Sunday, March 16, 2014

Crimea 2014: Czechoslovakia 1938 Redux

by Joseph Puder


The recent standoff in the Crimea between Russia and the Ukraine is reminiscent of the tactics employed by Germany to bring pre-World War II Europe under the Nazi heel. Hitler amassed troops around the German-Czechoslovak border, the Czechs sought to effectuate their treaties with western allies, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rushed to Germany to appeal to Hitler to avoid aggression and, in an effort to prevent a war, sacrificed Czechoslovakia on the altar of appeasement. The weakness of the west was on display and only served to whet Hitler’s appetite for further aggression.

In the current drama, the Ukraine is like the former Czechoslovakia, Crimea is the Sudetenland, Russia’s President Putin reminds us of Nazi Germany’s Hitler, and Chamberlain’s role is being played by Obama. True, circumstances in this conflict are somewhat different, and Putin has not slaughtered millions the way Hitler did, but the ostensible roles played by Putin and Obama are not that different from that of Hitler and Chamberlain.

The Long Beach Press Telegram reported on March 4, 2014 that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine to those of Adolf Hitler’s in Nazi Germany. She said that “Putin’s desire to protect minority Russians in Ukraine is reminiscent of Hitler’s actions to protect ethnic Germans outside Germany.”

In order to restore the Soviet Empire that existed before the USSR crumbled in 1991, Vladimir Putin set out to intimidate former Soviet republics to submit to Russia’s control, or at the very least, come under its sphere of influence. He waged war against Georgia in 2008, and according to former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, “Russia is looking for a hot war” against the Ukraine. Putin has sought to prevent the states of the former Soviet Union from joining the West. In the case of the Ukraine, he is seeking to take action to insure against the possibility of their joining the European Union, and eventually integrating into Europe.

WikiLeaks cables reveal that Saakashvili stressed repeatedly that he expected Russia to follow its 2008 invasion of Georgia with intervention in Crimea. He predicted that Russia would incite tension in the Crimean peninsula, then make a generous offer to Yanukovych (presumed as the next president and now deposed and presumably in Russia) to help solve the problem. Saakashvili said that Putin wants to put pressure on the Ukraine and Georgia, thereby sending a warning to others in the former Soviet Union to behave. Putin’s incitement of the Crimean Russians is akin to the tactics Hitler employed when he incited the Sudeten Germans against the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.

In 1954, then Secretary General of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, and the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, handed Crimea over to the Ukraine. Khrushchev, who was born in the Ukraine and had worked in the mines of Donetsk and whose wife Nina was from western Ukraine, had a deep connection to the Ukrainian soil. He awarded Crimea to the Ukraine because he believed that area had unjustly suffered from Stalin’s Holodomor, the brutal artificial famine imposed by Stalin’s regime on the Soviet Ukraine and areas made up of ethnic Ukrainians from 1932-33, during which millions of Ukrainians died. This political move was an example of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization plan.

In the current crisis between Russia and the Ukraine, Russian President Putin has used the “protection” of ethnic Russians as a pretext to retake the Crimea and perhaps the eastern part of the Ukraine and annex it to Russia. In the meantime, Moscow is trying to destabilize the new Ukrainian government in Kiev. Putin, like Hitler, is counting on western weakness, especially American. He knows that Obama, like Chamberlain, is desperately trying to avoid conflict, and seeks instead the appeasement of rogue and terror-sponsoring nations like Iran, and bullies like Russia and China.

The American reaction to Putin’s military moves in Crimea has been pathetically weak. Secretary of State John Kerry uttered a few obligatory words and was dispatched to Kiev. No meaningful action however, has taken place. Obama has not yet called for a special session of the U.N. Security Council to condemn Russian aggression, and neither has NATO.  Boycotting the G-8 in Sochi will not impress Putin nor change his course of action while economic threats by the U.S. might restrain Putin. An 11% decline in the Russian market and the potential imposition of an asset freeze might have an impact on Putin’s moves. At a press conference earlier this week, Putin appeared to be less strident, and at the very least, seemed to walk away from the brink.

The Obama administration clearly wants to avoid a confrontation with Russia. It would be useful for the Obama administration to recall the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President John F. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade and put the U.S. armed forces on alert. The Soviet Union backed down, and the crisis ended. U.S. determination saved the day. America under Obama is seen increasingly as disengaged and weak, positions that may result in further aggression and ultimately war. Ironically, during the same week Putin moved against the Ukraine in Crimea, the Obama administration unveiled its plans to reduce the U.S. military to its smallest size since WWII.

Andrew Palashewsky, a Ukrainian-American political activist had this to say, “Russian imperial ambitions transcended politics. The Tsarist Empire was expansionist and craved control of the Ukraine. Soviet policy was nominally anti-nationalist, attempting to subsume all other nationalities under the internationalist banner of Communism. But, this was actually just a cover for Russian imperialism and chauvinism. National cultures and languages were repressed in favor of Russification, that stressed the adoption of the Russian language and culture. Today, former KGB Colonel, post-Communist Vladimir Putin, ever conscious of Russia’s status, acts like a neo-fascist, coveting Ukraine’s natural riches, and bolstering his mission to recreate the Russian Empire.”
America and the West have a moral obligation to protect the Ukraine. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Ukraine agreed to return the nuclear weapons stationed in its territory to Russia in order to prevent any nuclear proliferation. In exchange, Ukrainian leaders at the time sought solid security guarantees from the U.S. and the U.K. Although the “Budapest Memorandum,” as the agreement is called, does not require the U.S. to go to war over the Ukraine, if Obama abandons the Ukraine the way Chamberlain sacrificed Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine ends up losing Crimea and its eastern Ukraine to Russia, logic dictates that such moves would bring an end to any non-proliferation of weapons. Realistically, if the Ukraine still possessed its nuclear weapons, it would probably have been able to hold on to the Crimea. Instead, they have a worthless piece of paper.

As the Crimea crisis unfolds, it brings back images of the 1938 Czechoslovak crisis. It is becoming more evident that Russia’s Putin has adopted some of Hitler’s tactics, and like Nazi Germany, he is counting on the West’s weakness, and its unwillingness to respond in a forceful way against his aggression. Obama’s statement that a “Crimea referendum violates international law” is unhelpful. A referendum conducted fairly would settle the issue in Crimea, albeit, without the presence of Russian troops.

Joseph Puder


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