Paratus Monograph 30: Those Who Ignore History Are Doomed to Repeat It – Parallels between Crimea 2014 and Czechoslovakia 1939
Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.The study of history allows us to recognise dangers that may not be obvious when looking at current events in isolation. It can also remind us of what can happen when politicians underestimate the consequences of their actions – or inaction.
This year’s Russian invasion of Crimea must be viewed in a historical context. To do so shows how dangerous this event is. The invasion could possibly be the biggest threat to world peace since Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939.
In early 1938 Adolf Hitler orchestrated the co-called “Sudetenland Question”. Sudetenland is the area of Czechoslovakia which was then inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans. Hitler alleged that the Sudeten Germans were facing persecution. This complaint was largely contrived, though supported by the agitation of pro-German agent provocateurs in Sudetenland.
Hitler gradually increased pressure on the Czech government, seeking various concessions on behalf of the Sudeten Germans, and threatened war if his conditions were not met. His threats increased until he appeared to be on the verge of invading Czechoslovakia. As a last ditch step to prevent all-out war, the Western allies, the United Kingdom and France, reluctantly agreed to Hitler taking Sudetenland. The resulting Munich Agreement prevented war in September 1938, but did not stop war starting in 1939, in fact led directly to it. For Hitler now regarded the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with utter contempt. He believed that neither the British nor the French would stand in the way of his further territorial ambitions. The stage was now set for even more outrageous acts of aggression.
In March 1939 Germany and Hungary invaded and divided up the rump of Czechoslovakia. Again the allies did not react. Finally Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland. World War Two had started.
The Western allies have been widely condemned since 1938 for their appeasement of Hitler, and it was concluded by many that the appeasement of a dictator will ultimately be counter-productive. This lesson appears to have been forgotten by many present day politicians.
Had the allies resisted Hitler in September 1938, he might not have proceeded with further aggression, and World War Two might never have occurred.
In 1989-91 the Soviet Empire collapsed. Ukraine, together with the other former Soviet republics, were transformed from powerless territories of the Soviet Union into independent countries.
Ukraine found itself inheriting from the Soviet Union a massive army, navy and air force, and large numbers of nuclear weapons. It could not afford to retain these. It was however wary of Russian intentions, and was not ready to give up its nuclear weapons without security guarantees. As a consequence the Budapest Memorandum was signed by Russia, the USA, United Kingdom and Ukraine in 1994.
Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal. In return Russia, the USA, and the UK agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”,…“refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine”,…“refrain from economic coercion”; and reaffirmed their “commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action to provide assistance to Ukraine, …if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression”.
The major base of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet was located in Ukrainian territory, at Sevastopol on the Crimea. The fleet was now divided between Russia and Ukraine. Agreements in 1997 regulated Russian access to Sevastopol, and right to maintain naval forces there until 2017. The lease was extended in 2010 to 2045. The agreements provided that Russian military forces in Crimea will respect “the sovereignty of Ukraine, observing its laws and permitting no interference in the internal affairs of Ukraine.”
Russia has been pressuring Ukraine, in an endeavour to extract political concessions, since at least 2005. In January 2006 Russia temporarily cut off all gas supplies to Ukraine. In late 2013 Russia threatened to increase gas prices if the Ukrainian government signed a trade pact with the European Union. This economic coercion was in violation of the Budapest Memorandum. The USA and UK did not react.
On 21 February 2014 the corrupt president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country immediately before being impeached by parliament. His removal was welcomed by the majority of the people of Ukraine. Even his own party voted for his removal from office.
In February 2014 Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that there was a unspecified threat to the lives of Russian citizens and military personnel based in Crimea. Pro-Russian agent provocateurs began to stage protests. This was an eerie echo of the Sudetenland Question in 1938.
In late February Russian military forces already in Crimea, together with pro-Russian militants, occupied government buildings, blocked roads, cut telecommunications, banned air movement, seized ferry terminals, blockaded Ukrainian military bases and border posts, and tried to seize Ukrainian navy ships. They have also overseen the “election” of a new Prime Minister of Crimea, literally at gunpoint. Sergey Aksyonov was previously the leader of an extremely small pro-Russian party. There are parallels with Quisling becoming German puppet Prime Minister of Norway in 1940.
Russia has since late February sent thousands of additional troops, along with aircraft and ships into Crimea, in violation of the 1997 Military Bases Agreements. It is now taking steps to annex Crimea outright.
The violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity is a fundamental breach of international law.
The United Nations Charter compels member countries to refrain from threatening or using force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. The invasion is an Act of Aggression under UN Resolution 3314.
The upper house of Russia’s parliament has voted to authorise Putin to send military forces into Ukraine, not just into Crimea. As Putin has claimed that ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, as well as Crimea, were at risk, there is a real danger that the remainder of Ukraine will be occupied by Russia.
The Western allies have half-heartedly objected to Putin seizing Crimea. United States President Barack Obama has said that America stands by Ukraine. However America has not actually done anything to assist Ukraine, despite its legal obligations to act. Nor has the European Union. The most that has been suggested is sanctions against individual Russian members of parliament who voted to send troops into Ukraine, the suspension of trade talks, and vague threats of economic sanctions.
With hindsight and the benefit of history, the international community ought to have foreseen the events of the last few weeks, and taken measures to prevent them.
The occupation and annexation of Crimea, and threat to invade the remainder of Ukraine, sounds uneasily familiar to any student of 1930’s European history. The actions of Russia are broadly similar to Nazi Germany’s actions against Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. As are the enfeebled responses of the allies. The USA and UK merely watched while Putin applied economic pressure on Ukraine, steadily increasing his demands and making more overt threats.
Chamberlain is today condemned for not standing up to Hitler at Munich. How will future historians judge Obama for failing to stand up to Putin?
We are now seeing a battle of wills and reputations. Russia has acted illegally. If Vladimir Putin backs down and withdraws his forces from Crimea and reverses the anenxation he will be doing the right thing legally, but he will lose political credibility within Russia.
If he stands firm, and resists criticism of Russia’s invasion, he will make Russia a political pariah, but reap domestic political benefits – just as Hitler did after Sudetenland in 1938. He will also have humiliated the USA. America will have failed to honour its security obligations. President Obama will be politically damaged, and the USA will have lost credibility as a reliable ally. The implications if Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea succeeds are dire for America. The USA will be shown to be both powerless and unreliable.
Many countries depend on American treaty commitments for their defence. If Obama fails to honour his country’s commitment to assist Ukraine, those security guarantees will be shown to be worthless. Japan, South Korea, even NATO, will all have to re-assess their reliance on American commitments to their security. They will be forced to increase their own defence spending. They may feel obliged to acquire nuclear weapons, as might Ukraine. Former Soviet republics cannot now rely on the international community to uphold the peace or protect them from Russian expansionism.
If Putin does not back down, Russia’s economy will suffer. Dramatic devaluations of the rouble may generate a short term economic boost, and mask the effect of any economic sanctions which might be imposed. In the longer term Russia will be isolated politically and economically.
George Santayana also wrote that “Only the dead have seen the end of war”. We have not seen a war in Europe between major powers since 1945. That does not mean that it cannot occur again. The lesson from the 1930’s is that the international community, and in particular the USA and UK, ought to have resisted Russian attempts to coerce Ukraine. Their inaction emboldened Putin, just as Munich emboldened Hitler. It is to be hoped that Putin does not lead Russia into a new war.
Text copyright Paratus Defence Analysts and Consultants Limited April 2014
 George Santayana (1905) Reason in Common Sense, p. 284, volume 1 of The Life of Reason
 In his 1922 book Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies