COMMENTARY | They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Right now, thousands of Russian troops are sort of “hanging out” in the Crimean region of Ukraine, surrounding Ukrainian military bases and hobnobbing with pro-Russia civilians. Russia says it sent troops to the area to protect Russians and Russian interests in the aftermath of the recent revolution in Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, that sent the nation’s pro-Russia president fleeing. As an interim government in Kiev struggles with the situation, the West is demanding that Russia back off and send its troops home.
Though so far the Russian troops have been amiable, or so it appears (for the most part), Russian state media has just announced that a “military storm” will be unleashed soon on Ukrainian forces in Crimea that do not surrender or “swear allegiance” to “the new Crimean authorities,” reports CNN. Is a war about to begin?
The West, still led by the United States, is in a conundrum. Unlike facing down petty tyrants and tinpot dictators in third-world nations, Russia is a modern power with a large export market, at least in valuable petroleum. It has domestic arms production, a history of military conquest and fighting ability, and, twenty-five years after its Soviet might began to swiftly crumble, has something to prove. Is Russia’s swagger real or feigned? Should the West talk tough and prepare its armies, or is a silver tongue the way to go?
To judge what should be done in this quick-moving crisis we should look to the history book. Not surprisingly, given the images of Russian president Vladimir Putin popping up on protesters’ signs, complete with Hitler-esque mustache, is the fact that an apt comparison to the current situation in Crimea can be found in 1938 between Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia.
In 1938, on his road to conquest, German dictator Adolf Hitler annexed part of Czechoslovakia, a much smaller and weaker nation, under the pretense that he was protecting ethnic Germans who wanted, by the way, to be part of Germany itself. Though Britain and France talked tough at first, Hitler ultimately got what he wanted with the infamous Munich Agreement in September 1938. By pledging that he had no further territorial goals, Hitler got Britain and France to accept Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. No shots were fired.
Today, just like in 1938, we see a larger, more powerful nation, increasingly confident after years of military buildup following a lengthy period of economic depression, trying to occupy a region of a smaller nation under the claimed goal of protecting an ethnic minority. Similarly, we see it occurring peacefully, apparently supported by the local population, or at least the more vocal part of the local population. As expected, there is lots of propaganda floating about.
So, what to do about the Russian bear? Will poking it just make it angry, or is it worse to let it growl and only encourage such behavior? Worryingly, we cannot ignore the fact that Ukraine is only one of many post-Soviet republics upon which Russia likely has designs. If Ukraine is forced to give in will it only embolden Russia to seek political crises in other states along its lengthy borders, hoping to use them as an excuse to send in troops and “rescue” enclaves of ethnic Russians, slowing adding bits and pieces to Russia itself?
Will any meeting of Western powers in the upcoming powers be dubbed today’s Munich, or will a solution to neutralize Russian aggression truly be found?