There is something remarkably old-fashioned about the crisis that has broken out in the Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine. For once, there seems to be no pretence of following international law, not even a cursory attempt to justify a blatant act of aggression. Instead, Russian troops simply marched in, took the Crimea and declared it “independent.” When pressed as to why Russian forces were seizing the area, Vladimir Putin’s response was simply that he was defending the “Russian-speaking” peoples of the territory. One has to admire the broadness of that statement; most Ukrainians can, after all, speak at least a little Russian, meaning that theoretically, any one of them could suddenly find themselves under Putin’s “protection.” That emphasis also cannot help but remind us of another authoritarian ruler, one who also emphasised importance of language in determining national boundaries and who over the course of several years, chipped away at the territory of his neighbours under the guise of national self-determination. The uncomfortable truth that we are now faced with is that Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is beginning to resemble that man, all the more ironic given Russia’s reflexively “anti-fascist” rhetoric.
Of course, when one decides to compare anyone alive today to Adolf Hitler, that assertion always needs to include some qualifiers. For starters, while Putin’s policies are by no means acceptable under any moral standard, his regime pales in comparison to the animal brutality that characterised the Nazi regime. Furthermore, unlike Hitler, we do not under any circumstances believe Putin to be a fundamentally evil man; reactionary and hostile to be sure, but certainly not evil. However, while Putin has avoided the admittedly low bar of not being anywhere near as deplorable as the Third Reich, that still does not excuse the fact that, intentionally or not, his foreign policy has come to share parallels with what would otherwise be his firm enemy.
Hitler did what he did in places like the Sudetenland for a variety of reasons, but there are two here that stand out in this instance. Firstly, he was a revanchist politician, who firmly believed in avenging the wrongs of the First World War and restoring the German nation to its rightful status by unifying itself ethnically and dominating the continent. Putin effectively has come in on a similar platform. He’s a man who longs for the days of the Soviet Union, when Russia was a power to be respected and did not submit so easily to the whims of the West as Gorbachev and Yeltsin did. As Germany lost the First World War, Russia lost the Cold War and Putin has made it clear that he wants to take it all back. We saw this in 2008, when Russia reclaimed South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We see this now in the Middle East, where Russian actions regarding Syria and Iran have allowed them to reassert themselves in the region for a time. And we can now see this in the Crimea, with Putin seemingly determined to take back the peninsula, that old symbol of Russian power, along with whatever ethnic Russians he can fit into it.
But there was also another dimension to this revisionism. Hitler’s actions were not only to address his own personal grievances, but also to test the resolve of his opponents. He wanted to see how far he could push Britain and France and as we know, he ultimately came to the conclusion that they could be disregarded and invaded Poland without worrying about the possibility of Allied counter-invasion. While we sincerely doubt that Putin intends to start World War III or even outright seize control of an entire country, we cannot deny that this is as much a test of the West’s resolve as well as Ukraine’s. Putin already got away with Georgia; he got away with Syria, now he seems to think that he can get away with an outright land-grab in the Ukraine. And the most maddening thing of all is that he is probably right. Regardless of whether or not Kiev chooses to retaliate, it is highly unlikely at this juncture that NATO will directly intervene. Given that, chances are good that Putin will get to keep the Crimea at least, as his forces are well-positioned to resist any Ukrainian counterattack.
That said, the gravity of this latest move stems from the fact that there will be no going back.. Regardless of Russia’s gas supplies, regardless of its diplomatic standing, the West will not forget what he has done here this week for quite some time. While Georgia could be construed as Saakashvilli’s fault and Syria had the cover of being an attempt to stop American aggression, Putin is fast running out of excuses. By doing what he has done, he has firmly polarised the line between East and West and from now on it is going to become ever harder to ignore that divide.
Ultimately, this is where one historical parallel ends and another begins. For all of the similarities of the situation, we ultimately cannot afford to respond to Putin as we should have responded in 1938. Russia has nuclear weapons. That fact alone makes the initiation of conventional warfare against Putin an immensely risky and incredibly irresponsible proposition. Much as I’m sure some of us would like to, we cannot afford to be seduced by the allure of a quick military victory against Russian forces, regardless of what Putin has done. There is something else we can do however. We may not dare risk fighting Putin, but we can contain him.
If this sounds like Cold War rhetoric: that’s because it is. Cold War containment was deliberately designed to avoid direct military confrontation while assuring firm opposition to Russian expansionism, and we believe a similar principle can be applied here. Putin clearly thinks that he can run roughshod over the West and do as he pleases because we are ultimately too afraid of the consequences of war. But he forgets that in the end, it was not rolling of tanks or the thunder of aircraft that defeated Russia before, it was just the standoff. Behind all of Putin’s chest-thumping lies the underlying fact that Russia is a shadow of its former self, whose economy relies entirely upon the fluctuations of gas prices and little else. If the West can resist the urge to immediately punish him, it can instead choose to adopt a strategy to contain and eventually roll back his foreign policy gains, hopefully allowing for a transition away from the constant confrontation that he seems to think he can get away with. Since he came to power, Vladimir Putin has been clamouring for a new Cold War. Considering how well the last one went for Russia, perhaps we should consider giving him just that.