Russia and Europe are heading toward a confrontation over how President Vladimir Putin of Russia intends to use ceremonies celebrating the Red Army's liberation of Eastern Europe in 1945 for his own foreign policy agenda, analysts and diplomats said Friday.
A sharper tone of criticism, expected to emerge soon, particularly in the East European media, follows Putin's speeches Thursday marking the 60th anniversary of the Red Army's liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz, Putin said the ceremonies were "in fact the opening of the 60th anniversary of the great victory. The celebrations in Moscow in May will become the culminating event."
Those celebrations will take place on May 9 to mark 60 years since the sign- ing of the capitulation treaty by the defeated Third Reich in the Soviet military headquarters in Karlshorst, Berlin.
East European diplomats and experts, however, said Putin was using the liberation celebrations to pursue a particular agenda. "He wants to show how Russia is still the great player as it was after 1945 and that Russia can influence events," said a Polish official who asked not to be named.
"The reality is more complicated. We are in the European Union. We are in NATO and Putin backed the wrong man in Ukraine and misjudged the strength of the opposition."
Despite these setbacks, Russian analysts said the Moscow ceremonies could become "a watershed for Russian foreign policy," with Putin pitting one version of events against another held by the East Europeans.
"The next few months are going to be difficult," said Alexander Rahr, a Russian expert at the German Council for Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Russia is celebrating the liberation. But it was the beginning of a new tyranny in Eastern Europe and some parts of Western Europe. The liberation by Russia legitimated its domination of parts of Europe. That is one of the issues about these 60th anniversary ceremonies."
Few diplomats, historians and analysts question the role and courage of the Red Army in defeating the Germans in a war in which 600,000 Soviet soldiers were killed and 27 million Soviet citizens died.
What they do question is Putin's selective view of the liberation, which was quickly followed by a systematic and ruthless Communist takeover of Eastern Europe.
Putin has also been reluctant to address Moscow's role in quashing democracy, the middle classes and civil society in Eastern Europe. In contrast, he has praised the role of the KGB security forces, where he made his career.
Rahr said he believed Europe was heading either for a major dispute or else for a more pragmatic approach on the part of Russia. "I believe the celebrations on May 9 will be a dividing line between us and Russia. Sixty years ago, Russia gained legitimacy to become a major power through the liberation. It is using the anniversary to that end."
The question is how Putin intends to use the May ceremonies to push his own agenda. There was some hint of this at Auschwitz.
He used the ceremonies to set an agenda for May which, said analysts, could show how the liberation in 1945 could be compared 60 years later to the fight against terrorism - a point Putin unequivocably made.
"We must also be aware of all the threats of the modern world. Terrorism is among them and it is no less dangerous and cunning that fascism," he said in uncompromising language more reminiscent of the cold war.
"Let's make everything possible so that we, the modern-day politicians and statesmen, never feel remorse for our words and deeds, so that we could be honest and open to everyone who paid with their suffering, tears, blood or lives to bring that victory day closer," he added.
And at Auschwitz, even though there was an opportunity, Putin made no mention of the waves of anti-Semitism and trials against Jews used by Stalin to quash dissent or the persistent discrimination meted out to Jews in Russia until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The problem of Putin is that he has not decided how Russia can find a place in the new world order," said Rahr. "Under Putin, Russia is a kind of hybrid - a mixture of the old Soviet domination with an attempt at modernization."
A German diplomat based in the region was more blunt. "Putin wants to
retain the status quo and his power."