Sunday, 20 April 2014

Ukraine: a moment of truth at Easter. On Hitler's birthday

Easter Sunday. For Christians at least, a good day, pretty much the best. 

On the other hand, this year it also happens to be Hitler’s birthday, which is not quite such a cause for celebration.

And both are relevant. The Ukrainian government – if ‘government’ isn’t too strong a word for a body whose writ is so little followed – has declared an Easter truce in its fight with pro-Russian rebels in the East of the country. This may be a generous and open-hearted gesture, or it may reflect a lack of confidence in its own forces, even to the point of not being sure that any armour it sends against rebels won’t be immediately taken over and turned back the other way.

As happened last time.

As for Hitler’s birthday, well I’ve already commented on the similarities between Putin’s behaviour and Hitler’s. In fact, more than once. I fully accept that not everyone agrees with me: I’ve had it pointed out to me that Putin’s behaviour in Crimea is no different from Thatcher’s over the Falklands.

That strikes me as a false analogy. The Falklands – the Malvinas – ought certainly to be Argentinian and will, I’m sure, be handed over some day. The objection back in 1982 was that President Galtieri sent armed forces to seize them. British possession of the Falklands may well be wrong, but Galtieri’s actions was illegal.

Such breaches of international law damage us all. Not just in the Falklands but anywhere they occur, most notably in Iraq: the West, far from being innocent, is the most frequent and flagrant perpetrator. That, however, doesn’t justify Putin who also has form in these matters: even before Ukraine, he used military force in Moldova and Georgia.

So how about the parallels between him and Hitler?

The most striking similarity is escalation.

Hitler’s first (illegal) military action was to reoccupy the Rhineland. Well, it was German territory, after all. You could argue that the Versailles Treaty, in stipulating that the Rhineland had to be left demilitarised, was unjustly limiting Germany’s legitimate rights.

Then came the annexation of Austria. Well, Austria having lost its Hungarian and Slavic populations, was a massively German nation and there was certainly huge enthusiasm for union with Germany.

Next it was the turn of Czechoslovakia. It had large pockets of German population who, rightly or wrongly, claimed their rights were being trampled on by the Czech authorities. They appealed to Germany to assist them, an entirely disingenuous appeal since they were already heavily dependent on the Nazi regime. That was the crisis that led to the Munich Agreement, in which Chamberlain for Britain and Daladier for France thought they had guaranteed “peace in our time” by agreeing to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, through Hitler’s annexation of the areas of majority German population.

The following spring, Hitler had occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.

That autumn, he invaded Poland and Europe found itself sucked into the Second World War.

Now history doesn’t repeat exactly. The steps are different. But Putin is ramping things up just as Hitler did.

First it was Crimea. Well, a bit like Austria and the Germans, the population is mostly Russian-speaking and closer to Russia than to Ukraine. In fact, it only became Ukrainian through a high-handed act of Kruschev’s in 1954.

Now it’s the Russian-speaking populations of the Eastern Ukraine. Well, rather like the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia, they feel aggrieved about being regarded as Ukrainians (at least, quite a lot of them do). Perhaps they feel that Russia is their mother country. And, again rather like the Sudetens, it looks as though they’re getting a lot of foreign encouragement (some of it in the form of armaments and possibly even troops without insignia) for their rebellion.

Comforting that we can count on him as a champion of freedom
Yesterday, despite the truce, there was fighting in the port of Mariupol, which left three people dead. The Russian authorities have expressed outrage. Well, I believe any citizen of the world should see this kind of killing over political matters as outrageous, but Russia clearly feels that it has a specific interest in these incidents because one side of the conflict is Russian-speaking. Which is rather like the United States feeling it has a right to speak for British citizens in trouble with the law, merely on the grounds that they speak the same language (well, pretty much the same language).

What’s next? That’s not difficult to imagine. If Eastern Ukraine is allowed to secede and join the Russian Federation, like Crimea, will Putin next annex the area of Moldova, immediately to the West of Ukraine, where he has already stationed troops in an ostensibly independent nation? From Moldova, he threatens Ukraine’s third city and most important remaining port after the loss of Crimea, Odessa.

None of this is identically analogous to Hitler’s actions, but it’s the same kind of salami-slice approach to foreign policy with the aim of gradually extending its territory. The end result would be a Ukraine so emasculated that it would barely be viable as an independent nation, leaving it liable to absorption wholesale into the Russian Federation. Rather like the rump of Czechoslovakia was taken over by the Reich.

What’s Putin’s objective in doing all this? Again, he’s made no secret of his nostalgia for the Soviet Union. It seems difficult to deny that he’s working to reconstitute it.

It wasn’t much fun last time the world was dominated by a United States glaring at a Soviet Union each in its forest of nuclear weapons. And it wasn’t fun for rather a lot of Europe. No wonder the Baltic States and Poland are concerned – they can see where this may be heading.

It doesn’t have to go there. On Thursday, Russia, Ukraine, the US and the EU met and agreed a way out of the crisis. It involved rebels giving up their occupation of public buildings, in return for an amnesty for protesters who have not committed capital offences. Clearly, it depends above all on Russia reining in its supporters in Eastern Ukraine, and them agreeing to go along with the arrangement.

Will it stick? If it does, something remarkable will have happened. Russia, on the road to aggrandisement by military means, will have drawn a line and said “no, we go no further down this road.” Putin will have pulled back from policies that seem set to push the world back towards a state of affairs that was ugly then and could be a lot uglier now.

He will have diverged fundamentally from the route that Hitler took. We might look back to this 125th anniversary of Hitler’s birth and congratulate Putin on his extraordinarily judicious behaviour.

But three died in Mariupol yesterday. And the pro-Russian protesters aren’t vacating government buildings. The omens aren’t good.

Still, it’s Easter Sunday and I mustn
’t spoil it. Have a good one, whether you believe in it or not. At least enjoy the chocolate.

Happy Easter

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