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The Crimea Crisis And The Abuse Of History


Every international crisis brings out the amateur historian in pundits and politicians. The Russian seizure of Crimea has been no different, sparking all kinds of analogies and examples, including the inevitable Hitler comparisons. (Yes, Secretary Clinton, you have a point. But it was still over the top, especially coming from America’s former chief diplomat.)

That is not to say that history itself is not useful. Professional historians have much to tell us about the roots of this conflict, as do political analysts, who (like me) see proximate causes for the crisis in recent events, including serious errors in U.S. foreign policy. But facile historical comparisons are only obscuring more than they are clarifying.

Many of these parallels are put forward by people who understand neither the present situation nor the past to which they’re comparing it. Taking an early lead in the competition for the worst way to open an article in this category, a “senior political analyst” at Al Jazeera began a story recently by writing: “Like most of the people speaking about Ukraine, I am no expert. But I know one or two things about the history of the Cold War to recognize…”

As is so often the case, knowing just one or two things is almost always an invitation to later intellectual trouble.

Sometimes, of course, the goal is intentional obfuscation: Russian apologists, for example, rely on flawed comparisons with Kosovo and Iraq as justifications for the Kremlin’s aggression. In America, meanwhile, some partisans, determined to prevent this disaster from staining the Obama administration, invoke George W. Bush’s tepid reaction to the 2008 Russian attack on Georgia as the precedent for Western inaction.

In the end, however, these historical analogies are mostly nonsense, especially when they are used to draw false moral equivalences. There may be precedents to consider in determining our reaction to the Russian invasion, but they are not to be found among clumsy historical fairy tales. So let’s dispense with them right now.

This is not Kosovo in 1999

Crimea, despite the jibe from Putin that Ukraine is “not even a country,” it is not part of a failing state, or on the verge of a genocide. Ukraine is a nation-state that’s just experienced a traumatic change of government, the result of a popular uprising against an increasingly autocratic president who was duly removed by his own parliament (and repudiated by his own party).

The Ukrainian government is not led by people like the late Slobodan Milosevic, whose forces had already butchered thousands in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and were poised to slaughter yet more. Putin would dearly love to draw that equivalence, but the relative calm of the Ukrainian armed forces to the arrival of his thugs – and if they’re liberators, why are they wearing masks? – has flummoxed him and defeated his attempt to create a faked “refugee crisis.”

This is not Iraq in 2003

This is the one that is, of course, particularly offensive to Americans, whose sons and daughters fought and suffered in a war against a pestilent madman who had started two wars with his neighbors, used weapons of mass destruction, conducted attempted genocide against his own people, and thumbed his nose at repeated demands and resolutions from the UN Security Council.

Whether one supported or lamented the war – I went from the former to the latter – what’s going on in Crimea isn’t even vaguely related to the 2003 war against Iraq, which was an outlaw state led by a dictator already guilty of decades of repeated crimes against humanity by the time he was finally deposed.

This is isn’t Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968

These two have a popularity among folks who are misusing history. Some have used them to show continuity in Russian foreign policy – i.e., that Moscow can’t help invading its neighbors, as though it’s in the Russian political DNA – while others have pointed to the feckless Western responses to the Crimean invasion as nothing more than updated versions of the awful situations faced by Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson in those two crises.

First, the invasions of those two nations were not as much “Russian” as they were “Soviet” actions, and there is in fact a difference. They were driven by a deep ideological insecurity that feared any public repudiation of the Soviet Union’s “alliance,” the Warsaw Pact, which was less an alliance than a multi-state prison camp. The same ideological hypochondria pulled the USSR into Afghanistan, even as Soviet leaders knew they were heading into chaos.

Second, it is pure sophistry to argue that President Obama is in the same jam faced by Ike and LBJ. Budapest and Prague, tragically, were theoretically Soviet allies, and during the tense years of the Cold War any attempt to force them from Moscow’s grip would almost instantly have meant World War III. We face no such danger now, unless we or the Russians decide to escalate to a major war that in turn threatens NATO – which, God willing, no one is even thinking of right now.

This isn’t Georgia in 2008

Finally, this is not a re-run of the Georgian war, and there is little in that experience to help us now, although Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, did admit that Bush should have punished Putin more for his adventure in Georgia.

The Georgian war was different, however, in that Washington was faced with the awkward problem that the Georgians struck first (although Tbilisi later disputed that finding.) The Georgian leaders were relentlessly baited into an unwise war by the Russians, who had cleverly laid a trap and sprang it the minute the Georgians opened fire. If there is a lesson here, it has already been learned by the Ukrainians, who have wisely – and miraculously – resisted serial Russian provocations.

But the idea that Putin was encouraged by Bush’s “weak” response is nonsense. Putin actually reached out to Bush early in the crisis, a cagey move that left POTUS 43 in a quandary: he couldn’t ask a friendly country to desist in an effort to reclaim its own territory, but the Georgians had blundered ahead without consulting Washington, and Bush could not put NATO on the line for a war it hadn’t started.

It’s also important to remember that it only took a week or so for the Europeans to get Moscow to desist and agree to pull back. Russian troops still occupy parts of Georgia, but the crisis was defused relatively quickly. This time, however, Putin has shown little interest in anything anyone has to say, even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he is on far better terms than President Obama.

In the end, there is no historical justification or analogy for Russian action. Perhaps the closest examples to what we’re seeing now in Crimea are Argentina’s attempted seizure of the Falkland Islands in 1982, or Saddam Hussein’s attempt to erase Kuwait from the map in 1991. In both cases, one state attempted to redrawn disputed borders by sheer force.

The Argentine junta and Saddam both failed in the face of a military response. There is no such action here (and calls for increased military activity in the West are as ridiculous as they are empty). Putin, it seems, will succeed, but that short-term victory does not prefigure Europe’s future. Putin is not Hitler, no more than President Obama and Chancellor Merkel are modern Neville Chamberlains.

This conflict has its roots in a complex history in the region, to be sure, but the situation itself is not nearly that complicated. But if we are to tolerate the invasion of a peaceful state by another, as it seems we must, then at least let us at least not dress up our discomfort in foolish and awkward analogies.

Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. He claims expertise in a lot of things, but his most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security (Penn, 2014).The views expressed are entirely his own.