One of the oldest dilemmas in the history of international relations is what to do about minority populations in countries bordering an avaricious Big Power neighbor purporting to be that minority’s protector or national homeland. It plays an especially big part in Russian history, from the nineteenth-century Pan-slavic idea of Russia’s right and responsibility to vindicate Orthodox minorities in the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, to the occupation of eastern Poland at the beginning of World War II (subsequent to the Hitler-Stalin Pact) on grounds of protecting Ukrainian and Belorussian populations in that doomed state.
It’s a token of the desire in some circles to make Putin a new Hitler and Obama a new Chamberlain, however, that the analogy we are hearing most about right now isn’t any of the Russian precedents, but the Sudeten crisis of 1938. Here’s an example from the British tabloid the Daily Express:
A decision to send Russian tanks into Ukraine would have echoes of the catastrophic invasion of Czechoslovakia by Adolf Hitler 76 years ago, according to a leading international security expert.
Dr Jonathan Eyal, International Director of the security think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) said a such Russian move would be President Vladimir Putin’s “Sudetenland option”.
He was referring to the annexation of the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Hitler claimed he was merely trying to protect the ethnic German population in the area, a move that led eventually to the Second World War.
Dr Eyal warned that state-owned Russian media outlets are already focusing on the suffering of ethnic-Russians in the region, just as Nazi Germany did with its propaganda in 1938.
The expert warned any military move by Russia could usher in a new Cold War with the West.
Hiter’s demands for self-determination for the Sudeten Germans led immediately, of course, to the Munich agreement, and then the destruction of Czechoslovakia, whose security situation became impossible after the annexation of Sudentenland.
The harnessing of Sudeten irredentism to German imperialism was supposed to teach the world an enormous lesson. But since ethnic self-determination remains a principle respected in international relations and to some extent international law, it’s not clear exactly what the lesson involved, other than the folly of believing Hitler’s promises.
The truth is that eastern Ukraine was an integral part of Russia from the mid-seventeenth century until 1991. Tensions between eastern and western Ukraine have deep historic, linguistic and religious roots. Western Ukraine was the scene of the worst atrocities of Stalin’s class war against the peasantry in the 1930s, and the region wasn’t fully incorporated into the Soviet Union until 1939 (an occupation interrupted briefly and catastrophically by the Nazis).
So while it’s tempting to assume that Putin’s designs on eastern Ukraine are just the first step towards a re-establishment of the Russian/Soviet Empire along its pre-1991 borders, there is no particular reason to assume that absorption of, say, the Crimea is an all-or-nothing proposition requiring Western resistance or total surrender of Eastern Europe.
The situation is bad enough without bringing Hitler into it.
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