Historical analogies

By Lorenzo

The crisis in the Crimea has folk reaching for their historical analogies. Taking the most directly resonant one, the original Crimean War (1853-1856) was about blocking Russian ambitions towards the decaying Ottoman Empire, which then controlled most of the Middle East. The Russo-Turkish interaction had huge strategic implications. Russia-Ukraine, not so much.

The Appeasement analogy

Then we come to the most dramatic and fraught analogy, which is the policy of Appeasement towards Hitler, taking “allowing” Russia to grab Crimea as analogous to handing over the Sudetenland to Hitler. Regarding that analogy, the crucial happening between the Munich Agreement of September 1938 and the Anglo-French declaration of war in September 1939 was Nazi Germany’s occupation and incorporation of “Bohemia and Moravia” in March 1939, which made it clear that Hitler’s ambitions extended way beyond reunification of ethnically German-occupied lands. Hence the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland.

Final French assault captures Sevastapol.

Final French assault captures Sevastapol.

If Hitler’s ambitions had been so limited to reuniting Germans, the Munich diktat (Czechoslovakia was not invited to participate in decisions about its future) would now seem a successful piece of realpolitik. The question about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement was whether it was clear before Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Czech lands in March 1939 how unlimited Hitler’s ambitions were. Churchill picked it, Chamberlain didn’t.

So, Chamberlain threw away an ally (Czechoslovakia) without defusing the underlying causes of dispute, because he couldn’t unless he was prepared to hand over as much of Eastern Europe to Germany as Hitler wanted to try and grab. And Chamberlain did so without successfully signalling that Hitler could trigger war with the Anglo-French by actions in Eastern Europe. Which weakens the “he bought time for further re-armanent” argument.

So, the question is; how extensive are Putin’s ambitions? Are clear signals being sent about what limits exist? (Lack of such clear signals were likely a factor in the outbreak of the Korean War, for example.) As for reassessing Appeasement in the light of the current Crimean crisis, the most one can say is that the uncertainty Chamberlain was dealing with becomes clearer. To which the response is–Churchill picked the nature of Hitler when Chamberlain did not.

Russian enclaves

Let us take the view that Putin’s ambitions do not extend beyond Russian nationalism. As Simon Schuster points out in Time, even that narrow view of Putin’s ambitions make the Crimean crisis one with fairly horrifying implications for Russia’s neighbours, most of which have some Russian minority: 

What likely worries Russia’s neighbors most is the statement the Kremlin made on March 2, after Putin spoke on the phone with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Vladimir Putin noted that in case of any escalation of violence against the Russian-speaking population of the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia would not be able to stay away and would resort to whatever measures are necessary in compliance with international law.” This sets a horrifying precedent for all of Russia’s neighbours. Every single state in the former Soviet Union, from Central Asia to the Baltics, has a large Russian-speaking population, and this statement means that Russia reserves the right to invade when it feels that population is threatened. 

Perhaps the rational thing to do for their long-term strategic safety is what Germany’s neighbours did in 1944-50 with their German minorities–expel all their Russians. Except, of course, by 1945 Germany was devastated and occupied and in no position to object.

A quote on Russian history which is getting cited is George Kennan‘s famous line that:

Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.

But that is not an analogy as such, it is a derived principle of Russian history, which Putin seems to be living up to. Again, as it was invoked about the Russian-Georgian unpleasantness.

So, this is where historical analogies are useful. They do not provide answers, but they can help formulate the right questions. The error is in supposing that historical analogies come with answers attached: then you are not analysing the actual situation, you are letting past experiences (or, at least, particular takes on past experiences) trump present realities.

12 Comments

  1. derrida derider
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Historic analogies are treacherous things.

    People keep quoting the same one – Munich – over and over precisely because it is the only recent example of the very rare error of failing to go to war when you should, as distinct from the much more common error of going to war when you shouldn’t.

    And even Munich is more complex than people think, both in its morality and its realpolitik. One of the things on morality is that Hitler was championing the Versailles principle of self determination, noting how unnatural and impermanent Germany’s frontiers were from this perspective. His abandonment of that stance in March 1939 was his first really big error.

    Putin can reasonably do the same in the Crimea – the insistence on holding on to in the face of Russian opposition in 1992 was in the long run a deeply stupid one for Ukrainian nationalists. And it is still stupid; unlike interwar Czechoslovakia the Ukraine would be infinitely more stable and secure without that discontented rump for a neighbouring power to exploit. There is no – zero, nada – chance of Russia then going on to swallow the rest of the country, let alone Turkey (get real here, mate). Putin in fact would probably be smart enough to encourage rump Ukraine to join the EU if they’ll have it. No-one likes having a chronically poor, paranoid and unstable neighbour they can’t get rid of.

  2. derrida derider
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Also, what was so terrifying about that statement you quote – surely the operative phrase is “in compliance with international law”, which tightly restricts the scope of any action. And anyway the crucial difference between the Crimean Russians and the (poorly treated, BTW – more nationalist stupidity) Baltic Russian minorities is that the Crimea is a geographically distinct region with both natural frontiers and a Russian MAJORITY. It differs from the rest of eastern Ukraine in those vital respects.

  3. Posted March 5, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t seen it properly explained how Ukraine ended up with a pro-Russian leader when 78% of the Ukraine population is ethnic Ukraine and only 17% ethnic Russian.

    Obviously many ethnic Ukraines backed Yanukovych.

    Also note that the current government contains two openly openly fascist and racist parties who would be more than happy to exterminate the Russian minority. One of their first acts was to overturn the elected President’s decision to accept Russian as an official language in Crimea- not exactly smart.

    Putin may be a prick but his reasons for invading Crimea are comparable to certain American interventions in central America etc…

    Unless Putin tries to annex the territory or his troops start getting trigger happy, I don’t see much reason for the West to be alarmed.

    Moreover, Russia is already paying a price for Putin’s actions- it’s the economy stupid. I think we should just chill and see what happens …

  4. Graham Bell
    Posted March 5, 2014 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Thoughtful article and comments – way above the standard of what is being inflicted on us by the entertainment media.

    The Russian Federation might have been very unhappy about the Ukraine joining the European Union but could never have tolerated the Ukraine joining NATO.

    The Russian takeover of Crimea – or its quasi-independence, as in Transdniestr – was inevitable but Putin’s speeding up the process and his way of doing so is real cause for concern.

    Analogies and comparisons? Why is it that Vladimir Putin’s actions make me think of Frederick the Great’s reasons for making war on the Holy Roman Empire? Troops ready for action – Full treasury – His own vigorous nature.

  5. Posted March 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]&2

    His abandonment of that stance in March 1939 was his first really big error.

    Since Lebensraum was always Hitler’s policy, not sure error is quite the right term. Also, not sure what the reference to Turkey is about, since I thought I was making it clear Ukraine/Crimea is a different case.

    The problem for the neighbouring countries with Russian minorities is that said minorities actual treatment is beside the point, Russia can always claim mistreatment, as it has in Crimea. And a “right” to take over neighbouring enclaves with Russian majorities, or “protect” bits with Russian minorities, is still not encouraging for its neighbours. Which is no doubt why Kazakhstan, normally a reliable ally, has very conspicuously not fallen into line.

    As for “international law”, that is surely an empty fig leaf, since the current intervention does not conform to it.

    No-one likes having a chronically poor, paranoid and unstable neighbour they can’t get rid of.

    Up to a point. One not in a position to assert itself against Russian wishes might be highly desirable.

    [email protected]

    I haven’t seen it properly explained how Ukraine ended up with a pro-Russian leader when 78% of the Ukraine population is ethnic Ukraine and only 17% ethnic Russian.

    Because the Western Ukraine was previously part of Poland/Danubian monarchy and has different outlooks than the Eastern Ukraine which has been part of the Russian Empire/Soviet Empire continuously for a lot longer.

    Both political sides include unsavoury folk, alas. And nationalism can lead to all sorts of nasty places; it is why patriotism is preferable.

    As for Western policy, my main concern is no miscalculations happen; that Putin does not decide the West is “weak” and wanders into territory that leads to much nastier possibilities. But, with that caveat, yes, the Western response should be restrained.

    [email protected] Thanks. But why does Russia get a right to veto Ukraine’s possible alliances?

  6. derrida derider
    Posted March 6, 2014 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Hitler’s error in March 1939 was an error precisely because it showed the whole world his real motive. My point is that he could have kept lying a lot longer and it would have continued to be hard for people to call him out on them.

  7. Posted March 6, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    “As for Western policy, my main concern is no miscalculations happen; that Putin does not decide the West is “weak” and wanders into territory that leads to much nastier possibilities. But, with that caveat, yes, the Western response should be restrained.”

    Yes, I agree. Pushing too hard at this stage would risk fanning Russian anti-western nationalism.

    You are also right about the pro-Russian side having nasty nationalist elements.

    Meanwhile your right wing libertarian bedfellows have decided it is all Obama’s fault.

  8. Posted March 7, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Practically the only time I read Catallaxy is when you link to it. That particular link, I didn’t get past the first two sentences. Obama derangement syndrome is no more attractive than Dubya derangement syndrome.

    That being said, Obama and his Administration do seem to have got Putin wrong, a point that is being made, for example, in Slate, hardly a right-wing journal. (Which is not the same as saying it is his fault.)

  9. Posted March 7, 2014 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    [email protected] So, an error of means; on that basis, yes I agree.

  10. derrida derider
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    That being said, Obama and his Administration do seem to have got Putin wrong

    OT, but ’twasn’t Obama who said of Putin “I have looked into his eyes and seen his soul” . Some soul.

  11. kvd
    Posted March 7, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    dd, Obama is qualified, if anyone is, of making that statement. After all, they are both Nobel Peace Prize nominees – so, soul brothers. And then there’s the old “after the election I’ll have more flexibility” trope to consider.

    We will keep you informed of what you need to think 😉

  12. derrida derider
    Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    kvd, yes. If you hadn’t already realised I was was in fact quoting Obama’s predecessor.

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