Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the independence of Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I remember this day well from 24 years ago. My family and I were on vacation in British Columbia, Canada when we turned on the news to learn of the independence declaration. To say we were surprised would be an understatement. After more than 1000 years of Russian domination of Ukraine, subject only to momentary moments of sovereignty, Ukraine finally had achieved what millions of Ukrainians had dreamed about for centuries.
Commentators then claimed that independence was won without blood shed. But any Ukrainian could tell you that was untrue. Those who wrote such words did not have a good grasp of the history of the nation. During the course of Russian domination, the Ukrainian nation repeatedly was the victim of the Kremlin’s sadistic policies. Chief among them was the 1932-1933 unleashing of an artificial famine, the Holodomor, that left some seven million victims dead. But there were many others. Rebellions were quashed, soldiers were killed and Ukrainian dissidents jailed. The Ukrainian countryside was Russified by Russian colonials who Moscow sent to live there while it resettled Ukrainians to Siberia and other desolate places. In the unforgettable words of former Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, Ukrainian land “was covered by a mountain of corpses and rivers of blood.”
So it is only appropriate to reflect on history in considering this day and the conflict taking place in Eastern Ukraine. In his excellent article recently published in the New York Times on that subject, Paul J. Saunders draws a lesson from history in his analysis of the current situation. The article speaks about the pressures the United States applied against Imperial Japan and the oil embargo that ultimately ended up with an attack by the Japanese fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The point being made was that the sanctions employed by America against the Japanese leadership effectively backfired in that those leaders were backed into a corner that forced them to declare war on the U.S. as part of their struggle to maintain their positions in Imperial Japan.
This is a helpful and insightful analysis. The author speaks of the current proclivity of analysts to compare what is taking place in Eastern Ukraine to the events in Europe that led to the outbreak of World War I. Like this author, I too believe that a more accurate analogy would be to the events that led to the outbreak of World Way II. But unlike this author, I believe there is more to be learned from the events in the pre-World War II European theater than those in the Pacific.
Most writers and viewers of today’s events involving Putin’s gambit in Ukraine see the general similarities to Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria and the later invasion of the Sudetenland. What I believe many readers are not registering is that the dramatic events that are unfolding in Eastern Ukraine portend the heavy costs that will be endured by the West for failing to draw the line earlier with this adventurist Putin behavior.
Like Hitler before him, Putin understands only one response to his initiatives – military strength. Putin is a bully and someone unlikely to be deterred by pious condemnations, declarations of NATO solidarity, nor meaningless sanctions that do not affect him personally nor threaten his grip on power in Russia. Meetings with Putin today to discuss ‘peace’ are identical to the meetings Western leaders held with Hitler as he moved ahead with his plans following Munich. What is there to discuss? Putin has invaded a neighboring sovereign state. He correctly reads that the United Sates and its NATO allies are not ready to confront him. They were not ready to do so about Crimea before, not ready to do so about Eastern Ukraine today and they will not be ready to do so if he steps across the EU border.
Personally the fact that Russia is fully at war with Ukraine today did not really register with me until I read the articles about the former American Ranger, Mark Paslavsky, and his recent death in a battle in Eastern Ukraine. Suddenly for me the fact that Paslavsky died brought home the message that over 2000 people have died in the war between Russia and Ukraine so far. Suddenly the over 200 recent bomb scares in Kyiv and the assassinations of political leaders even in Western Ukraine, became more alarming and menacing to me.
While these events pale in comparison to the deaths in Syria and Iraq, or even in Gaza, they are a signal of future events to come. The battles in Syria Iraq and Gaza, while significant and deserving of our attention and utmost effort to curtail, are the minor leagues compared to what we will face with Putin and his nuclear arsenal down the road. Putin will not be deterred until he directly threatens one of the major European powers, and perhaps not even then. Today’s Ukrainian Independence Day reminds us that Russia has always been a belligerent, plundering, imperial state and Putin is well placed as its leader. The biggest mistake Western leaders are making today is failing to fully and urgently arm and militarily assist Ukraine’s army in fighting the war with this invader.
Ukrainian history teaches us that without Ukraine, Russia will perish as an empire – but with it Russia will remain a power others will be forced to face. Lenin knew this in 1917 and Putin knows this in 2014. As mentioned, the cost for the West grows with each day that the war continues. Beware the future with Putin! He is on the road headed our way.