Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



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.

  1. Putin's Russia is far less menacing than Hitler's Germany was 1938. By then the Nazi dictator had built a formidable war machine which caused western leaders to worry about his intentions in western and eastern Europe. When Britain's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, met Hitler in Munich and bowed to his demand to have Sudetenland, the British leader realized that Hitler intended to redraw the European map and stepped up war preparations in Britain.
  2. Vladimir Putin rules a sprawling country whose economy is fragile and based largely on the export of gas and oil, whose prices fluctuate. Although he seems to have wide support from the Russian people for his nationalist policies, his approval is nowhere near the personal adulation Adolf Hitler had acquired in Germany through the ruthless elimination of all opposition. Today Putin is not in position to wage major war, so he relies on weakness in the West to advance his gradual, cunning approach to gaining influence over neighboring states.
  3. Unlike 1938, Western Europe is united in the North Atlantic Alliance, which brought down the Soviet Union in 1991. It appears united in 2014 on opposing Putin's drive to roll back the loss of Moscow's empire, which he refers to as a "strategic disaster" for Russia. NATO leaders pledged at their Wales summit to use force to repel an attack by Russia on any NATO member, which includes not only the Baltic states but also Romania and Bulgaria.

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

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