Friday, November 28, 2014

Crimea’s Sudeten Crisis

LONDON – With Crimea voting for secession, the upheaval in Ukraine is fueling an increasingly charged atmosphere between Russia and the tandem of the United States and the European Union. Are American and European leaders being cast in a Russian remake of the 1938 Sudeten crisis?

Immediately after Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to the ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. First, he demanded the Sudetenland’s cession to Germany, gaining relatively easy agreement from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart Édouard Daladier.

Hitler then immediately raised his demands to include German military occupation of the area. Deeming the issue “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing,” and thus not worth defying Hitler over, Chamberlain and Daladier accepted the occupation by signing the Munich Agreement. In doing so, they strengthened Germany considerably and emboldened Hitler – with catastrophic consequences.

To be sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not Hitler, Russia is not Nazi Germany (or the Soviet Union, for that matter), and the world does not face the same apocalyptic scenario that unfolded in 1939. Nonetheless, there are some important parallels between the Sudeten and Crimean crises.

The most obvious is the presence of an expatriate majority in the occupied area. Russians comprise nearly 60% of Crimea’s two million inhabitants, and many are more closely connected to their “mother” country than to Ukraine. Likewise, the three million Sudeten Germans felt much greater loyalty to Germany than to Czechoslovakia, and an overwhelming majority embraced their incorporation into the Third Reich.

Indeed, Putin’s pretext for occupation and annexation – to protect the local population – is the same as Hitler’s. Until recently, Putin showed little interest in Crimean affairs, beyond renewing the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol. But, since the Ukrainian revolution, the local Russian population’s alleged vulnerability to “fascists” has become an emblematic issue – and an excuse for Russian military intervention. Hitler employed a similar pretext in demanding the Sudetenland’s transfer from Czechoslovakia.

Putin has something else in common with Hitler: the view that the country he is occupying is somehow “unnatural.” Although Putin has not formally challenged Ukraine’s independence, he has never hidden his view that it is not a “real country,” referring to it as part of the “Russian world.” Similarly, for Hitler, Czechoslovakia was an unnatural conglomeration of disparate nations and regions.

Hitler sought to destroy Czechoslovakia. Six months after hiving off the Sudetenland, he abrogated the Munich Agreement by occupying all of Bohemia and Moravia and turning the Czech lands into a German protectorate, while installing a puppet regime in a nominally independent Slovakia. If Putin has similar designs, he would begin with Crimea’s annexation – now seemingly a done deal – followed by a direct military presence in eastern Ukraine (where Russian troops are massing at the border), and possibly some kind of partition in the longer term.

Of course, like Hitler, Putin is not concerned only – or even especially – with the occupied area. Instead, he is seeking to project power farther afield. Putin has long used national resurgence – in particular, the idea of Russia as an independent global actor with its own “world” – to legitimize his rule. According to this vision, Ukraine must be strategically aligned with Russia, and its sovereignty must be limited.

For his part, Hitler considered an independent, democratic Czechoslovakia to be a security threat, while eyeing its considerable industrial assets. But the Sudetenland’s annexation was, first and foremost, aimed at helping to restore Germany’s “great power” status.

There are also striking similarities between Western leaders’ responses to the two crises – namely, their reluctance to take decisive action. Indeed, they seem unwilling to back up their warnings of “costs” and “consequences” with meaningful measures like asset freezes, trade sanctions, and travel restrictions – reinforcing Putin’s belief that they will continue to choose their relationships with Russia over protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This timidity recalls British and French policy in 1938, when the Sudetenland – and later Czechoslovakia – was sacrificed for a short-lived “peace in our time.”

What lessons can be drawn from the comparison between the Crimean and Sudeten crises? First, any dialogue with Putin will be fruitless, unless Western leaders take a decisive approach that is shaped by concrete objectives, not bogus “strategic partnerships.” Conversely, name-calling – like US President Barack Obama’s accusation that Russia is “on the wrong side of history” – is pointless.

The West should stop reacting to Putin with “shock and awe” – shock that he can act with such seeming impunity, and awe at his perceived tactical brilliance. Europe and the US have vastly greater influence and resources than Russia, with its atrophied political system and exhausted economic model. What they lack is the willingness to accept the economic and political costs of defending the values that they claim to uphold.

Finally, Western leaders must recognize that appeasement cannot ensure peace and stability in Europe – not even under the fig leaf of “engagement.” When dealing with a leader whose credo is defined by the notion that “the weak get beaten,” Western governments must demonstrate their resolve, without sacrificing flexibility. Only on this basis can the crisis in Ukraine be addressed without fundamentally compromising transatlantic security.

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    1. CommentedHanna Lassowsky

      The author is not the first one to compare Putin's steps to Hitler's annexations. It is hard to deny similarities when the Putin-Hitler duo is a part of popular discourse: from folk art (posters of "Putler") to serious political discussions (Ann Applebaum on, for example). It is also a part of public knowledge, that many commentators use the same "algorithm" when promoting Putin's "political realism", and... majority of these experts have nothing to do with Ukrainian Studies.

    2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Putin's recent annexation of Crimea has been seen by many as the "Russian remake of the 1938 Sudeten crisis" and Dr. Lo points out a few "important parallels" between the two cases.
      Unlike the Sudeten Germans in the former Czechoslovakia, who complained about being discriminated and suppressed by the authorities, Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in Crimea had lived together in harmony for decades. Kiev had pumped in billions to keep Crimea afloat. Both Ukrainians and ethnc Russians speak similar languages and shared much in common culturally. Their resentment towards Kiev has been fomented by thugs, at the Kremlin's bidding.
      Sudeten Germans had their own language and culture. They had some reason not to want to belong to a Czechoslovakia, that did not always treat them as equal citizens. The Sudetens had not made themselves popular with the Czechs neither, who saw a growing German militancy. In 1935 over a million of them voted for a nationalist German party, which became the biggest political party in Czechoslovakia and demanded unification of the Sudetenland with Germany. In 1945, Czechoslovakia turned the table and expelled the Sudetens, for their collective guilt for Nazi crimes.
      Although Putin has expanisionistic dreams, it is unclear whether he would be able to go as far as Hitler. Dr. Lo believes "any dialogue with Putin will be fruitless" and warns against any "engagement" with Putin, dubbing it simply as "appeasement".
      Putin embraces political realism. It is undeniable that he, emboldened by annexing Crimea without spilling blood, may continue his quest. He may be lying in wait for other opportunities to exploit political weaknesses in Eastern Europe and grab more land there, taken by the right of conquest in Russian history, which the Soviet Union had to give up after its demise. Yet Putin is shrewd enough to realise the resistance of these former vassal states and will think twice, before dragging Russia into a war, which might be another Afghanistan for its military history.

    3. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

      Usually an argumentum ad hitlerum is the end of discussions and discredits the speaker. But here you also have to reconsider the preconceptions, the topoi, namely that Chamberlain did wrong. Czechoslovakia was an artificicial state created from the Austrohungarian empire. The occupation of Sudetenland with the consent of Britain was not wrong but a good solution to a crisis. The Munich agreement per se was good. When Hitler broke it he enabled to unite Britain's war alliance. Not Chamberlain failed but Hitler made it fail when he crossed the red lines. In Crimea there is no support of the West for an annexation while in terms of realpolitik one could say it belongs to Russia anyway and helps to ethnically streamline Ukraine and drive it towards the West.

    4. CommentedJames Edwards

      While there are similarity to what Putin is saying and doing to that of Hitler however Hitler became dictator in 1933 through the Enabling Act when he had design on Czechslovakia in 1938 but Putin has put together a group through the behind the scene act while as Prime Minsiter. When he became President, he was able to do it with no opposition in both Houses of the Parliament. He knows that Ukraine is just another territory just like Stalin did and treats it as such when his supporter, a former President. was ousted. By having the agreement with Ukraine built in to allow troops in Crimea, Ukraine just lost the fight.

    5. CommentedNM Wander

      The Ukranian corner of the world is the victim of geography.
      It's flat sweeping plains are tailor made for militant hoardes to roar across, burning, raping, pillaging.
      Its not the first time Crimea has changed hands.
      Then there's the observation that Ukranians themselves are very closely relate to Russians.......its about the same as Portugese and Spaniards.....they dont get along much better either.
      Anyway.......the silver lining is that Russia just assumed about 10-20% of the Ukranian Natl Debt helping to aleviate that problem too.
      Now if Ukraine could just get Putin to extradite Yanukovitch to stand trial on criminal charges......everything would be in order!

        CommentedJames Edwards

        Now if Ukraine could just get Putin to extradite Yanukovitch to stand trial on criminal charges......everything would be in order!

        The possibility of extradicting Yanukovitch to Ukraine is slim to none because he was Russia's supporter of having Ukraine part of the Eurasia Union.

    6. CommentedGerry Hofman

      Like the author admits again and again, Putin is not Hitler. No, Putin is not Hitler! So why keep on making out that under the skin he really is? What does Lo think to achieve by presenting this hypothetical as some kind of potential outcome? Invading east Ukraine would aggravate and inflame the present situation in a really bad way. There is no indication that any of this is about to take place.

        Commentedm r

        No, no, no- let us even assume that as per innuendo Mr. Putin does even become a super Hitler, whom the author so desperately would like nipped. Histories of the epochal WW1 & WW2 or Napoleonic wars before are, in the final analysis, results of the desperate need of the actors involved to destroy the then existing "Imperial" world order.
        Author is thus challenged to disagree that we are currently NOT in a state where USA is completely out of hand and needs even for its own good removed from the Imperial pedestal.
        If we need a super, super Hitler then be it and we should NOT mind if he be Mr. Putin.

        Commentedcaaps02 ceps

        Au contraire: there is every indication that Putin intends to invade eastern Ukraine. Putin WANTS to inflame and aggravate the present situation and is working assiduously at doing so.

    7. CommentedPavlos Papageorgiou

      I think the West is using sensational analogies. Here's a more down to earth one:

      Imagine the military bases in San Diego were in Tijuana and along Baja California due to some historical accident. Say the peninsula had been leased by the US for a hundred years and it recently expired, or something. Then a few years later Mexico has a revolution and a rabidly anti-US government takes power. Who would be surprised if US troops came out of their bases and annexed the region? What other power would intervene or seriously care about the matter?

        CommentedNM Wander

        Pavlos....interesting suggestion.
        1. We attempted to purchase the Baja Peninsula during the Reagan Admin.
        2. Earlier, Cuba applied for statehood in the 1920s
        (As did the Yucatan Pennisula during the same period).
        3. We attempted to acquire Mexico in its entirity at the end of the Mexican War 1846.

        CommentedDov Fowler

        The analogy with a US military based outside the US mainland is not as far-fetched as it seems. In fact, such a base exists - the Guantanamo military based in Cuba, which was leased for 100 years to the US by pre-Castro government, and which US has defended by very real military means.

        CommentedPavlos Papageorgiou

        Recent events maintain the status quo. Crimea has always been Russia's. Since the cold war it was nominally Ukraine's but not really. Now that this has been tested, Russia stepped in to take Ukraine formally. The balance of power doesn't change.

        CommentedAlex Tzaros

        Your analogy is not down to earth... Its irelevant! The debate is about the black sea and the "border" between NATO and the Russian federation. This is not simply a conflict between US and Mexico or Russia and Ukraine

    8. Commentedhari naidu

      Hitler used the Sudeten German’s to launch WWII. Putin is not starting WWIII. At least he said so today while formally annexing Crimea back to Russian Federation – after the overwhelming plebiscite. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev granted Crimea to Ukraine – then part of Soviet Union. Putin has now officially corrected that mistake – citing the example of German unification (1989) and Kosovo (by Nato). In Russian language, his speech was passionately nationalistic and not arrogant. He totally disregarded the US and EU sanctions….

      Also PM of Ukraine declared *no* to Nato membership today. Why? Because Kiev now understands that they must find ways and means to live with the Russian bear next door. So, the example of German Wehrmacht's march into Sudetenland is not only farfetched but really *war mongering* by Chatham House’s historical perspective .

      I suspect Finlandization of Ukraine is now more or less strategically inevitable irrespective of US/EU sanctions and whatnots.

      Merkel has officially declared there is no military solution to Crimean crisis.

        CommentedJames Edwards

        Hitler's nonaggression pact with Stalin and the subsequent invasion of Poland was the primer that started WW2. His speech was nationalistic however Russia has subjugated Ukraine and Georgia like in hte past by Stalin in order to create compliant states as protection. Do you really believe that he will assist the development of Crimea? Historically it has never developed areas it annexed.

        Economically Russia's economy is tied to the world and it has an impact because Crimea is a basketcase and Russia will be forced to spend rubles to cover it. The west can change its gas supply to Norway and then Russia's economy will take a hit(it has been going downward trend).