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From Munich to Moscow

Adolf Hitler's formula for destroying democratic Czechoslovakia began with a threat to invade in order to incorporate into the Reich border districts with a German-speaking population. Russian President Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine began in a similar way.

PRINCETON – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine was not very original. As others have noted, his claim that it was necessitated by the “genocide” carried out against ethnic Russians in the Donbas region recalls Hitler’s strategy for destroying democratic Czechoslovakia in the run-up to World War II.

Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia in order to incorporate into the Reich border districts with a German-speaking population. He did not have to invade, because the leaders of the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, with the carnage of the Great War still in everyone’s memory, acceded to his demands at the 1938 Munich conference. Within six months, however, the Nazis violated the Munich Agreement, established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech lands, and created a nominally independent Slovak puppet state. Hitler then began making claims to a slice of Poland.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine began in a similar way, with the seizure of Crimea and the establishment of two Kremlin-backed statelets in the Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region in 2014. This was a flagrant violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, according to which Ukraine, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, gave up the nuclear arsenals they had inherited from the Soviet Union. In return, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States gave assurances that they would respect the sovereignty and independence of all three countries within their existing borders.

Just as the UK and France took no serious action when Hitler progressively tore up the Treaty of Versailles, so no country did anything serious enough to make Russians regret the wildly popular annexation of Crimea and encouragement of separatism in Donbas.

Hitler’s claim to Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland was, he said at the time, “my last territorial claim in Europe.” But anyone who had read Mein Kampf should have known about his ambitions to create Lebensraum for Germans in Eastern Europe. Similarly, we can reasonably suspect that Putin, who has described the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a disaster, wants to restore Russian dominance over former Soviet territory. If Putin can get away with occupying Ukraine and installing a puppet regime, will the ex-Soviet Baltic states, especially Estonia and Latvia, with their large Russian-speaking minorities, be next?

Putin has one great advantage that Hitler fortunately lacked: nuclear weapons. Putin has warned off countries that might attempt to interfere in Russia’s “military operation” in Ukraine by testing a nuclear-capable missile shortly before launching the invasion, and saying that any country that intervenes would face “consequences that you have never seen.” Four days after the invasion began, he put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert.

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How, then, can Putin be stopped?

Economic sanctions are already being imposed, airspace is being closed to Russian aircraft, and boycotts of Russian goods are beginning. Neighboring countries, especially Poland, should also close land routes to Russian trucks. These measures, regrettably, will hurt all Russians, including those who oppose the war. But is there any other way to stop Putin from achieving his aims?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has bravely remained in Kyiv, rallying Ukrainians to fight the advancing Russians. If they can inflict significant costs on Russia’s forces, that could help to stop Putin, though most military experts believe that a Russian military victory is inevitable.

Perhaps recognizing this, Zelensky has called on the Russian people to stop the war. Many Russians are trying to do just that. After the invasion was announced, there were protests in roughly 55 cities across Russia. An independent monitoring organization says that 5,000 people have been arrested for participating in protests without prior permission, but many more are continuing to protest. At the time of writing, more than one million courageous Russians have put their names to a “Stop the War” petition.

The protests haven’t stopped there. Dmitry Muratov, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last remaining independent newspapers, posted a video in which he called for Russians to rise up against the war, saying that: “Only the anti-war movement of Russians can save life on this planet.” Yelena Kovalskaya, director of the state-run Meyerhold Theatre Center, resigned in protest against the attack on Ukraine, saying, “It is impossible to work for a murderer and receive a salary from him.” More than 150 scientists and science journalists signed a letter, published on a Russian science website, lamenting that Russia has condemned itself to isolation and the status of a rogue state. A similar number of municipal deputies from many cities signed a letter condemning the attack as “an unprecedented atrocity,” adding that, “hopes for a good life in Russia are crumbling before our eyes.”

What is also needed now is for Russian soldiers in Ukraine to stop fighting an unjust war. Unconfirmed reports indicate that some have already refused to go into Ukraine. Russians have access to a wide range of information beyond the propaganda of their state-run media, so they should know that they are part of a war of aggression. Intentionally killing people without sufficient cause is murder, and that is what Russian soldiers will be doing if they obey orders to target Ukrainians with lethal weapons. Obeying orders is no excuse, just as it was no excuse for those under Hitler’s command.

From now on, as long as Putin remains Russia’s leader, the country must be seen as an international pariah. Sanctions must be strong enough to ensure that Russians do see their hopes for a good life crumble.

This is especially unfair to those who have publicly opposed the war. But how else can they hope to replace Putin with someone who is prepared to abide by moral principles and international law? Sometimes the vanquished come to view their suffering as liberation. Just ask today’s Germans.