Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Historical analogies

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.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

No comments:

Post a Comment