Ukraine and historical analogies

If I can’t compare Putin to Hitler, how about Bull Connor and George Wallace?

It would be amusing, if it were not so disgusting, to watch elements of the Obama-hating right (e.g. Steve Sailer) and the American-power-hating left (e.g., Tikkun) agree in fawning over Vladimir Putin as he treats the solemn agreement under which Russian guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, in return for Ukrainian de-nuclearization, as a mere scrap of paper. It’s perfectly OK for Russia to seize Crimea by force because Crimea should never have been part of Ukraine. And it’s perfectly OK for Russia to seize territory inside Ukraine, using soldiers not wearing insignia, which alone makes their actions war crimes, because … shut up, he explained.

Both sides agree that it would be rude to compare what Putin just did in the Crimea to what Hitler did in the Sudetenland: not actually false, you see, just impolite. And since people who are impolite to Col. Putin have way of encountering dioxin or polonium-210, I suppose they are right to urge caution. (The prime suspects in both cases escaped from justice in Ukraine and the UK by sheltering in Russia, which refuses to extradite them.)

So here’s a compromise everyone should be happy with. Putin and his strange-bedfellow supporters agree that shooting down demonstrators in Kiev was No Big Deal, and the substance behind the protests should be ignored, because they were the work “Nazis” backed by “US/EU money.” (Or alternatively, that they were shot by “fascist provocateurs.”) Sounds to me a lot like Bull Connor complaining that all those people he set his attack dogs on had been stirred up by “Communists” and “outside agitators.” (He was right about that, of course. The Civil Rights movement in the South got both money and leadership from the North, and some of the people involved were in fact Communists. So what?) The notion that the shooters were protesters rather than their opponents echoes the National Review theory that the Selma church bombing was the work of “a provocateur, a Communist or a crazed Negro.”

So instead of comparing Putin to Hitler, am I allowed to compare him to George Wallace?

Footnote Of course, there is in fact Nazi-style activity going on in Ukraine. They’re even burning books, including the history of the Ukrainian famine engineered by Stalin. Of course, these particular book-burners are supporting Putin, but let’s not quibble over details.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “Ukraine and historical analogies”

  1. It is truly disgusting. How many of these commenters know even the slightest bit about Ukraine; about the assassination attempts on opposition, struggles over the 2004 constitutional amendments, the capture of the constitutional court by the incumbent president, regional divides etc. To see everything through the eyes of US/EU involvement is narcissistic and degrading to the Ukranian people and their aspirations.

  2. The agreement Mark refers to is the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of December 1994. The UK was also a party, along with Russia, the USA and Ukraine itself.
    Iran must be reassessing its reliance on Russian promises. So presumably are China and Japan. The former formally endorsed the Budapest Memorandum as a nuclear power, as did France.

  3. I don't think what Putin is doing is praiseworthy. I don't admire it. I think Putin is a disaster on human rights and this is outrageous.

    BUT, I think the reality of the situation is that big, powerful countries have spheres of influence. And while you can make a Sudetenland comparison if you wish, one could also compare this to various US interventions in Haiti, Cuba, Grenada, and so on. Powerful countries will inevitably have a strong say in what happens near to their borders, and if you are the Prime Minister of the Ukraine you will, inevitably, need to care a lot about what Moscow thinks about your actions, just as China's neighbors need to care about what China thinks and the US' neighbors need to care about US policies.

    And it's further worth noting that it isn't as though Russia has no vital interests in Crimea. They have a very important military base there, and the Ukraine is an invasion route into Russia. It is totally understandable that Russia cares about land invasion routes, given the history of European invasion attempts.

    None of this excuses Putin. He's a thug. But there are more important things in foreign policy than the sanctity of borders.

    1. I lose interest in respecting your sphere of influence when you have a long history of killing millions of people within those countries. If Russia had treated everyone in its sphere the way the Soviet Union treated Finland that would be one thing. When you treat them the way Russia and the Soviet Union have treated Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, and so on, I'm a lot less inclined to just say, "Sphere of influence," and shrug.

      1. You can feel that way, but what price are you willing to pay? The reason Russia, and the US, and China, all have spheres of influence is not because they are good. (None of them really are (you can ask the victims of Salvadorean death squads in the 1980's how benevolent our exercises of power within our sphere of influence have been), although Russia/USSR is definitely worse than the US is.) It's because they are powerful.

        Russia has nuclear weapons. If they really want to take a particular action, there isn't much the world community can do about it. At least recognizing a sphere of influence can operate as some sort of a constraint.

        1. I'm reacting mostly to the idea that I've seen from some people that we shouldn't have provoked Russia by extending NATO to countries like Poland. No, there isn't a whole lot to do about Crimea, though I am definitely in favor of harsher sanctions than the Europeans have been willing to go along with so far. So a part of it is how one defines "respect" for a sphere of influence. No, we aren't going to go to war over Crimea but there's a large gap between that and just accepting Russia's actions.

  4. I know next to nothing of Tikkun, but I’ve been poking around The Nation’s website and I’m damned if I can find any fawning over Vladimir Putin relating to recent events in the Ukraine. Mark: You provide no quotations nor any links. Can you give an example from The Nation of what you’re referring to?

    1. You’re right. The Nation still has nice things to say about Russian aggression in South Ossetia, but has been much more restrained about Ukraine. I’ve removed the inaccurate reference.

    2. You’re right. The Nation supported Russian aggression and ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia, but has been much more restrained about Ukraine. I’ve removed the inaccurate reference.

      1. I'm unclear of what Russian aggression there was in South Ossetia. From my recollection of the time (and from Wikipedia), the people of South Ossetia separated from Georgia as Georgia separated from the USSR. The government of Georgia didn't like this, of course, and killed a bunch of people in South Ossetia. They called upon Russia for help; Russia helped.

        1. It's more complicated than that and, like much of the issue with Russia and Ukraine now, has a lot to do with the way the Russians, under the aegis of both the Tsardom and the Soviet Union, attempted to control their empire's subject populations. I had less sympathy for Georgia a few years ago than I do for Ukraine now but it was still a struggle within a context of an imperial power flooding immigrants into territory it has grabbed and then trying to hold on to as much territory as possible when the empire collapses. It's not entirely unlike the U.S. government coming back and slicing pieces off of the reservations it pushed Native Americans on to after encouraging whites to settle on them.

          And Russia's commitment to self determination ends just as soon as you get within its own borders. Ask Chechens about that.

          It would have been nice if all of this had been addressed as the Soviet Union collapsed, much as it would have been nice to have the borders between European colonies in Africa redrawn to better match the tribal regions but it didn't happen.

  5. Maybe I'm the weird one, but I supported the Libya intervention, wanted much more support for the opposition to Syria, and don't see the outcome in Crimea as all that bad. The means to that end is a violation of international law, but arguably so was the aggressive use of air strikes in Libya that went far beyond simply defending civilian populations. In all three cases, outside intervention is supported by the local population. Crimea to be fair isn't a country, and secession is rarely justified, but rarely doesn't mean never (see America and 1776).

    There is a difference in that Putin is a really bad guy, and this might still turn into an aggressive shooting-war move in the rest of Eastern Ukraine where secession and outside intervention isn't justified, but what we've seen right now, if it doesn't go any further, doesn't strike me as that bad an outcome for Crimeans or Ukraineans.

  6. Yes, and it's also perfectly ok to promise Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall NOT to encroach militarily in its sphere of influence and BREAK THAT PROMISE repeatedly & consistently–surrounding Russia with NATO bases & new NATO allies.

    And then of course just expect Russia to say "oh, ok, we're fine with that." And then be SHOCKED! just SHOCKED when *gasp* Russia dares to finally draw a line in the sand (or in Crimean soil).

    While OF COURSE it's NOT OK for Mexico or Central America or Canada or Caribbean nations to openly ally with a Russian-led military & economic alliance.

    1. As I said above, I'm less inclined to cut the Russians slack on this given the history. If you don't understand why countries like Poland not only wanted, but deserved protection from NATO I'm not sure how to explain it other than by referring to Katyn Forest.

  7. Probably worth noting as well that American special forces in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11 weren't wearing uniforms. I don't really have a problem with that in Afghanistan, but it somewhat limits my ability to be outraged based on that fact alone in Crimea.

  8. Like Herschel, I can find nothing on The Nation's website that remotely comes off as "fawning" over Putin. Can you please direct us to the offending piece or pieces?

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