April 28, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

One person who might benefit from the crisis in the Ukraine is Neville Chamberlain. He has been scorned for his "appeasement" of Germany after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. Hitler followed that by stirring up unrest in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, all in the name of protecting ethnic Germans, a process that culminated in the Munich Agreement in September of that year, after which Chamberlain declared "peace for our time." By March of 1939 Hitler was rolling through Prague, having taken control of all of Czechoslovakia. Well, it's déjà vu all over again, and the current crop of leaders isn't faring much better than Chamberlain, at least so far.

Chamberlain's big mistake was hoping that Hitler would be satisfied with the Sudetenland. Unfortunately for Chamberlain and the rest of Europe, Hitler had larger ambitions. He wanted to recreate Germany as it was before being sliced and diced by the victors after World War I. First came the annexation of Austria. Then came the seizure of the Sudetenland to protect ethnic Germans. Europe and Great Britain couldn't agree on what to do, their indecisiveness giving Hitler the green light to grab off the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Now we have Vladimir Putin, a man who says he is just looking for a little respect. He bristles at attempts to expand NATO and the European Union into countries that historically have served as a buffer between Russia and Europe. Like Chamberlain, who felt that some of Hitler's concerns in the Sudetenland were justified, I think a lot of people get that Russia doesn't like the expansion of Europe's sphere of influence into adjoining territories. And honestly, when trouble broke out in the Ukraine over just that issue, I don't think anyone was shocked when Putin grabbed off the very low hanging fruit of Crimea, given it's history and strategic importance to Russia.

The big question is whether that will satisfy Putin. Like Hitler, Putin has a grand vision for his country. He talks of rebuilding "historic Russia" and protecting the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. You would think Ukrainians would have had enough of Mother Russia after Stalin starved seven million of them to death. But then again, the current crop of ethnic Russians came to the Ukraine to rebuild the population after Stalin's ethnic cleansing operations and the resulting famines.

So Putin plays a cagey game of lies and distortions, speaking out of both sides of his mouth with a fluency not seen since the days when Henry Kissinger ran the State Department. He treats the legitimate government of Ukraine as if it is an occupying force. He foments unrest while talking peace. In the meantime, caught up in the spirit of bringing back the good old days, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have been going after the Jews and the gypsies. I've always felt the typical middle European was just a half-step away from storming the streets with pitch forks and axes.

Like their fathers before them, today's American and European leaders wring their hands and issue stern denunciations. The main strategy seems to be to make Putin's rich friends suffer, in the hope that they will pressure him to ease up. Next will come a war of words on Twitter, no doubt. It's true, the world is in a different place today. We are more global. Russia is more vulnerable to economic sanctions. But history shows that people will eagerly drink the Kool-Aid if they feel they are on a mission to restore greatness. Maybe we should just "friend" Vlad on Facebook. If we give him enough "likes," then perhaps he'll stop being such a grumpy face.

While Putin moves pieces around on the chessboard, we sit and wait for ... what? World War III? Oh no, that could never happen. We are far too advanced for that. Surely, men of reason will surely find a way to appease ... check that ... negotiate a settlement. I'm sure Mr. Putin will not call our bluff and seize eastern Ukraine. And if he does, that surely will be the end of his ambitions. You folks in Poland and the Baltic Sea can go back to your homes. Nothing to worry about here. We will have peace in our time.

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