Many Americans have trouble understanding modern Russia or leader Vladimir Putin. That’s in good part because they have little or no understanding of Russia’s history or geopolitics.
“The Soviets Union will return” I wrote in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR deprived the Russian imperium of a third of its territory, almost half its people and much of its world power.
A similar disaster for Russia occurred in 1918 at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Defeated by the German-Austrian-Bulgarian-Turkish Central Powers in World War I and racked by revolution, Lenin’s new Bolshevik regime bowed to German demands to hand over the Baltic states and allow Ukraine to become independent.
As soon as Josef Stalin consolidated power, he began undoing the Brest-Litovsk surrender. The Baltic states, Ukraine, the southern Caucasus and parts of “Greater Romania” were reoccupied. Half of Poland again fell under Russian control. Stalin restored his nation to its pre-war 1914 borders, killing millions in the process.
In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler was tearing down the equally cruel Versailles Treaty that left millions of ethnic Germans stranded in hostile nations and deprived Germany of its historic eastern regions. Hitler claimed his invasion of Russia was motivated by Germany’s strategic imperative to acquire farm lands so it could attain food security.
The Central Powers – notably Germany and Austro-Hungary – could not produce enough food to feed their growing populations. Imports were essential.
A major cause of the defeat of the Central Powers was mass civilian starvation caused by Britain’s naval blockade that cut off grain imports, a crime under international law. Hitler said he had to acquire Ukraine’s rich farmlands for national security – a term we often hear today. Like American today with oil, Germany insisted it had to be food independent.
Germany’s march east began in 1938 by Anschluss (reunification) with Austria – 76 years ago this month. Czechoslovakia’s ethnic German majority in the province of Sudetenland soon followed.
Today, we are seeing another Anschluss with the reunification of Ukrainian-ruled Crimea with Russia.
Crimea was detached from the Russian Republic in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev after a drunken dinner and given as a grand (but then empty) gesture to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Khrushchev was a Ukrainian Communist party boss who had participated in Stalin’s murder of 6-7 million Ukrainian farmers.
This is the first step in President Vladimir Putin’s slow, patient rebuilding of some of the former Soviet Union. What triggered his move was Washington’s engineering of a coup against Ukraine’s corrupt but elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich.
The minute Ukraine fell under western influence, Putin began moving to detach Crimea and rejoin it to historic Russian rule. Or misrule: Crimea and the Caucasus was the site of the holocaust of up to 3 million Muslims of the Soviet Union who were ordered destroyed by Stalin, among them most of Crimea’s Muslim Tatars.
No western leaders should have been surprised by Crimea. Nations still have strategic sphere of influence. In 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev refused to use force to keep the union together and allowed Germany to peacefully reunify. In exchange, US President George H.W. Bush agreed not to expand NATO’s borders east, and certainly not to Russia’s borders.
But at the time, Washington regarded Russia as a broken-down, third world nation beneath contempt. Bush senior and his successor, Bill Clinton, reneged on the deal with Moscow and began pushing Western influence east –to the Baltic, Romania and Bulgaria, Kosovo and Albania, then Georgia, across Central Asia. NATO offered membership to Ukraine. Moscow saw encirclement.
Having serially violated Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, it was inevitable Moscow would riposte. This writer, who extensively covered the Soviet Union, strongly advised NATO in the early 1990’s not to push east but to leave a strategic buffer zone in Eastern Europe to maintain peace with nuclear-armed Russia. The opposite occurred.
The western allies have committed the same error over Ukraine that they did over Czechoslovakia in the mid-1930’s: extending security guarantees they could not possibly fulfill. As of now, it looks like Putin’s gambit over Crimea will work and there is nothing the West can do about it but huff, puff and impose mutually negative economic sanctions.
By moving twelve F-16 fighters to Poland and warships to the Black Sea, a Russian `lake,’ Washington has provided enough military forces to spark a war but not to win it. Anyway, the very clever Putin knows it’s all bluff. He holds the high cards. Germany’s Angela Merkel, the smartest, most skillful Western leader, is responding firmly, but with caution, unlike the childish US Republicans who appear to be yearning for a head-on clash with nuclear-armed Russia.
Washington’s pot-calls-kettle black denunciations of the Crimea referendum ring hollow given the blatantly rigged votes coming up in US-dominated Egypt and Afghanistan.
Moreover, too few in Washington are asking what earthly interests the US has in Ukraine? About as much as Russia has in Nebraska. Yet the bankrupt US is to lend $1 billion to the anti-Russian Kiev leadership and risk war in a foolish challenge to Russia in a region where it has nothing to be gained.
Except, of course, for the US neocons who have played a key role in engineering the coup in Kiev and this crisis. They want to see Russia punished for supporting Syria and the Palestinians.