Godwin's Law posits that the longer an Internet discussion goes on, the greater the risk of an analogy to Hitler and the Nazis. It didn't take long with Ukraine*. Thus, conservatives have compared Vladimir Putin's grab for the Crimea to Hitler's occupation of the Sudetenland on the eve of World War II. That makes President Obama a Chamberlain appeaser. Even Hillary Clinton reportedly brought up Hitler.
Putin is not a Hitler. Obama is not a Chamberlain. This is not Munich revisited — oh, how many foreign policy disasters have we made in order to forestall a "second Munich." This is ignorance mixed with bad taste considering how the Russians suffered under Hitler.
The first thing to remember is that only Americans forget history, and history lays heavy on Ukraine.
In modern times, it has been an independent country for only 23 years. For most of the previous seven centuries, it has been under some kind of foreign rule, usually the tsar or the Soviet Union. That is not to say Ukraine lacks a strong nationalist element, one that fought against Russia in the 1918-1921 civil war and again after World War II.
Ukraine was the site of the great famine, or Holodomor, first revealed to the West by the heroic historian Robert Conquest. More than seven million Ukrainians were killed by deliberate policy of Joseph Stalin. The Nazis murdered millions more as they swept through Ukraine in 1941.
Still, most Russians see Ukraine as part of their nation and the Soviets tried an intensive effort at Russification. Kievan-Rus, in the ninth century, marked the beginning of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy. Russia's attachment is even stronger for the Crimean Peninsula, a Russian fleet anchorage and fortress for centuries. Kalamita Bay, north of Sevastopol, was where Queen Victoria's armies landed during the Crimean War — the "Valley of Death" is not far although Russia ultimately lost the war.
While the causes of that 1853 to 1856 conflict had many roots, one was the ancient desire of St. Petersburg to sieze Constantinople and the straits from the Ottomans, "the Sick Man of Europe," thus gaining commanding access to the Mediterranean. This would not do for the British Empire (or the French), but Russia's oceanic aspirations never withered.
Almost a century later, some of the most savage fighting on the Eastern Front occurred in the Siege of Sevastopol. Yalta, where in the conservative mind FDR sold out Eastern Europe to Stalin, is nearby. Crimea was only made part of Ukraine in 1954 in what seemed merely a gesture by Nikita Khrushchev, himself Ukranian (and overseer of the famine). After the fall of the USSR, the Russian Federation negotiated a lease to keep its naval base there.
So, it's complicated.
Even if America were prepared to go to war over today's situation — remember, Eisenhower didn't intervene in the 1956 Hungarian rebellion, because he couldn't — we don't exactly occupy the moral high ground.
Under George W. Bush, America pushed aside international law for a preemptive war against Iraq, which neither had anything to do with 9/11 (our Saudi allies did) nor had weapons of mass destruction. America violated the Geneva Conventions to enshrine torture and indefinite detention of prisoners of war as national policy.
Interestingly, we continue to hold "enemy combatants" at a naval base we leased from Cuba, and just held onto.
Here's a thought experiment: America has long been in the empire business. To conquer this continent required wars or bribes against hundreds of Indian nations, not to mention Mexico. Imagine if, say, the Apaches seceded and proclaimed their total independence from the United States? Would any of the Putin bashers waste a second condemning the U.S. government for sending in marshals or even troops to retake the White Mountain rez?
Losing an empire sucks. The only ones I know who did it with grace were the British. World War I had much to do with collapsing empires, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman. Much of the trouble in the Middle East today traces back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. China's violations of international law over the South China Sea and East China Sea go back not only to claims made by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists but to centuries-old grudges over lost empire.
The collapse of the Soviet empire is similarly fraught. For example, Russia lost all its buffers against invasion — a fear that runs deep even if Germany is its biggest trade partner — and many of them have joined NATO.
As for Valdimir Vladimirovich, the former lieutenant colonel of the KGB (and if you're not watching The Americans on FX, you're missing one of the best television shows), he is playing on ancient nationalist grudges, fears and aspirations. He has smartly brought in a revived Russian Orthodox Church and a pseudo-capitalist economy based on energy and natural resources. Russian exceptionalism is real, even if the country is weak, its energy power is fleeting and the population is literally dying off. It is still heavily armed with nuclear weapons.
An American naturally sympathizes with Ukrainian independence, especially for the West-oriented, largely Catholic population in the western two-thirds of the country. Who couldn't be moved by the video watching the Ukranian soldiers approaching a Russian squad firing warning shots and saying, "The Americans are with us"? This after the hash we have made of the good part of our exceptionalism.
At the same time, both sides have bad guys and oligarchs (kind of like us). So we should think. We should approach this with humility, as "Soleri" would put it.
"Banks not tanks," as Garry Kasparov said. Sure, but isolating and "punishing" Russia is probably not in our long-term national interest, especially if it plays into Putin's desire to stoke nationalist fervor. We're not the world police or the enemies of the Russian people. We do need nation building at home. The money John Kerry brought to Kiev would fund Amtrak for a year.
The best result may be ceding Crimea back to Russia — for Russia will never give it up. Even a partition of Ukraine might be necessary. Then, the western Ukraine should be neutral militarily.
Meanwhile, Putin might as well be on the payroll of Lockheed Martin, Boeing and the rest of the military industrial complex. Just as we're trying to shrink the Army, especially, to sensible levels...this.
I am with John Quincy Adams about America abroad:
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
We have much work to do on ourselves.
* I invite you to the comments section of the previous post, where Emil has done much to elucidate the issue.