WITH Crimea voting for secession, the upheaval in Ukraine is fuelling an increasingly charged atmosphere between Russia and the tandem of the US and the EU. Are American and European leaders being cast in a Russian remake of the 1938 Sudeten crisis?
Immediately after Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to the ethnic Germans living in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. First, he demanded the Sudetenland’s cession to Germany, gaining relatively easy agreement from British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Édouard Daladier.
Hitler then immediately raised his demands to include German military occupation of the area. Deeming the issue “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”, and thus not worth defying Hitler over, Chamberlain and Daladier accepted the occupation by signing the Munich Agreement — with catastrophic consequences.
To be sure, Russian president Vladimir Putin is not Hitler, Russia is not Nazi Germany (or the Soviet Union, for that matter), and the world does not face the same apocalyptic scenario that unfolded in 1939. Nonetheless, there are some important parallels between the Sudeten and Crimean crises.
The most obvious is the presence of an expatriate majority in the occupied area. Russians comprise nearly 60% of Crimea’s 2m inhabitants, and many are more closely connected to their “mother” country than to Ukraine. Likewise, the 3m Sudeten Germans felt much greater loyalty to Germany than to Czechoslovakia, and the majority embraced their incorporation into the Third Reich. Indeed, Putin’s pretext for occupation and annexation — to protect the local population — is the same as Hitler’s. Until recently, Putin showed little interest in Crimean affairs, beyond renewing the lease on the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol.
But, since the Ukrainian revolution, the local Russian population’s alleged vulnerability to “fascists” has become an emblematic issue — and an excuse for Russian military intervention. Hitler employed a similar pretext in demanding the Sudetenland’s transfer from Czechoslovakia.
Putin has something else in common with Hitler: The view that the country he is occupying is somehow “unnatural”. Although Putin has not formally challenged Ukraine’s independence, he has never hidden his view that it is not a “real country”, referring to it as part of the “Russian world”. Similarly, for Hitler, Czechoslovakia was an unnatural conglomeration of disparate nations and regions.
Hitler sought to destroy Czechoslovakia. Six months after hiving off the Sudetenland, he abrogated the Munich Agreement by occupying all of Bohemia and Moravia and turning the Czech lands into a German protectorate, while installing a puppet regime in a nominally independent Slovakia.
If Putin has similar designs, he would begin with Crimea’s annexation — now seemingly a done deal — followed by a direct military presence in eastern Ukraine (where Russian troops are massing at the border), and possibly some kind of partition in the longer term.
Of course, like Hitler, Putin is not concerned only — or even especially — with the occupied area. Instead, he is seeking to project power farther afield. Putin has long used national resurgence to legitimise his rule. According to this vision, Ukraine must be strategically aligned with Russia, and its sovereignty must be limited.
For his part, Hitler considered an independent, democratic Czechoslovakia to be a security threat, while eyeing its industrial assets. But the Sudetenland’s annexation was, first and foremost, aimed at helping to restore Germany’s “great power” status.
There are also striking similarities between Western leaders’ responses to the two crises — namely, their reluctance to take decisive action. Indeed, they seem unwilling to back up their warnings of “costs” and “consequences” with meaningful measures such as asset freezes, trade sanctions, and travel restrictions — reinforcing Putin’s belief that they will continue to choose their relationships with Russia over protecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This timidity recalls British and French policy in 1938, when the Sudetenland — and later Czechoslovakia —was sacrificed for a short-lived “peace in our time”.
What lessons can be drawn from the comparison between the Crimean and Sudeten crises? First, any dialogue with Putin will be fruitless, unless Western leaders take a decisive approach that is shaped by concrete objectives, not bogus “strategic partnerships”. Conversely, name-calling — like US president Barack Obama’s accusation that Russia is “on the wrong side of history” — is pointless.
The West should stop reacting to Putin with “shock and awe” — shock that he can act with such seeming impunity, and awe at his perceived tactical brilliance. Europe and the US have vastly greater influence and resources than Russia, with its atrophied political system and exhausted economic model. What they lack is the willingness to accept the economic and political costs of defending the values that they claim to uphold.
Finally, Western leaders must recognise that appeasement cannot ensure peace and stability in Europe — not even under the fig leaf of “engagement”. When dealing with a leader whose credo is defined by the notion that “the weak get beaten”, Western governments must demonstrate their resolve, without sacrificing flexibility. Only on this basis can the crisis in Ukraine be addressed without fundamentally compromising transatlantic security.
* Bobo Lo is a specialist in Russian foreign policy at Chatham House, UK.