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Eastern Partnership Summit still holds sway over Ukraine policy

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1The echoes of November 2013's Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius may have long since faded but, with Ukraine on the brink, the results of this meeting continue to reverberate throughout Europe especially its eastern part. 

With EU diplomats meeting on 28 April to agree a broadening of sanctions over links to separatist actions in Ukraine,  the debate on the future of the  EU´s Eastern Partnership policy (ENP) has tended to be overshadowed in the unfolding crisis.

It is worth recalling that the ENP is a flagship EU multilateral programme aimed at development of regional cooperation with six former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

The whole policy was thrown into confusion after ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a treaty on association and free trade with the EU at the EU summit in Vilnius in November 2013 and the subsequent dramatic events in Ukraine.

The alleged "illegitimate" regime in Kiev has been used by Russia as a defence of its current actions and, while presidential elections in Ukraine on 25 May offer fresh hope of a peaceful resolution, the crisis currently shows no signs of abating.

Observers say that, six months later, the fall-out from Vilnius is still being felt and that lessons must be learned from the perceived failure of Lithuania, which as holder of the EU presidency in the second half of 2013 was charged with the task of overseeing the signing of the trade deal with Ukraine.

Some even argue that Lithuania brought Europe to confrontation with Russia and also brought Ukraine to the precipice.

Moscow-based Justinas Valutis, an experienced commentator on EU-Russia affairs, agrees, saying, "There is no doubt that Ukraine's refusal to sign the free trade treaty with the EU in Vilnius was a major blow to EU's prestige. The event itself and its immediate aftermath also unmasked the sickening arrogance, the double standards and the limited political influence of the Brussels elite.

"During the run-up to the summit, the EU went to great lengths in order to swing public opinion in its favour, stating how good and generous this supranational organization will be for Ukraine and its people. But there was a problem of communication from the beginning. All those promised `good things to come´ were defined in a very abstract way, while Ukraine on the other hand was required to carry out very concrete steps if it sought to rub shoulders with the 'Brussels club'.

"But to tie the second largest country in the old continent to the EU with the help of discriminatory association treaty was never going to be an easy task."

Valutis is particularly scathing of Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaite, a former MEP, who chaired the Vilnius summit and who, he says "released a tirade of bitter words as she joined the common condemnation of Yanukovich's decision not to sign the treaty.

"But the head of Lithuania, who likes to present her country as a role model to its Eastern neighbours should be the last person to lecture others on missed opportunities as she herself  rules a republic with ballooning government debt, a stagnant economy and mass emigration on such a scale that it´s become a threat to national security. Instead of using is unlimited energy and scarce resources to please the powerful ones in Brussels and stir emotions elsewhere, Lithuania should clean up the mess and revatalise the economy at home, just as its northern neighbours in Finland and  Estonia successfully do."

Another keen Kremlin-watcher, author Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey, asks: "Who are the ones who have destabilized Ukraine? It was not Russia, it was those behind the putsch in Kiev in February. They forget that Yanukovich was democratically elected in 2010; they forget to mention the record of Yulia Timoshenko (who allegedly called for the murder of Russians in a recent telephone call) when she was Prime Minister; they forget that after the putsch the first draft law passed by the Ukrainian Rada (Parliament) was anti-Russian legislation.

"They forget that the call 'Death to Muscovite' rang round Maidan during the anti-Government protests orchestrated by political opportunists.They forget that the Jewish community was advised to leave Kiev during the disturbances because of calls to murder Russians and Jews.     "They forget that half the population in Ukraine speaks Russian as a mother language and forget that one third of Ukrainians consider themselves ethnically Russian."

Bancroft-Hinchey adds: "So let us not blame Russia, which was sitting back minding its own business. Let us not blame the Crimeans, who risked being the victims of allegedly planned legislation declaring all Russia supporters "non-citizens" and rendering them to the status of foreigners inside their own homes. This is what it is all about.

"Let us blame an EU association agreement which would have seen EU goods flood Ukraine but hindered the flow of Ukrainian goods the other way (Yanukovich was fighting against this) and which in turn would´ve seen Ukraine's industry, agriculture, fisheries and jobs all destroyed along with the future of its youth."

Concern about the role of extremists in the current unrest has been voiced by Human Rights Watch which has urged the EU and the US to "press the interim government in Kiev to ensure that efforts to disarm members of paramilitary groups holding illegal weapons include the extreme nationalist paramilitary group Right Sector."

Human Rights Watch Europe and Central Asia Director Hugh Williamson said: "The government should hold Right Sector to account for all criminal acts attributable to its members."

UK Socialist MEP Richard Howitt, his party's foreign affairs spokesman in Brussels, said: "First and foremost, responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine is with the country's own former leadership, its levels of corruption, and the lack of conciliation between groups within its own population."

UKIP MEP Roger Helmer said:“The EU is starting to understand its folly in seeking to offer funding and EU membership to a country which is certainly regarded by Russia as its 'near abroad', and in some ways almost as part of Russia itself.  Now that Russia has responded, the EU finds itself acutely embarrassed, and unable to formulate an effective response.  It is even chided by President Obama for its pusillanimous reaction.   President Roosevelt’s advice was “to tread softly and carry a big stick”.  The EU failed to tread softly, and then found it had no stick at all.

"This is a lesson and a wake-up call to those who still pretend that the UK gains 'influence' by its membership of the EU.  In this situation, the EU has no influence at all."

Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister from 1998 to 2004 and president of the Russian International Affairs Council, said: "Unfortunately, it is obvious that Ukraine is now a tinderbox ready to explode, and the consequences will be serious for everyone."

Further comment came from the Brussels-based Michael Emerson, an associate senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. The  highly respected commentator says the EU should accept some responsibility for the Vilnius "fiasco" for having drafted agreements with an "inadequate balance between incentives and obligations". "It will require a major recalibration of policies to get the unstable new status quo back onto sound strategic lines."

This, he suggests, must include a "rebuilding the remnants of the EU’s neighbourhood policy" and "promoting a Greater Eurasia concept fit for the 21st century that would embrace the whole of the European and Asian landmass".

Emerson says the crisis may in fact have sounded the death knell for the ENP, adding: "From beginning of ENP in 2004, almost a decade ago, criticisms were made by many independent observers that the proposed ‘action plans’ saw an inadequate matching of incentives from the EU alongside the reform-oriented obligations that the partner states were expected to follow. This did not change as the years went by.

"The huge loading of EU legislation in the AA/DCFTA with Ukraine, which was the first text to be negotiated and served as template for the Armenian, Georgian and Moldovan texts, seems to be only a lightened version of what Norway accepts as part of its European Economic Area (EEA).

"The blame has to be shared by the political leaders of EU member states and the technocrats in the European Commission. The politicians are primarily to blame for being unable to overcome disagreement over whether the East Europeans should be granted ‘membership perspective’."

So, what of the future? While he does not absolve Russia of criticism, Emerson says the EU and Ukraine have created a "new strategic status quo which is a big mess".

He added: "The EU’s neighbourhood policy is in tatters. Ukraine is in a state of deep political and economic crisis, as well as having surrendered its independence.

"Relations between the EU and Russia descend to the most serious confrontation and distrust since the end of the Cold War, with the possible exception of the 2008 war in Georgia."

He went on: "But out of this ugly situation there should constructed a fresh start, and fresh strategic thinking on the side of the EU in particular. The general political context in the EU makes this opportune.

"With the economy recovering from the euro crisis, and a new political period about to begin with renewal of the European Parliament and the leadership of the Commission and European Council, with the drift towards Eurosceptic populism widespread, there is a political market for ideas for a major advance in EU foreign policy."

Martin Banks

Belgium

British Legion seeks story behind World War II casualties

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Two Britons, killed during the WW2 Blitzkrieg, rest in the pretty Flemish cemetery of Peutie, among countless Belgian ex-combatants. Former UK journalist Dennis Abbott recently put crosses on the graves on behalf of the Royal British Legion during the Armistice commemoration week in November.

But he is also looking for answers.

What were those two young British boys actually doing in Peutie? And above all: who are Lucy and Hannah, the two Belgian women who maintained their graves for years?

Abbott has been living in Belgium for 20 years. He is a former journalist for, among others, The Sun and The Daily Mirror in London and was subsequently a spokesman for the European Commission. He is also a member of the Royal British Legion, a charity which raises money to support serving and former serving members of the Royal Navy, the British Army and the Royal Air Force facing hardship, as well as their families.

One of their tasks is also to keep alive the memory of those who died for our freedom. Indeed, Abbott was a reservist in Iraq for British troops in 2003.

"On the occasion of the annual commemoration of the Armistice, I looked into stories related to the Battle of Belgium in May 1940," says Abbott. "I discovered the graves of two British soldiers of the Grenadier Guards in Peutie. They are Leonard 'Len' Walters and Alfred William Hoare. They both died on the night of 15 to 16 May. Len was barely 20 and Alfred 33. I was curious why their last resting place was in the village cemetery and not in one of the big war cemeteries in Brussels or Heverlee.

“I found an article in a British provincial newspaper explaining that the two soldiers were first buried in the grounds of a local castle - presumably Batenborch - and then taken to the village cemetery.”

Abbott added: "The case won't let me go. I have looked into how the soldiers ended up in Peutie. Apparently, the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards fought alongside the Belgian 6th Regiment Jagers te Voet. But nowhere is a specific mention of the German attack on Peutie to be found.

“The Belgian and British troops fought a rearguard action during a phased withdrawal beyond the Brussels-Willebroek Canal and then to the Channel coast.

"It seems that Peutie was the divisional headquarters of the Jagers te Voet Regiment. My guess is that the staff of the regiment and the British Guardsmen might have been housed at Batenborch Castle. So the castle was a target for the Germans.

"Were Walters and Hoare guarding the place? Were they seconded to the Jagers te Voet to ensure the rearguard in the steady retreat towards Dunkirk? Or were they cut off from their regiment during the fighting?”

"The date on the memorial stone, 15-16 May 1940, is also strange. Why two dates?

“My suspicion is that they died at night during enemy shelling or as a result of a night raid by the Luftwaffe. In the chaos of war, it cannot be ruled out either that they were victims of 'friendly fire'.”

Abbott has also discovered that two women from Peutie, Lucy and Hannah, looked after Len and William's graves for years.

"That intrigues me. What was their relationship with the fallen soldiers? Did they know them? I think Lucy died. The question is whether Hannah is still alive. Their relatives are probably still living in Peutie.  Does anyone know more? On both graves someone has laid some beautiful chrysanthemums.”

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Conflicts

Youth football peace initiative for Georgian conflict zone

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A widely praised peace initiative in Georgia has launched an appeal for vitally needed fresh investment. The international peace project on the Georgian conflict zone has been lauded for helping to reconcile all sides in a dispute dubbed Europe’s “forgotten war.” In an effort to bring long term peace to the area, an ambitious project was launched to set up football infrastructure in the conflict zone of Gori municipality.

Spearheading the initiative is Giorgi Samkharadze, originally a football referee (pictured center)  who has now made an appeal for international donors to help finance his plans.

He said, “Our project has been partly financed by several business companies but it is definitely not enough to tackle our tasks.  On the contrary the situation became worse, tension is just increasing since the beginning of a conflict.”

Georgian and South Ossetian teams

Georgian and South Ossetian teams

Some $250,000 has been raised so far from a couple of investors and this has gone on drainage and an artificial pitch but more investment from donors is urgently needed for his proposals to come to full fruition.  Backing has also come from the EU/Georgia Business Council and Samkharadze  hopes aid may come from both the public and private sectors.

Support for what is still a charity has come from the Georgian Parliament which has written an open letter, appealing for investment for what is seen as a vitally important local peace initiative.

The Parliament of Georgia has given priority to the international peace project Ergneti, a state document was drawn up to seek donor organizations, the finances needed to develop children in the conflict zone with the help of appropriate infrastructure and to promote the systematic development of peace through sport and culture.

Giorgi Samkharadze explains the peace project

Giorgi Samkharadze explains the peace project

The letter, written by the Chairman of the parliament’s Committee of European Integration, senior Georgian MP David Songulashvili, strongly recommends the project which, he says, “touches on reconciliation of the societies of Georgia and Tskhinvali Region - a very prominent issue for Georgia, as well as its international partners.”

Development of the existing project, he says, “would facilitate people-to-people contact, dialogue processes, and reconciliation of the youth from both sides of the Administrative Boundary Line.”

He writes that the Committee “firmly believes that the goals and expected outcomes of this project are truly in line with the western direction of the country’s development, as peaceful resolution of conflicts and territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders are values we and our international partners are strongly committed to.”

Songulashvili reaffirms the Parliament’s support to the project and recommends Samkharadze as a “valuable potential partner.”

He concludes, “We truly hope to see this project develop and progress in line with the country’s interests.”

Cup final celebrations!

Cup final celebrations!

Samkharadze  told this site he welcomes the intervention by the Georgian parliament, adding, “Georgia is a country of parliamentary rule and, when the Parliament of Georgia and the European Integration Committee supports such an international peace project, I would hope that the European Commission will feel compelled to provide some financial backing for our project.”

He said he now hopes to see “practical help” from the EU for the initiative.

He says such efforts are all the more important now because of a worrying recent upsurge in tensions in the region.

Ergneti is one of the numerous villages located next to the administrative boundary line (ABL), the demarcation between Georgia and Tskhinvali region or South Ossetia. Following the Georgia-Russia War in August 2008, barbed wire fences were installed on the ABL hindering the freedom of movement of people and goods.

In the past, the EU has applauded the efforts of the project but the hope is that this support will translate into financial aid.

Georgian TVs have broadcast news about the  project while the President of the European Commission, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen, and the leadership of the European Parliament have sent letters of support.

Samkharadze said, “This international peace project needs the practical involvement of investors"

 

Giorgi Samkharadze give post match TV interviews

Giorgi Samkharadze give post match TV interviews

One obvious success so far has been the construction of a temporary football stadium for use by locals, located 300 meters from the temporary demarcation line in Ergnet. Recently, there was a friendly football match composed of the locals from the conflict zone. It took place near the Ossetian border and 300 hundred meters from Tskhinvali and local families of those taking part all chipped in to pay the costs of staging the event.

The event itself was highly symbolic and, so too, was the date when it took place, in August – it was in August 2008 that the bitter, albeit short, war started. Representatives from local government and the EU monitoring mission in Georgia (EUMM) were among those present.

Samkharadze  said, “They told us many warm wards and encouraged all of us to continue our activities.”

He told EU Reporter the aim now is to coordinate with different partners “to build the necessary infrastructure in the conflict zone so as to engage young people in sports and cultural activities.”

He adds, “it is necessary to have a good infrastructure for all events and an environment conducive to teachers and children, so as not to lose the enthusiasm they now have but to develop in search of a better future.”

Ergenti was severely damaged in 2008 and a temporary dividing line runs through the village.

“That,” he adds, “ is why we need to create a good infrastructure for all. We do not want war, on the contrary, we are committed to peace.”

He adds, “We are people of different professions committed to one big goal - to develop  both young people and employment in the conflict zone.”

In the longer term he wants to see other sports and activities take place such as rugby, athletics and cultural, artistic and religious events.

 

Presentation of the Cup

Presentation of the Cup

“It is  necessary to have a good infrastructure for all such events, and an environment conducive to teachers of sports and cultural events and children, so as not to lose the enthusiasm they now have but to develop in search of a better future,” he states.

The exciting project – located on one just hectare of land - that he heads will, he says, also continue to facilitate the reconciliation between Ossetians and Georgians along with the development of villages close to the neighbourhood.

The area, as snow, has been a source of tension since the break-up of the Soviet Union. After a short war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, Moscow subsequently recognised South Ossetia as an independent state and began a process of closer ties that Georgia views as effective annexation.

Some 20% of Georgian territory is occupied by the Russian Federation, and the European Union does not recognize the territories occupied by Russia.

Children from both sides of the conflict line united by football

Children from both sides of the conflict line united by football

Before the war, many persons in Ergneti used to trade their agricultural products with the nearby territory now under occupation. Moreover, the market in Ergneti represented a crucial socio-economic meeting point where both Georgians and Ossetians used to meet each other to do business.

Samkharadze hopes, with his pioneering project, to bring the good times back, at least to this part of his native country. The project is, he argues, a model for other similar conflicts around the globe.

It is to be hoped now that, despite the world being gripped by a global health pandemic and the corresponding financial impact, the positive soundings coming out of this small but troubled part of Europe will have some resonance in the corridors of power in Brussels - and beyond.

 

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When truth hurts: How US and British taxpayers ensured Soviet victory in the 'Great Patriotic War'

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On 8 May, when the rest of the civilized world was remembering the victims of World War II, the official twitter account of the White House published a tweet about the victory of the US and UK over Nazism that took place 75 years ago, writes Janis Makonkalns, Latvian freelance journalist and blogger.

The tweet attracted notable criticism from Russian officials who were infuriated that the US had the audacity to believe it had somehow helped achieve the victory, ignoring Russia as the main – or even the only – victor in the war it itself had caused. According to Russian officials, this is the US attempting to rewrite WWII history.

Interestingly, this sentiment was also backed by anti-Kremlin opposition activist Aleksandr Navalny who also criticized Washington for “wrongly interpreting history”, adding that 27 million Russians (!) lost their lives in the war – not Soviet citizens of different nationalities.

Neither the official Moscow, nor Navalny, who is quite respected in the West, attempted to provide any real facts for their arguments that would refute what the official White House twitter account had stated. In American words, Russia’s arguments over the history of WWII is nothing more than a pile of bullshit.

What is more, such an attitude from Russian officials and politicians is completely natural, because modern Moscow still sees WWII exclusively through a prism of historical myths made up during the Soviet era. This has resulted in Moscow (and others) refusing to open their eyes to a multitude of facts – facts Moscow is so very afraid of.

In this article, I will provide four facts about the history of World War II that make Russia uncomfortable and scared of the truth.

Fact #1: WWII would not have taken place if the USSR had not signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany.

Despite Moscow’s attempts to cover this up, nowadays practically everyone is well aware that on 23 August 1939 the USSR signed a non-aggression treaty with NAZI Germany. The treaty contained a secret protocol defining the borders of Soviet and German spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.

Hitler’s main concern before attacking Poland was to find itself fighting in the Western and Eastern fronts simultaneously. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact ensured that after attacking Poland, there will be no need to fight the USSR. As a result, the USSR is directly responsible for causing WWII, in which it actually fought on the side of Nazis, which Moscow now so strongly despises.

Fact #2: The unimaginable number of casualties on the USSR side was not a sign of heroism or decisiveness, but the consequences of neglect from Soviet authorities.  

Speaking of the USSR’s decisive role in WWII, Russian representatives usually stress the huge number of casualties (up to 27 million soldiers and civilians died) as proof of heroism of the Soviet nation.

In reality, the casualties do not represent heroism or the willingness of people to defend their motherland whatever the cost, as often argued by Moscow’s propaganda mouthpieces. The truth is that this unimaginable number was only because the Soviet leadership was indifferent towards the lives of its citizens, as well as the fact the strategies chosen by the Soviets were thoughtless.

The Soviet army was utterly unprepared for war, because up until the last moment Stalin believed that Hitler will not attack the USSR. The army, which required developed defensive capabilities, instead continued preparing for an offensive war (perhaps hoping that together with Germany it will be able to divide not only Eastern Europe, but Western Europe as well). Additionally, during the Great Purge of 1936-1938 the USSR intentionally eliminated most the Red Army’s most capable military leaders, because Stalin simply did not trust them. This resulted in the Soviet leadership being so detached from reality that it couldn’t perceive the threat posed to it by Nazi Germany.

A great example of this is the utter failure of the Red Army in the Winter War. Soviet intelligence was so afraid from Stalin’s political requirement to attack Finland that it deliberately lied about its weak defenses and alleged pro-Kremlin and pro-Bolshevik sentiments shared by the Finnish people. USSR leadership was certain it would crush the small Finland, but the reality turned out to be one of 20th century’s most disgraceful military campaigns.

After all, we cannot forget that the system of the USSR did not care whatsoever for its people. Because of being so far behind technologically and strategically, the USSR could only fight Germany by throwing the bodies its soldiers at the Nazis. Even in the final days of the war, when the Red Army was approaching Berlin, Marshal Zhukov, instead of waiting for the enemy to surrender, kept sending thousands of Soviet soldiers to a meaningless death on German minefields.

Therefore, it is almost not too late for Russian officials to understand that the fact that the US and UK had much less casualties than the USSR does not mean that they contributed less to the outcome of the war. It actually means that these countries treated their soldiers with respect and fought more skillfully than the USSR.

Fact #3: Soviet victory in WWII would not have been possible without material assistance from the US, known as the Lend-Lease policy.

If on 11 March 1941 the US Congress had not decided to provide material assistance to the USSR, the Soviet Union would have suffered even greater territorial losses and human casualties, even as far as losing control over Moscow.

In order to understand the extent of this assistance, I will provide some figures. American taxpayer money provided the USSR with 11,000 airplanes, 6,000 tanks 300,000 military vehicles and 350 locomotives. In addition, the USSR also received phones and cables to ensure communication on the battlefield, ammunition and explosives, as well as raw materials and tools to help the USSR’s military production and some 3,000,000 tons of foodstuffs.

Other than the USSR, the US provided material assistance to a total of 38 countries that fought against Nazi Germany. Adjusting for modern times, Washington spent 565 billion dollars to do this, out of which 127 billion were received by the USSR. I think no one will be surprised knowing that Moscow never repaid any of the money.  

What is more, Moscow also cannot admit that it was not only the US, but also the UK that provided assistance to the USSR. During WWII, the Brits delivered to the USSR more than 7,000 airplanes, 27 warships, 5,218 tanks, 5,000 anti-tank weapons, 4,020 medical and cargo trucks and more than 1,500 military vehicles, as well as several thousand radios and radar equipment pieces and 15,000,000 boots that the Red Army soldiers so desperately lacked.

Fact #4: Without the campaigns of the US and UK in the Pacific Ocean, Africa and Western Europe the USSR would have capitulated to the Axis powers.  

Considering the aforementioned facts proving how weak and pathetic the USSR was during WWII, it is more than clear that it wouldn’t have been able to stand against the Nazi war machine without both material assistance from the US and UK and also their military support.

US engagement in WWII and the beginning of its Pacific campaign against Japan on 7 December 1941 was the prerequisite for the USSR to defend its Far East borders. If Japan would not have been forced to focus on fighting US forces in the Pacific Ocean, it would most likely be able to seize the larger Soviet cities located in the border area, thus acquiring control over a considerable part of the USSR’s territory. Taking into account the great size of the USSR, its badly developed infrastructure and the overall unpreparedness of its army, Moscow would not have lasted even a couple of months if it was forced to war on two fronts simultaneously.  

It should also be stressed that Germany’s assault on the USSR was also hindered by British activity in North Africa. If the UK had not spent huge resources to fight Germany in this region, the Nazis would be able to concentrate their forces on seizing Moscow and would most likely have succeeded.

We cannot forget that WWII concluded with the Normandy landings that finally fully opened the Western front, which was Hitler’s greatest nightmare and the reason for signing the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. If the Allies had not began their assault from French territory, Germany would have been able to focus its remaining forces in the east to hold back Soviet forces and not let them further into Central Europe. As a result, the WWII could have ended without total capitulation on the side of Berlin.

It is obvious that without assistance from the US and UK, Soviet victory in WWII would not have been possible. Everything suggested that Moscow is about to lose the war, and only because of enormous material and financial resources provided by the Americans and the Brits was the USSR able to recover from the shock of summer of 1941, recover its territories and finally seize Berlin, which was weakened by the Allies.

Politicians in modern Russia pretend to not see this, and – instead of at least admitting that the victory was possible because of the engagement of the entire Europe (including Eastern European nations that were not mentioned here – ones that Moscow now often accuses of glorifying Nazism) – they continue standing by the now ridiculed myths about WWII created way back by Soviet propaganda.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's alone.

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