Vladimir Putin’s case for taking Ukraine in 2022 is weaker by far than Hitler’s case for taking the Sudetenland in 1938. In that respect, Putin has out-Nazied the Führer.
Some talking-heads and journalists who claim that the West brought this crisis on itself by allowing former Soviet-bloc republics such as Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and others to join NATO are both naïve and wrong. Indeed, Putin’s determination to re-establish some semblance of the old Soviet bloc is not a newfound ambition but rather a long-standing imperative. Thank goodness there is a NATO, and now a rapidly reinvigorating NATO at that, because Putin’s playbook most certainly has another chapter— “Post Ukraine Expansion.”
That these recently freed nations look to the West is a good thing. To have denied them NATO membership would have been tantamount to telling them they chose freedom and democracy at their own peril. NATO isn’t threatening Russia, and there would be no NATO if Stalin hadn’t aggressively set his sights on Czechoslovakia, Greece, and Berlin in 1948 and 1949. In many respects, Stalin created NATO. Today, an ambitious and aggressive Vladimir Putin controls Russia, and he seems to be channeling Joseph Stalin. NATO is the reality that has kept the Kremlin from grabbing back, by force, those countries that are now free and members of the alliance. None of them ever want to be part of Russia again. None.
This war has been unprovoked, and it constitutes the proverbial stab in the back. Ukraine formally agreed to unilateral nuclear disarmament in return for its freedom from Russia. Nearly thirty years ago, Ukraine was the last of the old Soviet republics to agree to nuclear disarmament. Ukraine, in effect, traded its substantial nuclear arsenal, the third-largest in the world, for formal written assurances by Russia, Great Britain, and the United States to respect the country’s territorial integrity and political independence. The language of the 1994 Budapest Agreement is unambiguous. Russia was a substantial beneficiary of that agreement. So, when Russia belligerently, reminds the West that it is a nuclear power to be contended with, it is brandishing the substantial capability it received from Ukraine in return for an agreement to respect Ukraine’s independence.
This is no small matter. Ukraine reluctantly agreed to allow their nuclear warheads to be shipped to Russia only after receiving “iron-clad” agreements from the Russian Federation and the United States and Britain that its territorial integrity and independence would be respected. The accord provided that no signatory would use force or threats against Ukraine, and all would respect its sovereignty and existing borders. Ukrainian-Russia relations have a long, unhappy, and tortured history, so the guarantees, were critical for Ukraine and, also, for the United States because we applied the most pressure for Ukraine to accept the deal.
Russia likes to project to a gullible western audience that the Ukrainian people are Russian and that Ukraine is a contrived nation that yearns to be part of greater Russia. Really? Well, let’s take a look at what the Ukrainian people had to say about that when they voted in a nationwide referendum in 1991. For independence from Russia, 92.3%. Against independence, 7.7%, with over 84% of Ukrainian citizens voting.
Even in the eastern-most region with stronger ties to the old Soviet Union, the vote for independence strongly favored separation from Russia. In Donetsk, the Capital of the so-called pro-Russian Donbas region, 84% voted for independence. The only two voting districts where the pro-independence vote was less than 60% was in the Crimean Administrative District, which voted 54% for independence, and Sevastopol, which voted 57% for independence. No other voting district in Ukraine, and there were twenty-seven such districts, voted under 80% for independence. Nineteen voting districts voted over 90% for independence, and five voted between 80% and 90% for independence.
The turnout for the referendum was high throughout Ukraine, even in Crimea, which had the lowest turnout, at 60% of eligible voters. The Ukrainian People no more desire to be gobbled up by Russia than do the people of Poland, Hungry, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Czechoslovakia, or the former East Germany. However, all of these countries would be in Putin’s crosshairs were it not for NATO. They would all be in mortal danger.
It is worth pondering that once Putin secures Ukraine as a buffer between the Russian Federation and the West, Poland, a former Soviet bloc member, had been the buffer as determined by the old Soviet-contrived Warsaw Pact. I traveled to Biala Podlaska at Poland’s eastern border during the Soviet-bloc era while researching my first historical novel, Remember This Dream. I was about a half-hour by car from Brest in Belarus and the border with Ukraine was not much further. The border between Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine is, more or less, indistinguishable. But for Poland’s membership in NATO, there would be zero chance that Putin would stop at that border.
There was excitement and promise in the air when the 20th century faded and the 21st century was born. The bloodiest century in history had ended. The promise of long-lasting peace was at hand, and people speculated about a “peace dividend” that would change the world as we had known it. One politician after another spoke of that proverbial Shining City on a Hill.
But, Munich is the city that keeps flashing through my mind.