“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by government of policies contrary to their own interests.” Barbara Tuchman
Today Russian forces continued their occupation of Crimea in spite of international outrage. Not only did they continue to build up their forces in Ukraine to the point that they operationally control the peninsula, they upped the ante demanding that Ukrainian army and navy units to surrender by Wednesday or face a “military storm.”
It is something that Europe has not seen since the Cold War when the Soviet Union used military force and violence to put down revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
However, I think in political terms it is much closer to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 after Britain France and Italy stripped that country of its power by forcing the Czechs to surrender the Sudetenland to Hitler in October of 1938. Up to that moment the European powers bet on the appeasement of the Hitler regime. In a sense over the past decade the West has given Putin free reign to exercise his power over former territories, coercing them and occasionally using economic and even military power to bring them into line.
But now it is Ukraine. a complex region where Asiatic Russia meets Europe. The Ukraine is not Georgia or Chechnya. It is a region that has been a battlefield between Russia, the indigenous peoples as well as Germany, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Turkey. It is the dividing line between western Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. In the 1850s even England and France found themselves intervening in the Crimea.
I believe that Putin under the flimsiest of pretensions has elected to use military force to attempt to coerce the Ukraine back under the thumb of a Russian Hegemon and to frighten the West into not intervening. It is a mistake. Just as in 1938 when Hitler believed that he could continue to steamroll the through Europe without war. In betting on the weakness of the West, Putin is playing the same game. Contrary to the speculation that Putin is doing this as a show of strength it is actually a display of Putin’s domestic insecurity.
Russia is not nearly as economically or militarily strong as Putin acts. There are serious ethnic and social divisions in the country and despite its assertions the Russian economy is much more dependent on the good graces of other nations as it is not. Already following Putin’s move into the Crimea the Russian currency and stock markets are tanking. I suspect that the West will soon impose sanctions that hit Russian economic and banking oligarchs where it hurts which will undercut support for Putin where he needs it most. Likewise I expect that Russia will be expelled from the G-8 and possibly cut off from other international banking and economic organizations.Likewise both the U.S. and the United Kingdom are bound by treaty to protect the territorial integrity of the Ukraine.
Putin has had a run of success until now. However his crackdown against dissidents, campaigns against homosexuals and the state supported Russian Orthodox Church assault against other Christian denominations have already undermined his credibility as a world leader.
The invasion of the Ukraine will solidify opposition to Russia abroad, and increase anti-Putin sentiment in Russia. Should the Russian military attempt to invade other parts of Ukraine as they are threatening, Putin will find that he has bit off more than he can chew. His forces are certainly more than a match for the Ukrainian military, but he will not be able to hold or occupy the vast areas of the Ukraine in the face of opposition that will rapidly move toward a protracted insurgency. This insurgency will be supported by nations such as Chechnya which will take the war to the heart of Russia. It will turn out worse for Russia than the invasion of Afghanistan for the Soviet Union.
A new Cold War has already begun, Putin has made sure of that. The world that existed just three weeks ago when athletes from around the world gathered in Sochi for the Winter Olympics no longer exists. The only thing that we can hope is that the new Cold War does not become a hot war.
I am reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s words in The Guns of August: “The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
The world that we knew is now changed.
Let us pray for peace.