The headline on a recent Washington Post column asked, "Is it 1939 again in Europe?" The reference is to the outbreak of World War II on September 1, 1939, when Hitler's German armies invaded Poland and partitioned the country, with Stalin's troops occupying the eastern half.
A more appropriate date for comparing what's happening in Ukraine with pre-war Europe is 1938. That's when British and French leaders met Adolf Hitler at Munich and acquiesced in his annexation of German-speaking Sudentenland, a part of western Czechoslovakia. The Nazi leader pledged not to seize more of its territory, but six months later he broke that promise and occupied the entire country.
The parallel to what's happening in Ukraine is striking. Earlier this year Vladimir Putin, Russia's unchallenged leader, promoted an independence movement in Crimea, a Russian-speaking province of southern Ukraine. In March, Crimeans voted overwhelmingly in a referendum for independence, and their leaders quickly asked for annexation by Russia. Within a few weeks, Crimea was detached from Ukraine, with the support of disguised Russian troops, and annexed into the Russian federation.
The resemblance to Czechoslovakia in 1938 is striking. We may now see in other parts of Ukraine a repeat of what occurred there in March 1939. Last month the Russian leader sent a battalion of troops into eastern Ukraine to support a rebellion of pro-Russian separatists who had ousted local leaders in two provinces and proclaimed their independence. When no military help was offered by NATO, the country's president, Petro Poroshenko, accepted Putin's truce terms, which effectively freezes the battle lines in areas controlled by pro-Moscow forces.
Now the question is: What more does Putin want in Ukraine, additional territory under Russia's control, or a compliant government in Kiev that does its bidding?
One indicator was a commentary in the Economist (Sept. 6) titled, "The Long Game." Suggesting that Putin is patiently waiting for opportunities to expand his control in Ukraine, the journal warned he may also have designs on three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They were part of Russia until 1991, but are now independent and members of NATO. Each has sizeable Russian-speaking minorities. "The sad reality," the Economist warned, "is that Vladimir Putin is winning in Ukraine. The West must steel itself for a lengthy struggle."
A further examination of Ukraine's situation today with Czechoslovakia's in 1938 shows important differences in the political realities of the time. Here are three.
With America's and Europe's attention focused on defeating the ISIS threat in the Middle East, Vladimir Putin wants to expand his influence over all Ukraine. He insists that it will not be allowed to join NATO. He also insists that Ukraine adopt a new constitution that gives autonomy to its eastern provinces, which are controlled by pro-Russian separatists. That could lead to their independence and eventual annexation by Russia.
Do European countries and the United States have the will, and available resources, to counter Putin's designs in Ukraine? The recent NATO summit leaves that issue in considerable doubt.
File last modified on Friday, 15-SEP-2014 9:58 AM EST