Students of World War II are finding dangerous parallels between the events leading up to that war and what is now happening in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is using precisely the same tactics used by Adolf Hitler in the run up to World War II, and like Hitler he is betting on and benefiting from a weak response from the west. As I observe the idle threats being made by President Obama and John Kerry painful memories of a sniveling Neville Chamberlain come to mind. While the West impotently talks about sanctions and even imposes a few, Putin continues to mass troops on the Ukrainian border for what he calls “military maneuvers.”
I fear there is much more at stake here than the Crimea. To understand what is happening in Ukraine it is necessary to first understand Vladimir Putin’s real intentions: He wants to re-establish the “evil empire.” Putin has stated publicly that the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century was the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a tragedy President Putin would like to erase from Russian history in the same manner that Adolph Hitler sought to eradicate what he saw as the shame of the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Just as Hitler wanted to reincorporate land lost to Germany in the aftermath of the Great War—thus the bloodless takeover of Austria followed close on by the forced annexation of the Sudetenland—Putin wants to take back what was lost when the Soviet Union collapsed. His Crimean adventure was just the first step along these lines. It won’t be the last.
You can be sure that Putin has studied Hitler’s actions in the years leading up to World War II as well as the weak-kneed, impotent response of the west. Putin seems to know history better than today’s Western leaders who allowed World War II to happen when Hitler could have been easily stopped in his tracks. Neville Chamberlain and other Western leaders thought they could negotiate with Hitler. They were fools. But even a fool knows you cannot negotiate with a hungry bear, and the Russian bear with prodding from Putin is obviously hungry. Unfortunately, President Obama and John Kerry seem to be cut from the same cloth as Neville Chamberlain. They want to negotiate and threaten and talk, talk, talk. If anyone in the Obama administration had an ounce of foreign policy sense they would understand that all a hungry bear ever wants is more.
In the years leading up to World War II, Hitler first brought Austria under the Nazi jackboot with the Anschluss. Anschluss is German for political annexation. It worked like this. First Hitler stirred up pro-German sentiment in Austria. Then he massed troops and tanks along the Austrian border. Finally, he “allowed” Austria to annex itself to Germany in lieu of being invaded by Nazi Storm Troopers and Panzers. If you have been paying attention, the Crimean Region of Ukraine just had its own Anschluss, but this time it was Putin and the Russians who demanded a vote while pointing guns at the voters. Unfortunately, as they did prior to World War II, western leaders—most auspiciously President Obama—are responding with words and weakness. Putin on the other hand is taking action.
Hitler’s next annexation was the Sudetenland, a small sliver of land that was part of Czechoslovakia. Like the Crimea, the Sudetenland had a large contingent of citizens loyal to the invading country. The German speaking, pro-Nazi citizens of the Sudetenland—led by Konrad Henlein—agitated for annexation and, of course, Hitler was only too happy to oblige. Surrounded by Nazi tanks and troops, the Sudetenland acquiesced to Hitler’s demands and became part of Germany. The people of the West adopted a who-cares attitude toward Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. France and Britain were not willing to go to war over a sliver of land in which many of the people spoke German and were loyal to Hitler. The West basically said to Hitler, “You can have the Sudetenland.” This would have been a small enough tragedy had Hitler been content to stop there, but of course he wasn’t. Nor will President Putin be content to stop his expansion efforts with the Crimea. As it did with the Sudetenland, the West has adopted a who-cares attitude toward the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Just as it was with the Sudetenland, this would be only a minor tragedy if Putin’s aggression stopped there. But it won’t, and Western leaders are fools if they think it will.
It is a good bet that Vladimir Putin now has his sights set on Ukraine. If he can bring that sovereign country back into the fold, then there are Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia; all of which have significant Russian-speaking populations left over from the old Soviet days. These Russian-speaking citizens can be counted on to support Putin in his takeover efforts, and Putin can be counted on to claim that he is invading these sovereign nations for the sole purpose of protecting oppressed Russians. If Putin can manage to re-incorporate these three tiny nations, the bear’s next meal will be the one that finally brought the West to its senses and triggered a military response and, eventually, World War II. That meal is Poland, which is the prize Putin really wants in the first place.
History is repeating itself in part because we have raised several generations of Americans who do not know their history. While American students were being taught how they should be ashamed of the United States and studying the lives of celebrities instead of American heroes, Vladimir Putin and his generation of Russians were studying history—real history. Now he is using that knowledge of history to re-establish what Ronald Reagan called the “evil empire.” With the Crimean annexation, history is simply repeating itself. The only difference is the tyrant who is seeking territory and the weak-kneed Western leaders who are letting him take it.