One of my major goals in life has always been to teach people history since I believe in George Santayana’s well-known saying, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That being said, I never imagined that history would repeat itself in nearly identical patterns. Yet, the events of the past few days appear to be almost an exact replication of events that led up to World War II. Let me state from the start; Putin is no Hitler and the Russia/Soviet Union is not Nazi Germany. However the parallels are down right amazing and frightening.
Nazi Germany in the 1930’s was the nation that had lost World War I, whose territory had been diminished, and who felt it had been unfairly punished. The Soviet Union lost the Cold War, and its main successor state, Russia, feels it unfairly lost lands that were once an integral part of the former Soviet Union. In the 1930’s, the rest of the world was still smarting from the costs of World War I. They had no interest in confronting the Nazis in a way that might result in war. Today, while the West (and particularly the United States) is not smarting from the Cold War, it deeply feels the sting from its less than successful encounter with militant Islam. The United States, the world’s only super-power, has been reluctant to exert itself (either with soft power or hard power) for fear of becoming entangled in yet another war. This perceived failure of American will has clearly contributed to the fact that killing continues to go on in Syria, that China has become more belligerent, and finally, that Russia has chosen to act as it has. Russia and the West have been on a path toward confrontation for the last decade (as Putin has been determined to reassert the power of Russia, or should I say, the old Soviet Union). Even so, I doubt there are very many people who could have predicted the events of the last 72 hours. The idea that Russia would blatantly violate the sovereignty of another nation, without provocation, seizing part of it, could not have been foreseen. The excuses being given by the Russians for their actions bring back purely chilling memories of the past.
Russia’s stated reason for taking action: “To protect ethnic Russians from the ravages of the local Ukraines.” Have we heard anything like that before? A quick look at history will remind us that this was the argument Germany used to gain the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the infamous “Munich Agreement”– an agreement that the world must insure does not repeat itself.
The world seems to be divided between those taking one of two positions: 1) The majority of Crimean’s are happy to be once again part of Russia, and we should leave the matter alone. Some also say that Russia has true concerns and grievances- and we should take those into consideration. 2) Others see this in a similar way to Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait. If international borders can be easily breached once, then they can be breached again. If one is going to decide to unilaterally annex any area based on ethnicity, then I guess it is time for part of Arizona to join Mexico.
There are no “magic bullet” solutions to this crisis. No one would suggest that the United States or Western Europe should get into a shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia. However, everything short of war needs to be done to support the Ukrainians and make it clear to the Russians that there is heavy price to be paid for naked aggression.
Finally, and as important, it is time for people of the West to realize–the hope many people harbored that the end of the Soviet Union meant the end of world conflict (a view shattered on 9/11) is but a fleeting dream. There is no other force of stability in the world, other than the United States. The world, as we know it, will not survive the U.S. retreating back into its shell, (as some politicians and many in the American public would prefer). And while Secretary of State Kerry may call the Russian action “very 19th Century”, that does not seem to deter the Russians who do not share the 21st Century view of the world held by the current American leadership.
The conflicts of the 19th century eventually begot the first World War, that began 100 years ago. World War I occurred at a time when most people believed the world had passed the age of great power wars. Unfortunately, those who dreamed of peace lived through two of the bloodiest wars in history – World War I and II. It is fine to believe in peace, to hope and pray for it. However, in the real world we live in, America and the rest of the world must realize that the time of war has not yet passed. We must react with urgency to any actions that destroy the norms that have kept the winds of war at bay. Events in Ukraine in the last few days are indeed that sort of action. Only if the West unites and makes sure that Putin’s Russia pays the price for their aggression can we hope to maintain the peace.