World War I crippled Germany. The war took the lives of 3 million Germans, and the country lay in ruins. The victorious powers blamed Germany exclusively for the war. In the Treaty of Versailles, they demanded reparations that in today’s terms would exceed a half-trillion dollars. While allied powers later reduced and helped Germany reschedule its debts, the cost remained onerous and contributed to the Weimar Republic’s economic collapse. Germany’s humiliation and the resentment it fostered fueled the rise of Adolf Hitler and his ambition to reverse Germany’s fortunes.
Should that lesson close the door on discussions of reparations for other countries? Said another way — despite this history, can reparations ever serve a positive purpose?
Here, Germany also provides an example.
After World War II, Germany paid reparations. They both paid briefly to the victorious powers, largely in terms of manufacturing plants and machinery, and they paid to the remnants of the Jewish community they slaughtered. On the 70th anniversary of the Luxembourg Agreement that governed German compensation to Holocaust survivors, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz explained that the compensation agreements were “an attempt to assume moral responsibility for the failure of morality – the attempt to ensure that it was not inhumanity that had the last word, but humanity.”
Rather than symbolize punishment, Germany’s acquiescence to reparations signaled its acceptance that the old order was evil, and its desire for a new beginning. Nor was Germany alone in embracing reparations as a way to turn definitively against the past. Japan paid reparations, not only to the United States, but also to many of the Asian countries and island nations it had colonized.
Moving forward to the present, the international community’s unwillingness to demand reparations from Russia and Turkey, two of the most irredentist and aggressive countries today, means neither country has incentive to come to terms with its past. Perhaps this is why not only each country’s dictatorial leaders, but also the bulk of their populations, continue to embrace racist narratives and justify aggression against neighbors and domestic minorities.
Treating Russia with Kid Gloves
In his masterful 2015 tome Winter is Coming, Garry Kasparov countered the notion that the West mistreated Russia after the end of the Cold War, thus justifying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grievances.
“Despite perpetual unfounded complaints about suffering humiliation at the hands of the victorious West, there was nothing in the way of reparations demanded by the winning side,” Kasparov noted, adding, “In fact, the United States and several other countries provided badly needed loan guarantees and other aid to Russia… Russia was even paid for bringing its troops back from Germany.”
Putin owes his very career to the fact that there was no purge of Communist party officials or members of the Soviet intelligence apparatus. In this, post-war Russia stood in sharp contrast to the restrictions placed on Nazis and Schutzstaffel members after Germany’s World War II defeat, not to mention the de-Baathification process that disqualified top members of Saddam Hussein’s administration from the Iraqi political order after 2003. Removing nuclear weapons from each Soviet successor state except for Russia further privileged Moscow by preserving Russia’s power and prestige relative to the Soviet Union’s other former constituent republics.
It was by indulging the sense of entitlement that sits at the heart of Russian nationalism that the West encouraged Putin’s irredentism. The results manifested themselves first in Georgia in 2008, and later in Ukraine. Putin has now caused tens of billions of dollars in damages to Ukraine’s physical infrastructure alone. He is directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of millions.
Putin is not special. He is not the first Kremlin leader to engage in such behavior. He openly models himself after Joseph Stalin, a man responsible for millions of Ukrainian deaths. The recent rehabilitation of Stalin’s image reinforces the absence of fundamental change in Russian culture.
Bypassing reparations after the Cold War for the damage the Soviets did to Eastern Europe and the Caucasus did not bring peace or encourage liberalism. Rather, it allowed a generation of Russians to avoid confronting their own historical record.
The Trouble With Turkey
The same is true for Turkey. Almost a century ago, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Rather than acknowledge the Armenian genocide, Atatürk and his top lieutenants, many of whom were complicit in that act, denied it and criminalized its discussion. They also sought to erase Kurdish cultural identity, and they systematically destroyed or cloistered Istanbul and Izmir’s once-thriving Greek communities.
At best, Turks engaged in whataboutism, arguing that the expulsion of Turks from the Balkans offset their slaughter of the Greeks. That displacement was tragic, but it was neither equivalent nor an excuse for Turkey’s continued aggression against Greece and Greek communities in the Aegean and on Cyprus. Whether under Kemalist governments or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist dispensation, the Turkish government indoctrinates schoolchildren into an ethno-supremacist ideology. It then uses that ideology and false historical narratives to justify current aggression. Most recently, this manifested itself in the Turkish justification for an assault by its troops on British UN peacekeepers in Cyprus.
Indeed, the more the West indulges Turkey and ignores the racism inherent in Erdogan’s actions, the more reckless Turkey’s behavior becomes — be it in Cyprus, Greece, Iraq, Syria, or with its support for the Islamic State. This is just one reason why any provision of F-16s or other heavy weaponry to Turkey is so dangerous.
What Should Reparations Look Like?
With its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia crossed the Rubicon. Its two-week blitzkrieg is now a frozen conflict that has cost Russia dearly. Still, Putin will never surrender, nor will he negotiate. Neither is consistent with his ideology or conducive to his survival. Russia traditionally defaults to wars of attrition; it believes time will be on its side in any frozen conflict. So Putin will pursue his folly until he dies. It is then that the West should not only demand “never again,” but should kneecap Russia’s ability to pursue its irredentist dreams. Crippling financial sanctions might backfire, as they did after World War I, but there is utility to territorial adjustments. This might mean expanding Ukraine’s boundaries to pay in land what Russians cannot pay in cash. Preventing further Russian aggression might also mean breaking Russia apart.
The same holds true for reparations from Turkey. Ankara has gotten away with murder for too long. A sense of impunity now fuels its aggression. While it is easy to suggest a historical statute of limitations should cancel any consideration of reparations for the Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s continued denial of it, and its aggression toward Armenians, suggest a change of tack is necessary. Not only Mount Ararat, but also Armenia’s historical capitals to the west, might revert to Armenian control. A stigma today surrounds discussion of such reparations, but Turkey’s behavior merits at least starting the conversation. Turks must know the consequences of their current course of action.
Turkey’s targeting of ethnic Greeks is no different, and last week’s attack on peacekeepers in Pyla should be the last straw. Europe and the West must end the notion that Cypriot unity is negotiable, and insist that Turkey pay the price for its abuse of Cypriot sovereignty. By any calculation, Turkey today owes Cyprus billions of dollars.
Nor should Erdogan get away with his growing aggression toward Greek islands in the Aegean. His dismissal of the borders set by the Lausanne Treaty opens the door for territorial adjustments going the other direction, up to and including sovereignty over Smyrna. This need not mean population transfer, but in the old city it could follow the model of Jordan’s de facto sovereignty over the Temple Mount despite Israel’s control over Jerusalem.
Kurds, too, deserve compensation. Once upon a time, Kurds might have agreed to remain inside Turkey or as members of a loose confederation. Indeed, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party dropped its separatism more than a decade ago. Erdogan’s racism, however, has convinced young Kurds they have no future inside Turkey. They see Diyarbakir not as a provincial capital, but as a future national one.
Russians and Turks may complain bitterly. Some might grow even more radical. But until these nations face the consequences of their actions, there can never be peace. It is neither sophisticated nor wise to ignore justice and accountability.
So long as Russia and Turkey remain unwilling to confront their pasts in the way Germany and Japan have done, conflict and war will remain the norm. Perhaps there can be an argument to minimize or even waive reparations when countries and populations are sincere about a new beginning, but Russia and Turkey do not meet that threshold. It is therefore time to end the stigma about forcing Russia and Turkey to pay reparations, perhaps through cash, and more certainly with territory.
About the Author of This Article
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).