Putin of Crimea: 1945, not 1938!

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have, at best, a cool relationship. Body language suggests neither is fond of the other. The result is a collision of interests, cultures and psyches

Russia’s seizure of Crimea and what may follow are works-in-progress. With the 100th anniversary of World War I’s start looming, no one wishes to turn this land grab into 1914. Russian President Vladimir Putin implicitly recognises the danger. Russia, he says, harbours no ambition over and will not venture into eastern Ukraine. We will see.
Meanwhile, the west is stuck. While some argue, with some cause, that Putin’s gambit ends the post-Cold War order by abrogating both the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) and the 1994 Budapest Agreement guaranteeing Ukrainian territorial independence, does anyone want a Cold War II? Others, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, raise more dire warnings citing 1938 and Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland. Yet, short of military force to retake Crimea and imposing financial and economic sanctions on Russia and key individuals in Putin’s clique, the list of options to force a Russian withdrawal is remarkably short.
To the degree history is useful, 1945, and not 1938, is more relevant. World War II was ending — President Franklin Roosevelt believed that, by dint of his personality, Stalin could be convinced of a continuing alliance with the west. The Yalta Summit in February 1945, two months before Franklin Roosevelt died, was Roosevelt’s attempt not at “reset” but at setting post-war relations with the Soviet Union on an even keel.
Roosevelt failed. Stalin was determined to secure the Soviet Union by creating a “friendly” buffer zone well beyond its borders. Hence, Stalin agreed to join the war effort in the Pacific after Germany surrendered and did. Stalin also permitted the fiction of percentages of influence in border-states to persist wherein the Soviet Union or another power would have a minority holding.
That never happened. Eastern European states began falling like dominoes into Soviet control. Moscow increased its Asian perimeter, occupying the northern half of Korea and Japan’s northern islands. By 1947 and the Greek revolution, the west realised a cold war had started and, as Churchill pronounced, “an iron curtain has descended” across Europe. Soviet interests would always dominate relations with the west.
This is what is happening in Crimea. Putin is responding to Russian interests. No less an authority than Henry Kissinger has a good explanation of why. Without excusing the Crimean intervention, Kissinger understands how Putin came to regard post-Cold War US policies and actions as humiliating, demeaning and dismissive of Russia. Led by the US, the west celebrated the implosion of the Soviet Union as a great victory, which it was. However, most Russians did not celebrate that outcome. Nationalism still permeated Russia and Russians.
The expansion of NATO eastwards, George W Bush’s unilateral termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001, misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and what Russians perceive as excessive arrogance and repeated claims of exceptionalism on the part of the US elite provoked genuine Russian resentment and animosity against the US. Putin, with a finely tuned political ear, has become the expression of that resentment and humiliation. Indeed, politicians anywhere would give virtually anything for opinion ratings as high as Putin’s are today.
Furthermore, presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have, at best, a cool relationship. Body language suggests neither is fond of the other (in that regard Putin and the Israeli prime minister may share a common reaction). The result is a collision of interests, cultures and psyches. Both the west and Russia can mount strong argument over Crimea that represents vastly different interests. Unfortunately, both sets of interests exist in different universes, meaning reconciliation will not occur overnight.
Under these circumstances and assuming Putin does not move further west into Ukraine, the best course of action may be in form, not substance. The US and the west should assume a posture of sorrow and disappointment towards Russia, mourning actions that will only destabilise and not improve security and prosperity for all. Against that tone, the US and its allies should announce, reluctantly, imposing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s assimilation of Crimea.
Symbolic actions by NATO with visits by high level civilian and military officials to capitals, staff exercises to improve inter-European deployments of forces and other steps to reassure allies and bolster deterrence are essential. Interestingly, deploying anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic designed to counter potential Iranian systems makes no military or political sense as Russia has tens of thousands of short-range nuclear weapons against which a handful of missiles are useless.
This is not 1938. It need not be 1945 either if we understand what motivates Russia and Putin, and act accordingly.

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