Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine back. In fact, the ex-Lieutenant Colonel of the Soviet Union’s KGB is on record with his view of the fall of the U.S.S.R. “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he said in 2005. In a foretaste of things to come, Putin added “Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.”
Secretary of State John Kerry went before ABC’s cameras on Sunday and said: “If [Russia has] legitimate concerns about Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, there are plenty of ways to deal with that without invading the country.”
Where has the world previously heard this song of nationals longing to be rejoined with the Fatherland? Seventy-six years ago, when Adolf Hitler demanded control of the German-speaking Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, CBS journalist William L. Shirer wrote it up this way: “All through the spring and summer [of 1938], indeed almost to the end, [British] Prime Minister Chamberlain and [French] Premier Daladier apparently sincerely believed, along with most of the rest of the world, that all Hitler wanted was justice for his kinsfolk in Czechoslovakia.”
Hitler claimed that the Czech government was systematically discriminating against three and a quarter million Germans who populated the Sudetenland. And so he demanded that it be turned over to him. His real objective, as he freely admitted to his advisers, was to destroy Czechoslovakia completely. The small country was created out of whole cloth as a direct result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Its terms were distinctly unfavorable to Germany, and Hitler vilified the treaty to gain popular support for his National Socialist party.
He was obsessed with restoring Germany’s status as a world power—and eventually making Germans the masters of the world. To accomplish this, Germany needed Lebensraum, living space. Writing in his infamous treatise Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Germany’s attempts to establish colonies in Africa were folly, that it must focus on Europe:
Nature as such has not reserved this soil for the future possession of any particular nation or race; on the contrary, this soil exists for the people which possesses the force to take it and the industry to cultivate it. […]
In this case we must not let political boundaries obscure for us the boundaries of eternal justice. If this earth really has room for all to live in, let us be given the soil we need for our livelihood.
True, they will no t willingly do this. But then the law of self-preservaion goes into effect; and what is refused to amicable methods, it is up to the fist to take.
The dismal story of Britain’s slide to war in the 1930s has been told and re-told. It is the stuff not just of history but legend: The increasingly alarmed Winston Churchill, relegated to the fringes of Parliament, repeatedly sounded the alarm. No one listened. But by May of 1938, the British government was convinced Hitler was preparing to attack Czechoslovakia. Months earlier, Hitler had lectured his generals about the need for “the descent upon the Czechs.” The plan even had a code name: Case Green. As Hitler told Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel: “The first four days of military action are, politically speaking, decisive. In the absence of outstanding military successes, a European crisis is certain to rise. Faits accomplis must convince foreign powers of the hopelessness of military intervention.”
Also assisting the dictator was the work inside Czechoslovakia of the Sudeten German Party, the SDP. Subsidized secretly by the German Foreign Office, the SDP was effectively a satellite of the Nazis. A month before Hitler’s discussion of Case Green, he had met with the SDP leader, a one-time gymnastics teacher named Konrad Henlein. Hitler’s instructions to Henlein were concise: “Demands should be made by the Sudeten German Party which are unacceptable to the Czech government.”
Hitler’s propaganda chief, Josef Goebbels, swung into action, flooding the airwaves and newspapers with stories of “Czech terror” against the Sudeten Germans. And the key to success? Hitler needed to con the gullible British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Édouard Daladier—not to mention the rest of the world—that, as William Shirer would later write in his classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “all Hitler wanted was justice for his kinsfolk in Czechoslovakia.” At one point, in a tense meeting with a British delegation bearing a letter from Chamberlain about the Czechs’ desire to negotiate, Hitler jumped to his feet and shrieked that “the Germans (in the Sudetenland) are being treated like niggers!”
The con worked. Munich inevitably followed, with Chamberlain returning to London after three different meetings with the German dictator to proclaim “I believe it is peace for our time.” Suffice to say, it wasn’t.
The parallels to the crisis in Ukraine are eerie. Vladimir Putin is determined to restore the glory of the Soviet Empire. The Russian invasion must have been planned for weeks if not months, but is presented as a fait accomplis. Putin is using the pretense of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to justify his claims in the Crimea. The language from the AP report could be straight out of 1938:
President Vladimir Putin has defended Russia’s action against “ultranationalist forces” in Ukraine during a phone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A Kremlin statement posted online said Putin spoke with Merkel by phone Sunday, and that Putin “directed her attention to the unrelenting threat of violence” to “Russian citizens and the whole Russian-speaking population.” The statement said Putin had stressed that measures taken by Russia so far were “fully adequate.”
Since parliament gave him a green light to use military force in Ukraine late Saturday, Putin has defied calls from the West to pull back his troops, insisting Moscow has a right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers in the strategic Crimea region and elsewhere in Ukraine.
It’s clear that Putin sees in the West a weakness, a lack of resolve. Our allies abroad have chosen generous welfare programs over self-defense, and they have for decades sought shelter under America’s umbrella. But in the age of Obama, Clinton, and Kerry, that doesn’t amount to much. Consider:
• Missile Defense — In 2009, Obama scrapped the U.S. agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic to build an interceptor site and radar designed to protect both America and its European allies from ballistic missiles. By 2013, the final stage of the project is gone. The New York Times wrote it up this way:
U.S. Cancels Part of Missile Defense That Russia Opposed
MOSCOW — The United States has effectively canceled the final phase of a Europe-based missile defense system that was fiercely opposed by Russia and cited repeatedly by the Kremlin as a major obstacle to cooperation on nuclear arms reductions and other issues. […]
Aides to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said there would be no reaction until early next week, when they expect to be briefed by American officials.
But Russian news accounts quickly raised the possibility that the decision could portend a breakthrough in what for years has been a largely intractable dispute between Russia and the United States. A headline by the Itar-Tass news agency declared, “U.S. abandons fourth phase of European missile defense system that causes the greatest objections from Russia.”
• Russian Ban on Americans Adopting Russian Children: CNN reported this Putin action this way:
Russia’s Putin signs anti-U.S. adoption bill
(CNN) — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on Friday a measure that bans the adoption the [sic] Russian children by U.S. families effective January 1.
The action could affect hundreds of U.S. families seeking to adopt. Americans adopted close to 1,000 Russian children last year, according to U.S. State Department figures.
And the American response? A low-key statement from Hillary Clinton’s State Department said the U.S. “deeply regrets” the move.
• Edward Snowden: And, of course, who can forget the Obama administration’s demand for NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who, after doing his deed, hightailed it for Russia, where he still sits. Reuters wrote up that one this way:
Putin says Snowden can feel safe in Russia
(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin described the former U.S. intelligence contractor sought by Washington on espionage charges as a “strange guy” but said he could rest easy that he would not be handed over to U.S. authorities.
U.S. President Barack Obama withdrew from a bilateral summit with Putin last month after Moscow granted asylum to Edward Snowden who had leaked details of secret U.S. government surveillance programs.
• Syria: Then there’s the Syria business, which CNN described this way:
Analysis: Putin scores diplomatic win on Syria
“But after Putin’s bombshell opinion piece in the New York Times in which, among other things, he takes America to task for an “alarming” pattern of intervening in the internal conflicts of foreign countries, it’s obvious something has shifted.
“It absolutely is a diplomatic win by Putin right now,” said Fiona Hill, expert on Putin and director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
“If we think about this as judo, which is of course Mr. Putin’s favorite sport, this is just one set of moves,” she said. “And right now, he’s managed to get Obama off the mat, at least, and get the terms set down that play to his advantage.”
• And so? Of course, who can forget that memorable picture from when Obama and Putin had to sit for photographers at last year’s G8 Summit in Northern Ireland? Business Insider ran the shot with a story as follows:
One Photo That Says It All About Obama’s Chilly Meeting With Vladimir Putin
President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a face-to-face meeting at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland on Monday.
It didn’t go so well. […]
The Obama-Putin bilateral meeting was marked by chilly, icy, and somewhat miserable-looking expressions.
Hmmm. The Obama-Putin meeting didn’t go well? Chamberlain and Hitler were all smiles at first, but eventually it came down to the atmosphere seen here in this photo. Chamberlain saw “peace for our time.” Hitler saw — well —we know what he saw.
What we have are two sets of world leaders, eight decades apart, who have conveyed their weakness, and led an aggressor to believe it can get away with anything. In the last few days Obama has reinforced this message yet again; the White House says it “condemns” the move in the Crimean, which is a “breach of international law,” and that the U.S. will now stop the prep work for the June summit of the G8 in Sochi. Take that, Vladimir!
For anyone who has followed Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Poland and Syria, not to mention last week’s reports that the U.S. Army is shrinking to pre-World War II levels, there should be no surprise here. Not to be forgotten either is Secretary Kerry’s entire career as one of the Senate’s most pronounced doves. Can we expect Putin to smell anything other than weakness?
The Wall Street Journal asks “what President Obama and free Europe are going to do about” the Putin aggression. The paper suggests, among other things, reconsidering “all trade and banking relationships with Russia”; using the Magnitsky Act (our own Jed Babbin explains here) to ban Russian officials from visiting the U.S. and freeze their financial assets; and deploying part of the Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea and the new aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush into the Mediterranean. Good ideas all. Doubtless there are more.
Here are my questions: What are the American people going to do about President Obama? Or Congress in the 2014 elections? And is there a Winston Churchill in the GOP ranks?