National Security

The History Lesson in Ukraine

Putin's land grab has echoes of 1938 and another man who acted too long before there were consequences.

Mar. 19, 2014

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As the world sits and watches Russia gobble up the Crimea, George Santayana’s words ring just as true today as when he wrote them over a hundred years ago. With Vladimir Putin citing the “self-determination” of ethnic Russians as justification for annexing the Crimea, it’s all the more startling that so many in the West seem unable to remember another man who claimed he merely wanted to protect ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia. It’s easy to make too much of comparisons to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but to date the parallels are so similar and so numerous that one can hardly do otherwise.

A dictator claims he wants to protect his ethnic brethren living in a weak neighboring state (from what, exactly, doesn’t matter). He blusters and vaguely hints at military confrontation, safe in the knowledge that geography and his adversaries’ lack of will power virtually guarantee no opposition. A referendum passes overwhelmingly among those to be absorbed (in fairness, the voting results in the Sudetenland were probably honest). The leaders of the nations ranged against him seem incapable of speaking as one or of acting to stop him. And finally, after swallowing his victim, the leader issues assurances that he really, honestly has no further aggressive intentions. The only thing missing today is an emergency conference in which John Kerry, William Hague and Laurent Fabius agree to sell out Crimea to Putin, and then tell Ukraine to shut up and like it.

So it was in 1938, and so it is today as Vladimir Putin takes the first concrete step in restoring his beloved Soviet Union. Fortunately, at least so far, the parallel does not extend to more territorial conquest in Russia’s case. Taking back the rest of Ukraine would require an open invasion, which no amount of Sergei Lavrov’s lies or Putin’s shirtless propaganda video could cover up. Belarus is such a basket case that even Putin wants no part of it. And the Baltic states had the good sense to join NATO at the earliest opportunity, making any attack on them – let alone invasion – a non-starter. So the analogy of 1938 only goes so far.

Putin has learned one important lesson that echoes 1938, however. Even a brazen act that is the closest thing to invasion apparently will elicit no serious reaction from the Europeans since they are beholden to Russia for natural gas and oil. And he has verified the lesson he learned last year while watching the United States flail and sputter over events in Syria: The leader of the free world, the head of the one state that alone could inflict serious consequences on Russia, has no idea what to do in foreign policy crises. There is much mischief Russia can create in the world without invading its neighbors, and Putin undoubtedly feels more secure in the knowledge he can get away with virtually anything. Lastly, observers in Tehran, Damascus, Caracas, Pyongyang and Beijing are drawing their own conclusions about how far they can go without suffering any consequences.

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