nobody had given the Bolsheviks credit for anything, tiny as they were. But then came the October Revolution and Lenin’s hour. Hitler had a talent similar to his. But Putin doesn’t have a genius – he miscalculated.

Lenin had the advantage of knowing exactly what he wanted. His white opponents were rather divided, they only shared hatred for the Bolsheviks.

Correct. To a certain extent, the Bolsheviks were able to focus their ruthlessness on a single goal. Putin had similar plans, but he had not counted on the resilience of Ukraine or the remarkable reaction of the West.

How do you rate Putin’s personality?

Putin is a gambler and a gangster. This is exactly what leads to a huge problem. In the first Cold War, the leaders of the West and East could almost certainly trust that mutual agreements would be honored. This is different from the new Cold War that has now begun. Would you still trust Putin?

No. Neither does Ukraine.

To which Ukraine has every right. If at some point China or another country acts as a peace mediator, it will be difficult. Because we can hardly persuade Ukraine to do something that it doesn’t want. For example, giving up parts of their territory in return for peace.

This attempt proved fallacious as early as 1938 with the Munich Agreement when the Western powers ceded the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Hitler.

That’s the way it is. Duff Cooper, a relative of my wife, resigned from the government as British Navy Secretary in protest at the time in. As the only one, mind you. Appeasement does not help against dictators. By now, this lesson of history should have been fully understood.

Mr. Beevor, thank you for the interview.

Source: t-online