By Bruce Golding
There are some frightening parallels between Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine this week. Both were preceded by the bloodless invasion and annexation of adjoining territory — Austria by Hitler in 1938 and Crimea by Putin in 2014. Both were claimed to be justified in order to counter what was perceived to be a security threat — the “encirclement policy” by Britain, according to Hitler, and the presence of NATO forces in central and Eastern Europe, according to Putin.
The most frightening of the parallels is the mindset of both Hitler and Putin. Hitler was obsessed with a vision of a united empire of European nations under his leadership which led him to invade and capture Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and Belgium and emboldened him to attack France, taking control of Paris, and launch air strikes on Britain.
Putin, as was evident in two speeches he delivered just before the invasion of Ukraine, is obsessed with restoring the power and influence Russia previously exerted through the Soviet Union. He couldn’t care less about being regarded as an international pariah in pursuit of that objective.
Both scenarios were facilitated by weak leadership from those who could perhaps have made a difference and prevented the aggression — British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who pussyfooted with Hitler long after his expansionist plans were obvious, and US President Donald Trump, who ruptured the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance and repeatedly declared his comfort level with Putin.
Whether the lines of events will continue in parallel is yet to be seen. A successful takeover of Ukraine will embolden Putin, especially if Russia is able to withstand the sanctions imposed. He would then be able to turn his attention, first to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and then to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. He already has the compliant support of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
This would not necessarily mean military invasion or occupation. That would be difficult and costly. Nor is Putin so naïve as to believe that a Soviet Union can be recreated. His intention is to create a sphere of Russian influence by intimidation, undermining pro-Western Governments and replacing them with regimes more aligned with Russia. It would constitute an effective counter-balancing force to NATO.
NATO’s possible response in such a scenario is uncertain as military action has to have the unanimous approval of all member countries, which includes Hungary where the present regime, although supporting the imposition of sanctions, is not ill-disposed toward Russia. What is less uncertain are the consequences of military confrontation between NATO and Russian forces. Putin made it clear in announcing the offensive against Ukraine that any interference from outside will result in “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” — the most warlike pronouncement that has come from Russia since the days of Nikita Khrushchev.
This is not like the 1939 start of the Second World War in which over 50 million people were killed. Today’s weapons of war are far more sophisticated and lethal. In recent years, Putin has invested considerable sums in rebuilding Russia’s military capability. He boasted last week about the size of its nuclear arsenal and its “new hyper-sound-speed, high precision weapons that can hit targets at intercontinental distance and can adjust their altitude and course as they travel”.
As is the case with the Minsk Agreement which Putin repudiated this week and which had guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, except for the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, Putin is unlikely to be restrained by existing treaties designed to prevent war on a global scale or restrict the use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
The imposition of sanctions, which the Western alliance sees as its only weapon, is a double-edged sword. Both Europe and Asia depend heavily on gas and oil exports from Russia which amounted to just under US$500 billion last year. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat, accounting for 26 per cent of global output. Cutting off those exports would create significant disruption in the global economy, since such heavy sources of supply cannot be replaced in the short term.
Russia may very well be able to withstand the sanctions. It has the fourth largest stock of foreign reserves in the world — US$643 billion — more than twice the US stock of US$252 billion. It is significant that both the US and the European Union have balked at the proposal by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to exclude Russia from the SWIFT system of financial transfers — a move that would deliver a more crippling blow to Russia, even with its huge foreign reserves, than all the other sanctions combined. British investments in Russia amount to US$15 billion but the US and the European Union have much greater exposure — US$100 billion and US$350 billion, respectively. Marooning those assets is a price they are not yet willing to pay.
The invasion of Ukraine constitutes the most serious challenge to global peace and security since Hitler’s campaign to conquer Europe in the late 1930s. Its total disregard for international law and accepted norms sends an encouraging signal to other countries that seek to assert claims on other sovereign territory. China’s eyes on Taiwan and those of Venezuela on Guyana come quickly to mind.
Putin’s bottom-line demand is for a new security architecture for Europe in which no allied forces are deployed in any of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe. That would leave them vulnerable to Russian interference if they continue to align themselves with the West or resist Russian influence. This would effectively confine NATO to Western Europe — the position that existed prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Putin is clearly determined to test the strength and resilience of the Western alliance and those of the US in particular. He has sensed disunity, indecisiveness and the absence of strong leadership in the NATO alliance. It was perhaps unwise for the US to publicly declare that it would not be putting boots on the ground, even if it was a firm decision not to do so, as it would certainly have factored in Putin’s calculations regarding Ukraine. The advantage, so far, is clearly with Putin. President Joe Biden must be asking himself what would John F Kennedy or Ronald Reagan have done if they were faced with a similar situation.
China could be a strategic game player in this puzzle. Despite its recent declaration of support for Russia in demanding the removal of NATO forces from Central and Eastern Europe, it has subsequently declared its support for Ukraine sovereignty.
Relations between Russia and China have long been tenuous. They share a border of more than 2600 miles. They are both powerful military forces. China is not likely to be enthused about the prospect of Russia once again becoming a dominant influence in Eastern and Central Europe.
Is it possible that China, in the interest of its own security and in an effort to bolster its claim for full acceptance and recognition in the global sphere, could become like the Russia of the Second World War that joined forces with the allies against Hitler and moved Winston Churchill to declare, in reference to his collaboration with Russian President Joseph Stalin, that “If Hitler invaded hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”
We must not delude ourselves in thinking that this matter occurring 6000 miles away does not concern us. The international order is severely threatened and we could be adversely affected in several ways. This is not a fowl fight in which we have no business. Jamaica is not unaccustomed to taking a principled stand on international conflicts. It is what has earned us much respect in international councils. Caricom has issued a strong statement of condemnation. I hope that the Russian Ambassador to Jamaica has been called in and spoken to. (Jamaica Observer)
(Bruce Golding served as Jamaica’s eighth Prime Minister from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011)