March 23, 2014

Russia Rushing Ahead to 1938

by Hal Gershowitz

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And so it is done —

— a replay (with new players and different geography) of the brutish 1938 grab of another nation’s territory. All that is missing is the pathetic spectacle of a Chamberlain.

The similarities are eerily similar.  Adolph Hitler, using as justification a largely ethnic German population in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia and sensing in Neville Chamberlain a weak democratic opponent, grabbed the Czech territory with relative impunity.  Vladimir Putin, last week, also sensing a weak democratic leader in Barack Obama, repeated the 75-year-old tactic from Nazi Germany’s playbook, also with relative impunity.

Crimea, for all practical purposes is no longer part of Ukraine.  It is solidly now part of Russia and there is nothing to be done about it.  Economic and diplomatic sanctions, incrementally applied, will have little to no effect. Speaking loudly and carrying a little stick impresses nobody except one’s own sycophants, and there are no Obama sycophants in the Kremlin.

In true Russian election tradition, nearly 100% of all those pro-Russian Ukrainians voting in last Sunday’s illegal plebiscite voted to cleave Crimea off of Ukraine and transfer it to mother Russia.  In less than 48 hours, Putin inked the fait accompli by signing an already prepared accession treaty with Crimea’s prime minister and the mayor of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea fleet.

Within hours the first Ukrainian soldier lay dead, a casualty of the conflict.  The Russians moved quickly to consolidate their otherwise bloodless victory by occupying key Ukrainian military facilities on the Crimean Peninsula. The chief of Ukraine’s military then announced plans to evacuate its troops from Crimea.  The frantic diplomatic efforts of Western democracies to forestall Crimea’s fate were about as successful as similar talks to forestall another land grab 75 years ago, 1500 miles to the West in Munich.

To further punctuate the similarity to Munich, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew off to Russia to meet Putin and then on to Ukraine as though he were channeling Neville Chamberlain who, in 1938, flew off to meet Hitler at his personal residence in Berchtesgaden.

Meanwhile Senior United Nations officials in New York urged the Security Council to vote adherence “to fundamental principles of the UN Charter, including respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and ensuring respect for the human rights of all.”  The official UN statement continued, “It is in the spirit of the UN Charter that the Secretary-General now embarks on his mission to Moscow and Kiev.”  Russia, of course, immediately vetoed the Security Council resolution respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty.

As we go to press, Ban Ki-moon is traveling from Moscow to Kiev, to hold talks with Ukrainian Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and other officials. While in the Ukrainian capital, he will go through the motions of meeting with members of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission and, according to the UN official press release, “representatives of civil society.”  This is, of course, so much diplomatic theater.  The deed is done.

And, in retrospect, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 signed by President Clinton and his British and Russian counterparts was, as it turns out, just so much worthless diplomatic theater.  Few recall or care about its provisions today.  That was the admittedly unenforceable document in which the United States of America along with Britain and Russia committed to (sort of) guarantee Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty in return for Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear arsenal (the third largest in the world).  Specifically, the first two provisions of the Budapest Memorandum state:

1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;

2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine…”

The lack of enforceability of the Budapest Memorandum is not the issue that should hound us.  What is, or should be, agonizing to all of us is that America through its, then, President made a commitment — a very important commitment — to Ukraine, that has evaporated into the ether like so much vacuous political air.  It is hardly ever mentioned today.  It is, or should be, a national embarrassment.

Just as few Americans remember the name Edvard Benes who was President of Czechoslovakia before it was dismembered in 1938, few Americans have heard of Oleksandr Turchynov, or Arseniv Yatsenyuk.  But that may soon change.

Addressing his beleaguered country last Monday night, Ukrainian President Turchynov said that while his government would do “everything possible” to solve the crisis diplomatically, and praised his citizens for refusing to respond to Russian provocations with violence, he minced no words about Russia’s grab of Crimea. “The Kremlin is afraid of the democratic future which we are building, and this is the reason for their aggression,” he said as he announced a partial mobilization of his country’s armed forces.

Prime Minister Yatsenyuk clearly understands what may be coming. There was “a strong possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” he warned.  “I still believe that there is only one solution to this crisis, a peaceful one.” Yatsenyuk then, ominously, added, “But we offer peace, and Russia offers war.”  Two Ukrainian naval bases in Crimea were then quickly taken over by Russian forces, adding heightened tensions and new layers of complexity to the already precarious situation.

We found Putin’s long, victory-lap speech following the past week’s events, and the thunderous applause it evoked, reminiscent of a Nazi Nuremburg rally as he intoned his land grab as “symbolic of Russia’s past war glory.”  Putin now has to decide whether to pursue the fantasy of past war glory or the promise of future prosperity.

Meanwhile, you can bet tiny and poor Moldova and tiny (but prosperous) Estonia are watching very nervously as events continue to unfold in Ukraine.  In Crimea it was Russian ethnicity and the sanctity of the mother tongue that, ostensibly, brought the Russian bear over the border.  Moldova, with its largely ethnic Russian population in the restive region known as Transnistria, is a sitting duck for annexation.  It sits sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine.  It is poor and is not affiliated with NATO and, therefore, can count on the protection of no one.  Perhaps, its greatest asset right now is its poverty. Why would Russia want it?

Estonia is another matter.  It has prospered beautifully since leaving the old Soviet orbit.  It also has a very large ethnic Russian population (about 25%) and it has joined NATO and strongly integrated itself into the EU.  Russia has already voiced trumped-up concern about the trumped-up treatment of Estonia’s ethnic Russians.  If Russia wanted to test the West’s resolve, this would be the place to do it. The West is obligated to defend Estonia because of its NATO status. Geographically, it would be the last place NATO would want to take on Russia, but if it failed to come to the aid of a NATO member it could well be the end of the alliance.  Estonia lies immediately north of Latvia and is bordered by Russia to the east and the winter-frozen Gulf of Finland to the north.  While it is questionable that Russia would directly challenge a NATO nation, it is, nonetheless, something that might be tempting to a chess player like Putin.

Then there is the matter of eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow feelings run pretty high.  The ethnic Russians were outraged when the new Ukrainian parliament repealed a 2012 law allowing regions to use Russian as a second official language. President Turchynov vetoed the repeal, as Putin was about to ink the treaty annexing Crimea.

Kirill Cherkashin, a Ukrainian university professor and a leading pro-Russian voice, estimates support for federation with Russia in the east to be around 60%. “Ukraine isn’t going to take care of us like Russia will,” he says. In terms of culture, religion and language, Professor Cherkashin says, the region has more in common with Moscow than Kiev. “Russia is like our mother. Ukraine is like our mother-in-law.”

Perhaps, back channel negotiations between Obama and Putin will defuse the crisis, with playground-bully Putin simply pocketing the Crimea Peninsula.  We’re not in much of a position to push back, having just announced plans to cut our military manpower to pre world war two levels.  President Obama has explicitly ruled out US military force in the crisis, stating that the international response to Russia’s Crimea gambit will be limited to diplomacy.  In an interview with an NBC news anchor, the President said,  “What we are going to do is mobilize all of our diplomatic resources to make sure that we’ve got a strong international coalition that sends a clear message.”

Unfortunately, that clear message is that Putin, like Hitler, has pulled it off.  Putin’s judgment has been informed by our non-response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia during the Bush Administration, Obama’s “red-line” response in Syria, our talkfest with Iran, our abandonment of Mubarak (Russia has just inked a $3 billion arms deal with Egypt) and, surprise of surprises, the absence of a missile-defense system treaty between Washington and Warsaw and Prague.

We are reminded of Henry Kissinger’s prescient warning at the dawn of the 21st century of the danger the world will face when leaders rise to power with no historical memory of the relationship of past conflicts to current crises.  It seems that such a time has arrived.

 Hear Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan interview Hal Gershowitz about his novel, “Heirs of Eden” on WGN’s Chicago After Dark:  Click podcast  # 6.




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5 responses to “Russia Rushing Ahead to 1938”

  1. susan duman says:

    You have filled in huge gaps in my understanding of Russian history and politics since the mid 20th century.
    Thank you

  2. Mark J Levick says:

    Our emperor has shed his clothes before the World. Only his phone and his pen remain between an aggressive Russia and our allies. That’s not a barrier to those who believe that talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words particularly those uttered by one in full retreat. It is obvious that Obama’s plan to keep us out of war is a simple one — don’t fight. Neville Chamberlain woke up and was a strong supporter of Churchill. Will our President ever awaken to the perils of an increasingly hostile World? I have my doubts.

  3. So….What do the writers of this essay suggest should be the proper response or course of action??

    • While we don’t have quite the staff to formulate crisis management strategy for this or any Administration, we are not fans of incrementally applying economic sanctions. Our concern is that while we incrementally apply sanctions, Putin will incrementally grab land. While we incrementally applied sanctions against Iran, they incrementally increased the number of centrifuges they were spinning to enrich uranium. They have made it clear that none will be dismantled. Putin will make it clear that no land he grabs will be returned.

  4. John Fairfield says:

    Obama needs to immediately announce the U.S. intention to become the world’s leading exporter of liquid natural gas and ask Congress to appropriate the funds to construct and acquire the facilities to make this happen. Such an action would probably bring about an immediate price drop in the LNG futures market, thus simultaneously eroding Russia’s principal source of foreign exchange and reassuring Ukraine of our serious intentions He could, but probably won’t, double down by authorizing the XL pipeline and asking Cuomo in New York to lift its ban on fracking to obtain an enormous increment in our export capability

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