Unbelievably, 76 years after the Nazis were forced out of Ukraine by the Russian army, the Russian army is back once more, this time as the aggressor rather than the liberator.
Back in 1944 some (non-Jewish) Ukrainians may have wondered whether being liberated by the Russians was an improvement on occupation by the Nazis, recalling the famine imposed upon the country by Stalin in the 1930s. Today I doubt whether any would believe that becoming part of Russia once again would be an improvement.
1938 all over again
Putin’s fomenting of ‘border incidents’ and ‘genocide’ of Russians living in the Donbas region is taken directly from Adolf Hitler’s 1938 playbook, by which he took over the Sudetenland in northern Czechoslovakia. By this stroke he not only seized a good chunk of territory without firing a shot, but occupied Czechoslovakia’s main northern border defences, leaving it in an indefensible position.
This time around Putin has been allowed to carve off pieces of Ukraine without any serious penalty from the rest of the world, and with the tacit approval of China, who are acting similarly in Hong Kong and see Russia’s actions as creating opportunities for them in Taiwan.
By occupying eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsular in 2014, Putin creating an exposed southern flank, posing a similar dilemma for the Ukrainian defence forces as the Czechs faced in 1938. Having allowed Russian forces to invade Ukraine from inside Belarus, President Lukashenko has nailed his colours to the Russian mast and given them a northern outflanking position close to Kyiv.
By this action Lukashenko has also raised the prospect of the Russians invading either Lithuania or Poland from Belarus at the Suwalki Gap, to re-connect their enclave of Kaliningrad and cut off the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia from the rest of Europe.
Suddenly we find ourselves facing the possibility of NATO in action against the Russian army, with Putin actively threatening the use of nuclear weapons.
How did we get here?
There’s an argument that NATO brought this on themselves by inviting the countries bordering Russia to join, thus triggering the innate Russian paranoia of being hemmed in, which in turn demanded action in Georgia and Ukraine. After being invaded by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941, then actively contained by NATO until 1991, this paranoia is an understandable part of the Russian psyche.
When coupled with Putin’s KGB background and his delusions of grandeur to re-create the Russian empire, this paranoia has led to the invasion and bombardment of the whole of Ukraine, something that few people saw coming, despite the years of fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
How will we get out?
Clearly, NATO does not want to start a war with Russia. There’s a risk though that a lack of action now will look like appeasement and encourage Putin try keep trying his luck, the same way Adolf Hitler did. Hitler didn’t expect the British and French to honour their alliance with Poland, and he was forced to invade France as a result, which was not originally part of his plan.
Russia has made itself an international pariah and its economy will undoubtedly suffer from the sanctions, but what of Ukraine? If the Russians succeed in destroying the current resistance and turn Ukraine into a puppet state, complete with the usual secret police apparatus of executions and gulags, where does that leave Europe and the rest of the world? Do we just wait until the dust settles, then hold our noses and start doing business with Russia again?
And what comes next?
“Peace at any price” was the dictum of Prime Minister Chamberlain, and it failed to prevent war in 1939. The difference now is that the antagonist has nuclear weapons. How do you stand up to that kind of opponent? The circumstances are quite different, but Iraq no doubt asked themselves the same question in 2003 when the USA invaded.
Are we more concerned about Ukraine because it’s a European country? It seems unlikely at the moment, but what if Putin sets his sights next on any of the central-Asian ‘stan’ republics, which Zbigniew Brzezinski calls ‘The Grand Chessboard’. As they’re not part of Europe, and were never going to be part of NATO, it’s quite possible that no-one will lift a finger.
Putin may be satisfied if he swallows Ukraine, but it’s not clear how the world order will stomach that. We could be entering a new era of conventional warfare on the world’s biggest continent, with no guarantees that tactical nukes won’t be employed.
In the meantime, if you want to help the million+ war refugees in Poland, consider mkaing a donation to Polish Humanitarian Action (www.pah.org.pl).
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