Ukraine Crisis: the folly of false historical analogies

The ceasefire in Ukraine seems to be sort of holding. No one, however, seems terribly optimistic that peace is going to come. Certainly there is no sign of the displaced refugees returning home.

The conflict has repeatedly been portrayed as a binary good vs. bad situation analogous to the most simplistic of cowboy films by the West with the only dissent tending to be from the usual suspects (such as John Pilger here – that said good to see the Belfast Telegraph having something better than its current sub Daily Mail stuff complete with side bar of shame girly pictures) who tend to manipulate the facts almost as much as those whom they castigate. In Russia on the other hand the situation is exactly the same though with the goodies and baddies being reversed.

Ukraine has been contested over the centuries but eventually became part of the Russian empire. There was an attempt at independence after the fall of the Tsars in 1917 but the Soviet Union rapidly regained its dominance. Stalin proceeded to collectivisation of the farms which produced a devastating famine in a region which is amongst the worlds most agriculturally productive. It now seems clear that the famine was a deliberate act and millions died.

This devastating famine helped result in popular support from many Ukrainians when the Third Reich invaded in 1941: there are pictures of German soldiers being greeted by women with flowers. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians the master race saw them as sub human Slavs and proceeded to treat them appallingly. Although some Ukrainians supported the Nazis the lot of most people was dire. Resistance movements both aligned with and opposed to the Soviet Union arose along with those who supported the Nazis and those who simply tried to survive. 7 million Ukrainians died during the war.

The relentless return of the Red Army brought liberation for some, murder and exile for others, no doubt some more deservingly than others. The resistance to Moscow rule continued sporadically and largely ineffectually until the early 1950s. The general relaxing of Soviet rule under Nikita Khrushchev (though he had implemented Stalin’s purges in Ukraine) did result in peace. However, unseen by most in the west was the fact that parts of Ukraine were far from happy with rule from Moscow. The borders of Russia and Ukraine were arbitrary and then largely irrelevant: they were effectively one country; Khrushchev gave Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. Furthermore people clearly mingle and without a specific defining ethnic difference whether perceived or real many people will no doubt have been disinterested in the specifics of their nationality.

The events since the breakup of the Soviet Union, whilst until recently less deadly, have been just as duplicitous as those of the Second World War. The newly independent state of Ukraine had a vast nuclear arsenal. In return for voluntarily giving up its nuclear weapons (one of the few – arguably the only country to have done so) Ukraine’s territorial borders were guaranteed by Russia and NATO though Russia was allowed to station its powerful Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. In addition it was agreed that NATO would not seek to expand its membership into the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Rightly or wrongly NATO promptly expanded to take in not only the former Warsaw Pact countries but also the former Soviet Republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia which also joined the EU. It was pretty clear that popular opinion in these countries supported such changes but they were in direct contravention of the agreements with Russia. This was at a time when Russia was historically weak led by the “kelopocacy” of alcoholic Boris Yeltsin and his cronies and man in the West paid little attention to Yeltsin apart from laughing at him when he was too drunk to get off the plane at Shannon. The Russian military was a pathetic shadow of its former self with their ships, aircraft and tanks largely inoperable and no money for new equipment or training.

Things changed radically, however with the rise to power of Vladimir Putin and the rise in the international value of Russia’s vast natural resources. Putin to an extent tamed the oligarchs and whilst by no means eliminating corruption he has made Russians richer and Russia more powerful. Specifically this former KGB officer has presided over an increase not only in authoritarian rule but also a massive reversal in fortune for the Russian military. Russia’s planes, ships and tanks have been restored to working order and new weapons systems arguably the equal of Wests have been produced.

With this improvement in Russia’s economic and military position Putin has also decided to adopt a much more assertive foreign policy. This was seen in South Ossetia but has reached new heights in Ukraine.

Ukraine had been leaning towards the west for some time with its presidents supporting joining both the EU and possibly NATO after the Orange Revolution. In 2010 Viktor Yanukovych was elected. His support base was the pro Russia east of the country but he initially supported increased ties with the west. However, under pressure from Moscow he dumped this policy in favour of increased ties with Moscow. Yanukovych was clearly authoritarian and spectacularly corrupt but he had been democratically, if narrowly, elected.

This resulted in street protests and violence: exactly who started shooting is unclear but there were multiple deaths in Maidan Square. Yanukovych was deposed by a combination of idealists and democrats but a considerable part of the muscle that helped ensure his downfall came from fascist groups openly drawing inspiration from those who fought with the Nazis against the Russians in the Second World War.

This development in turn resulted in those in favour of greater ties with Russia objecting. In Crimea, which had a clear Russian majority, there was a relatively peaceful revolution against Kiev’s rule and a demand to return to Russia. Although there was little fighting armed men appeared to help ensure Crimea’s independence and it seems certain that some of them were Russian soldiers with varyingly unconvincing degrees of disguise. That said it is clear that the elections which followed demonstrated an overwhelming support for leaving Ukraine and returning to Russia and reflected the will of the people (if not by the majority obtained).

That left much of the rest of the east of Ukraine which has significant industry and is largely supportive of greater ties with Russia. With some support (seemingly less direct) from Russia, Donetsk and Lugansk regions declared UDI.

The Ukrainian response was considerably less supine than towards Crimea (probably largely due to a lower level of Russian support for the separatists). The Ukrainian army moved against the separatists and open warfare resulted. There was a ceasefire last summer but this quickly broke down. There followed gradual military victories for the Ukrainians which saw the area controlled by the separatists greatly reduced: it began to look as though the Ukrainian authorities might regain the whole of the country apart from Crimea. In this the Ukrainian army have been helped by assorted militia groups which have included neo Nazi groups such as the Azov Battalion complete with Waffen SS symbolism. The Ukrainian government has repeatedly described its opponents as terrorists helped by the still contested circumstances of the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH 17 most likely by the separatists.

That situation has been reversed by recent improvements in the separatists fighting abilities along with continual suggestions that they have been supplied with weaponry by Russia and that Russian regular soldiers have joined them. Whether these Russians are formally constituted as Russian army units seems unlikely but there seem to be large numbers of them in an officially tolerated and encouraged fashion and they have helped tip the balance back in favour of the separatists.

The current uneasy ceasefire is expected to hold by few. If it does break down there have been multiple calls from many in the West to arm the Ukrainian military, even to let them join NATO and in addition there are western military observers with the Ukrainians at the moment.

This has been combined with a ratcheting up of the rhetoric in other parts of Eastern Europe with NATO warplanes sent to the Baltic States (NATO members) and the suggestion that we are back in a new Cold War, even that a real war could ensue.

Much of this seems problematic. It is clear that both Russia and NATO / EU have been involved in highly murky dealings in all these events. Amongst the most foolish comments have come from many sources including Prince Charles and more importantly British and American politicians likening Putin and Russia’s behavior to Hitler and Germany’s in the 1930s.

There is a very superficial similarity in that in pre Second World War eastern Europe there were substantial German minorities in many other eastern European states: this was increased further by the Treaty of Versailles. However, the levels of stupidity of comparing the authoritarian and nationalistic Putin with the genocidal policies of the master race pursued by Hitler and the Nazis are farcical and insulting to the Nazis’ millions of victims.

At least they would be farcical if they were not directed against the country which lost more citizens than any other during the Second World War and which bases much of its world view around its heroic defence of its (and the worlds) civilisation (even under the murderous tyrant Stalin) against Nazi Germany. Then the analogy is not only insulting but also actively dangerous.

The only way in which the analogy has any validity is one that reflects more poorly on the western powers. It is widely accepted that the Versailles Treaty imposed humiliation on Germany: a Germany which whilst defeated had not been destroyed the way it was a generation later. That sense of humiliation helped engender bitterness and the rise of nationalism in Germany The way the west treated Russia after the fall of communism was somewhat similar with humiliation heaped on humiliation. It is quite clear that during Yeltsin’s incompetent rule Russia was ignored and fairly deliberate attempts made to box it in. Now with Russia strengthened though by no means back to its USSR strength such attempts to box it in allied with rhetoric invoking the 1930s is in danger of creating a dangerous situation and will increase both paranoia and nationalism in Russia.

Russia has for centuries feared being isolated and has been invaded by two of the last two centuries greatest tyrants (Hitler and Napoleon) with results not in keeping with the triumph of the west.

Sanctions are unlikely to affect Russia much in all this as to a significant extent this may be seen by them (or presented) as an existential threat to Russian civilisation. As such further sanctions are unlikely to affect them. Furthermore should the west supply the weaponry to tip the balance decisively in favour of the Kiev regime and enable it to retake eastern Ukraine it is more than possible that the Russians would feel forced to commit proper combat troops and formations to the fight. In that case the outcome would be an inevitable crushing defeat for Ukraine bringing with it not thousands but tens of thousands of deaths.

Whatever the protestations of our leaders it is inconceivable that they would commit NATO troops to fight for Ukraine. The aftermath of the calamitous Iraq invasion of 2003 makes large scale military adventurism very difficult for western governments: the aftermath of the so called Arab spring shows that even small scale adventurism can be disastrous.

In Ukraine the orders of magnitude of the potential disaster are many times greater. In some neocon fantasy of John McCain et al. sending American troops to Ukraine might solve the problem. In reality Russia is more willing to commit troops to the situation than any NATO allies and there is absolutely no way Europe or the USA would risk a war with Russia. Such a war which, if localised to Ukraine, the west would probably lose and which if generalised would probably escalate to nuclear annihilation.

Indeed it is fairly doubtful that NATO would when it came to it provide more than token defence for the Baltic States: not that there is any real evidence of Putin wanting to reincorporate the Baltic States into Russia. Again this is a piece of dangerous false analogy with 1930s Germany.

As such the idiotic rhetoric comparing Hilter’s Germany with Putin’s Russia needs to stop. It shows not only the lack of historical and cultural understanding of those making the analogy but is also an insult to those of the heroic generation of all nationalities who stood against Nazi tyranny.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.