Putin is no Hitler, but we have to draw a line

For those of us who take an interest in history, it has been a scary few days, as Russia flexes its muscles over Ukraine. It is the sort of behaviour that can lead to war, if not now, then the next time they try it. It’s worth trying to unpack these historical parallels a bit.

First there is a reminder of the lead up to the First World War, now very much in the public consciousness as the centenary approaches. There are some striking parallels here. First is complacency. In 1914 there had been 43 years of peace in Europe, and an era of rapid growth and international trade. It was widely assumed that economic interconnections were such that a major war was unthinkable Рone side or other would always back down before it was too late. That assumption is widespread now.

Next we can see a “Great Power” mentality in Russian policy. Before 1914 politicians tended to see the world dominated by the interests of Great Powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the USA, etc.), who had spheres of interest. Each great power pursued its own national interest, treating each other with circumspection and respect, but trampling over other countries at will, provided they were in there own sphere. Russia seems to consider the Ukraine as part of its own sphere – as with all countries within the boundaries of the old Soviet Union. China seems to think this way too, but the Western powers have a more enlightened view of the world, and like to see things in ethical terms. Of course the Russians and Chinese think this ethical view is just a cynical cover for extending the Western (or rather the U.S.)¬†sphere.

And finally there is militarism. The most toxic element of the pre-1914 political cocktail was German militarism. The German ruling elite was dominated by the military, and barely constrained by democratic processes. They had developed a philosophy that world politics was a life and death struggle between nations, of which war was the only arbiter. Their military analysis of the European situation in 1914 – that they could win a general European war, especially if Britain stayed neutral – meant that they egged the Austrians on. The military play an important part in the Russian political elite, and they feel an acute humiliation from their decline of prestige since the Cold War, and a sense of satisfaction from their intervention in Georgia. The Russians will not want a full-scale war with the West, but they are probably happy to contemplate unequal confrontations with their immediate neighbours.

But I find the parallels between Russia and Hitler’s Germany before the Second World War the more alarming. Hitler had developed a doctrine that it was right for Germany to intervene to protect German populations outside its borders. This led successively to the occupations of Rhineland (which had been occupied by the French under the Versailles Treaty, but which was recognised as German territory), Austria, Sudetenland, the rest of Czechoslovakia, and finally Poland. In each case, until Poland, the other European powers failed to react, which emboldened Hitler to move to the next challenge. The parallels with Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are rather striking. First there is the doctrine of intervening at the request, or in the interest of, people considered part of a wider ethnic identity. Second is the kind fig-leaf legal pretexts that are used to justify these interventions (in Crimea the letter from ex-president Viktor Yanukovych) without any real regard to ethical merit. Third there is the failure to stand up to each provocation by the rest of the world community – justified in the name of avoiding war. There is a rather chilling parallel with some of the dissembling I read amongst some comments by some on the internet: Ukraine has a complicated history; there is no clear right and wrong; Crimea should really be part of Russia anyway. This is strikingly reminiscent of the supporters of Appeasement in the 1930s. In that case a firm intervention by Britain and France could have caused Hitler’s downfall and prevented war – or at least led to Germany’s early defeat in a war, and millions of lives saved.

We can overdo the parallel between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. True, Putin’s rule has a lot of elements characteristic of fascism: contempt for the rule of law, suppression of dissent, and appeal to a highly nationalistic view of history. But there is little of Hitler’s sense of a national mission. Russia is a much more cynical place than Germany was in Hitler’s time. Russia may despise the West, but it also envies it and craves recognition by it. Hitler sought more than prestige: he sought something much more like domination.

But there are risks. Russia feels that it has “interests” not just in Ukraine and Georgia, but in Byelorussia, Moldova and the Baltic states (to say nothing of the Asian former republics of the Soviet Union). It might be tempted to use military means to extend its influence in each of these countries if it gets away with a painless annexation of the Crimea. This is not only bad for the people living in these places, but could cause war, and in any case sets an awful precedent for other countries.

To combat this the West needs to be clear and united on a number of things. First is that our view of democracy is that it comprises a system of moral principles that go way beyond the holding of elections. That includes respect for legal processes, honesty by ruling elites and protection of the interests of minorities. Mr Yanukovych lost his legitimacy through his theft of public assets and through his excessive deployment of lethal force against protestors. These are things that go beyond the pale of democratic rule. We need to be quite consistent in holding the new Ukrainian government to the same standards, condemning any oppression of the Russian minority. Secondly, we accept that borders can change, but that it must be done through a democratic and legal process, with full protection of minority rights. One day Byelorussia might join up with Russia. Perhaps even there is a way for Crimea to become independent or join Russia too. But military means is unacceptable. Military intervention is only allowed where something like genocide is starting to take place, and preferably with UN backing. Third is that military intervention against a NATO country really does mean war.

So, when Russia breaches these principles, what to do? There do need to be consequences, and the West much accept damage to its short-term economic interests. A number of sanctions have been talked about, against Russia and against Russian elites. These have justification, but we need to leave enough tools in the box in case Russia ups the ante. The legal pretext for Russia’s intervention in Crimea could equally be used for a full-scale invasion of the rest of the Ukraine. If this happens, what will we do?

Longer term, we need to do two things. First is to take concrete steps to speed the import of shale gas from the US to Europe, and other measures to reduce the dependence on Russian gas. Second it to make a number of gestures to strengthen NATO’s eastern defences. This is the sort of thing that gets noticed by the Russian elites – and will lead them to ask whether all this military adventurism is worthwhile.

Ultimately, though, we would like Russia to take its place amongst the community of civilised nations. This means rolling back the cynicism that is engulfing that society. If it does so, then it will become a more appealing place to live, and its soft power will be enhanced. Byelorussia would no doubt rejoin it. Meanwhile, though, the West must show some spine or things will just get worse.