Friday 5 September 2014

Is it 1938 all over again?

As Paul Gottfried said, 
for the neo-cons it is always 1938.
It is interesting how Ukraine reopens the history of 1936-41 - the other analogy is Vietnam and the domino theory. So we ought to decide what we think about the Munich agreement, especially à propos of whether NATO should fight a proxy war in Ukraine.

A.J.P. Taylor once asked this question:
In 1938 Czechoslovakia was betrayed. In 1939 Poland was saved. Less than one hundred thousand Czechs died during the war. Six and a half million Poles were killed. Which was better – to be a betrayed Czech or a saved Pole?
I do not want us to be fighting Russia by proxy in Ukraine for our sake or for that of the Ukrainians on both sides who will be killed in a war that might last no one knows how long.

With the benefit of hindsight, had the UK and France not guaranteed Poland in 1939 and had Poland given away the Polish Corridor, without the need for Germany to ally with Stalin, things would have been better for the UK, France and Poland. 

Ben Judah, who is only 25, is certainly one of the 1938-ers. He recently wrote a very eloquent, well-argued and mistaken article in the New York Times, entitled 'Arm Ukraine or Surrender', arguing for NATO arming Ukraine. His advice would lead to a proxy war between NATO and Russia that could last years, cost many lives and if NATO and Ukraine won a complete victory could end in Vladimir Putin being replaced by people whom the Quai D'Orsay and Foreign Office found less tractable.

Peter Hitchens answers Ben Judah here. 

The same people who have turned much of Syria into a smoking, gore-encrusted rubble-heap, and Libya into a cauldron of blood and fire,  are hard at work here, making a very similar mistake to the ones they made in Damascus and Tripoli. First, they think that because the Russian government is bad (beyond dispute) , whatever replaces it will be better (very questionable). 

Peter Hitchens goes too far in blaming the EU as if Ukrainians had no say in their own revolution. He seems to think Ukrainians should not be able to decide their own future, but he is right that in fact they cannot. 

Judah's article betrays his youth and is wrong, though wrong for all the right reasons. Interpretations of 1933-39 are misleading us. Putin does not want to conquer Poland. He does want to retain Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of the former Soviet Union under his thumb and the best way for Ukraine to escape and have a European future is to be prepared to detach themselves emotionally from territories occupied by the 'rebels' - Putin wants frozen conflicts. 

Putin is no more Hitler than Saddam was or Nasser was - or an even more evil man than Saddam, Ho Chi Minh. Mr. Judah and others who think like him are proposing the domino theory that was such a disastrous idea for Laos and Cambodia.

It is clear that some individual NATO countries have been giving Kiev military support but this has been done discreetly. Kiev should not be allowed to imagine that it can rely on unlimited NATO support in the way that Western and Communist satellites did during the Cold War. This is how the Korean war started and almost brought the world to war over Cuba.
Anne Applebaum, the Polish-American-Jewish journalist and historian, who is married to the Polish Foreign Secretary and Bullingdon Club member Mr. Sikorsky, backs Mr. Judah. She argues that Ukraine is far bigger and far closer to us than Georgia. She might have added that because Georgia is not in Europe - though it feels European when you go there - it counts much less. She says

There are no natural borders between Kiev and Berlin. A permanent "frozen conflict" inside Ukraine will be a source of instability, disrupting Ukrainian and indeed European politics for many years to come: If Putin doesn't like something Kiev does - or Brussels does - he can move the border again.
But yes, there is one analogy: in Georgia, Putin did learn that if he waits long enough, Western ire disappears, the Western media becomes distracted - and then he can strike again. We are complacent about what is happening in eastern Ukraine, and the price of that complacency will be very high. 

I agree that we cannot be complacent, as we were after the Georgian war. I confess that I am not sure what we should do but though we underreacted to the war in Georgia it is not true that Georgia was much of a victory for Putin. He intended to achieve regime change in Tbilisi but Mr. Saakashvili served out his term of office. 
'Hitler was a rational, though no doubt a wicked statesman', 
said AJP Taylor. This applies to Putin too , but I do not see a good outcome for Russia or the E.U. from the events that started with the revolution in Kiev. The Americans were playing with fire and Ukraine got burnt but in the long run Ukraine might be the gainer all the same.


  1. Is Peter Hitchen's known for writing such trash? I have seen better, slicker, propaganda pieces coming from western "journalists" on the Kremlin payroll.

    1. I dislike the myopia on both sides but I certainly do not like hearing Vladimir Putin or his invasion being admired. I think for Russia, it is worse than a crime - it is a blunder. P

    2. On rereading Peter Hitchens I see that he does go too far in blaming the EU. The EU and Americans were very cackhanded indeed and the agreement between Ukraine and the EU led to the fall of Yanukovych but the proximate cause of the revolution or putsch (it was both) was Putin's manhandling Yanukovych into dropping the deal. Putin is interested in demonstrating Russian power but his principal motivation is preserving his own power. Nothing for Peter hitchens to admire here, even if Hitchens approves of Putin’s law on homosexual propaganda. Any good outcome for Ukraine - prosperity and democracy and clean government - is a grave threat to his hold on power. I have been arguing with pro-Kremlin people (British and American and one or two Romanians like Matei and Ovidiu) and have gone too far to see Putin's side of the story.

  2. With all due respect for AJP Taylor, his quote is nonsense. As I am sure you well know, the losses Poland suffered were civilian and not due to fighting on the country's territory but German (and Soviet) occupation policy. To say that the decision to go to war caused this to happen is flawed logic and/or poor knowledge of history. Roy

  3. The second world war was as an unmitigated disaster,dressed up now as some sort of glorious triumph. How many millions died?! And whatever your views on the Holocaust, it is clear that the state apparatus could not have killed that ma an by people without the convenient cover of war...

  4. Interesting the parallels between the situations in Ukraine and Palestine, and how the press reacts.

  5. From Putin's view ( which is the only way he sees things ) the collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of almost treasonous actions on the part of the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. The " we have been betrayed " mantra is something that was shared by post WWI Germany. The most significant difference is that, unlike the Versailles Treaty, the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not come at the point of a gun. It is much more morally difficult, therefore, to portray themselves as any kind of victim. In 1992, Crimea agreed to remain a part of Ukraine as an autonomous republic. Pro Russian elements in the region always objected to that decision.

    While Hitler flat out invaded Poland, Putin uses infiltration to send in his Spetsnaz personnel to aid, equip and support pro Russian elements in the areas he desires so he can claim his hands are clean. Putin sees a decadent and clueless West and an American president who is out of his depth. He, instinctively, has taken advantage of the situation. The only danger I see is that the West may appear so feckless than Putin may be tempted to move into a NATO country to accomplish what the Soviet Union could not; destruction of the Western Alliance by proving its impotence.

  6. Putin does not have the world altering goals of Hitler. He is looking to get back more of the valuable natural resources and ports lost in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and not total European domination.


  7. One should be very careful drawing analogies. The Munich analogy is one of the most common and misused. If you haven't read it, I commend to you Khong's Analogies at War (Princeton U. Press 1992). Putin is not Hitler. Moreover, the involvement of several nuclear powers makes nuclear diplomacy (there is a large literature on this) part of the equation. Those two factors alone make an analogy between 1938 and Ukraine of dubious utility. Indeed, we are more likely to derive false lessons from such comparisons.
    Jonathan Acuff

  8. I view the situation as closer to September 1939 in Poland. Soviet propaganda during the invasion focused on protecting Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian minorities in the "Kresy" (eastern borderlands) from Poles and Germans. The move, of course, was to recover territory lost to the Russian state following the Treaty of Versailles and the failures of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921. The local population in some instances welcomed the Soviets and created militias in support of Soviet forces (and later took part in the deportations of ethnic Poles). Polish resistance was light considering the bulk of forces were in a fighting retreat from the Germans towards Romania.

  9. The borders of the USSR extended from Western Germany all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It shared borders with North Korea, Turkey, China, and Finland, just to name a few countries. The Soviet Empire comprised 1/4 of the Eurasian landmass. After 1992, this empire passed into history. For the next decade, Russia was bankrupt and weak. Russians saw the West (and the US) as taking advantage of Russia's weakness by grabbing nations bordering Russian and including them in their alliance. Russians feel a great, and almost spiritual devotion to their country. This devotion has been exploited by dictators and governments throughout its history.
    During WWII Stalin tried to rally the people against the Nazi invasion with Communist Party slogans. He tried to get the to fight for Communism. This was a dismal failure. What worked is when he used the atrocities of the invading Nazis as a backdrop for Naziism in general. People started to rally around Russia-not Communism.

    Putin understands this and it is why he is using it to divert attention away from a failing economy. He wants to restore the old borders of the USSR in order to gain security for Russia. He fails to understand or just does not care about the brutal history or Russian (Soviet) occupation of neighboring countries.