Russia accused of training German neo-Nazis

Moscow yesterday: Russia has a far bigger standing army than any European nation. © Getty

Is Russia a threat to Europe? Germany says that a paramilitary camp near St Petersburg trains neo-Nazis in close combat. And, yesterday, Vladimir Putin held a huge military parade in Moscow.

Thousands of soldiers. Columns of tanks. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, looked on yesterday as the military parade commemorated the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany.

In a week’s time, the country will vote on giving Putin, a former KGB spy, the opportunity to stay in the Kremlin until 2036. He has been in power almost continuously since 1999.

During that time, Russia has asserted itself as a dominant player on the global stage, invading and taking over parts of neighbouring Georgia and Ukraine. It has also come to the defence of brutal anti-democratic figures in Syria and Libya.

And, now, German spy agencies have warned that Russian experts are training extremist neo-Nazis in terrorist techniques. They say participants were trained in a special camp near the Russian city of St Petersburg in using weapons and explosives, as well as for close military combat.

In recent years, Moscow has threatened military retaliation if Sweden or Finland joins Nato. Russia has also simulated nuclear attacks against Sweden and tried to carry out an assassination using deadly poison in Salisbury.

Experts say that instead of confronting its enemies directly, Russia focuses on being able to “disrupt and destabilise”, encouraging violence and political disorder from within.

Such Cold War-like tactics echo the early part of Putin’s career. A new book claims that, as a young spy, he was in charge of running both left-wing terror groups and prominent neo-Nazis.

Russia has also been successfully using digital weapons to undermine the West. Democrats in the US have long obsessed over Russia’s involvement in getting Trump elected through the use of disinformation and fake news.

But years of breaking the law have led to Russia becoming isolated from the international community and weighed down by economic sanctions.

The impression of a strong leader willing to take on the world keeps Putin popular at home. As the former president of Georgia puts it, “Whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive.”

So, is Russia a threat to Europe?

Sabre rattling

No. Putin needs to keep up the aggression in order to keep his power base. Making speeches about “NATO encirclement” and “Russophobia” drums up nationalist support, but it doesn’t change the fact that Russia isn’t even in the world’s top 10 richest countries. Being able to invade and bomb other countries might look powerful, but it poses no real threat to established democracies.

Yes. It isn’t all about money and elections. Yesterday’s grandiose military parade hinted at Putin’s more imperial ambitions. A modern-age tsar, he wants to reassert Russia as a global power and achieve its centuries-old dream of reaching “warm waters”. While Crimea is a good start, the Balkans, with its access to the Mediterranean, might be a future goal. Former allies of the USSR, some inside the EU, lie in between.

You Decide

  1. Which do you think is the most threatening country in the world?
  2. Do you think aggression is a sign of weakness?

Activities

  1. Using the expert links below, write a one-page biography of President Vladimir Putin.
  2. Write a short story set in 2050, after a massive Russian invasion of Europe.

Some People Say...

“The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.”

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), the first German chancellor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that Russia has the capability to claim a piece of European territory. Foreign policy expert Richard Sokolsky says that, due to new weaponry, Nato is no longer that much stronger than the Russian army. “According to the current consensus [...], a Russian invasion force could quickly overwhelm Nato defences.”
What do we not know?
How Nato would respond to a Russian invasion. As the former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, puts it, “After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra?” As Ukraine saw with the annexation of Crimea, the willingness to stop Russia with anything more than words and sanctions is hard to find.

Word Watch

KGB
Government department of the Soviet Union, which translates as the Committee for State Security. It was responsible for intelligence operations, carrying out a role similar to that of the CIA.
Kremlin
A central fortress in a city, used to refer to a complex in Moscow with five palaces and four cathedrals. The Russian government is run from within this citadel.
Neo-Nazis
People belonging to a political organisation whose beliefs are inspired by or reminiscent of Nazism.
Retaliation
Counter-attack.
Nato
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded in 1949 to unite Western democracies in Europe and North America against the perceived growing threat of the USSR. It now has 30 members.
Simulated
Imitating the conditions of something, especially as a training exercise.
Salisbury
Cathedral city in Southern England. In 2018, a former Russian double agent who lived there, Sergei Skripal, was the subject of an assassination attempt.
Destabilise
Upset the stability of (a region or system); cause unrest or instability in.
Spy
Politico Magazine says that when Vladimir Putin first arrived in Dresden as a mid-level KGB officer in 1985, he was in charge of handling anti-Western terrorists.
Sanctions
A penalty or punishment for disobeying a law or rule. In diplomacy, these are internationally-agreed penalties, usually economic, imposed on a country that goes against the rules, for instance by invading another country.
Escalates
Make or become more intense or serious.
Grandiose
Impressive and imposing in appearance or style, especially pretentiously so.
Imperial
Relating to an empire.
Tsar
Title given to an emperor of Russia before the revolution of 1917. The word was originally used for the Bulgarian monarchs in the 10th Century, but can also be used to refer to anyone with absolute power.

Subjects

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