Godwin Overdose

Why America Must Stop Comparing Ukraine To World War II

Hawkish talk by U.S. politicians and Putin-as-Hitler comparisons are turning the crisis in Crimea into a powder keg that could harm our allies in the region.

Sean Gallup/Getty

Ukraine Faces a Dangerous Binary

As Crimea’s March 16 referendum approaches, Russian troops are again amassing in the largest influx since the escalation last week, which placed the Ukrainian region under the Kremlin’s control almost over night. AP reports described amphibious military ships unloading some 200 military vehicles with heavily armed soldiers in eastern Crimea on Friday night. Then on Saturday, pro-Russian troops fired warning shots to prevent an OSCE military mission from entering Crimea form the north. Meanwhile Interfax reports that the leader of Ukraine’s Kiev branch of the far-right Right Sector, Andri Tarasenko, has stated that his group is ready to fight in Crimea if Russia continues to “act aggressively.” In another throwback to the 2008 invasion of Georgia, which was preceded by a Russian cyber attack, computer networks across Ukraine have been infected with a virus known as “Snake.”

Astoundingly, even as a conflict seems inevitable and as Moscow refuses to recognize Ukraine’s new government, Russia— in its typical Byzantine fashion—has recognized the new government in Kiev’s formal removal of the ban on Russian nuclear fuel shipments through Ukraine to Eastern Europe. Russia’s state energy corporation announced it will resume “supply and removal of nuclear fuel to and from [its] customers across Europe.” Yet if the Kremlin truly believes its own rhetoric about how the new government in Kiev is run by armed, dangerous and unpredictable extremists, then how can it possibly trust Ukraine as a transit route for hazardous nuclear fuel shipments?

Logic is a rare bird in these parts and Crimea is nothing short of a powder keg. If the U.S. and European countries are not careful they, too, will be sucked into the conflict.

As usual, those stuck in the excluded middle of this geopolitical pissing contest will ultimately suffer most. In a poll conducted last month by KIIS, only 41 percent of Crimeans wanted to merge with Russia. The coming referendum will likely have very different results. The drastic shift in public opinion towards Russian rule is just as much a result of Russian propaganda, hysterically claiming that the fascists in west Ukraine are coming to ethnically cleanse Crimea’s Russian majority, as it is of Crimean residents knowing they will be forced to make a choice: Russia or the great unknown. These people, like those in the breakaway regions of Georgia, wanted independence and autonomy, not Russian rule. But now they turn to Russia out of fear—a fear that is being incubated by Russian propaganda but also that is being enabled by the U.S. and EU’s escalation of the crisis.

Hitler as Verb

According to Godwin’s Law, if an online discussion or debate goes on long enough, an analogy to Hitler will be invoked. The party who invokes Hitler loses. In the Ukrainian crisis, it is unfortunately becoming a close race. Russian media was in the lead for months, labeling the EuroMaidan protestors as fascists and Nazis. Unfortunately, in Western and especially U.S. media, there has been a recent blitzkrieg of Putin-as-Hitler comparisons. In a recent fundraiser speech, Hillary Clinton likened the events in Crimea to Germany in 1938, though she has since backtracked a bit. There is even a Facebook group with more than 2,000 likes called “Putin Is Next Hitler?” (It obviously wasn’t founded by a native English speaker—not that it matters.) The point is, making this leap to compare Putin to the Führer is not only disingenuous; it’s dangerous. Sure, Putin’s antics over the last decade warrant labeling him a grand villain from the West’s perspective. But let’s not recycle Hitler; the guy had enough airtime as it was.

While Americans are busy invoking 1938, the Germans—as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out on The Dish—are instead referring to 1914 to describe the situation in Ukraine. “The reporting of the facts is the same, essentially,” Sullivan writes. “But the editorial voice couldn’t be more distinct. Echoing through the German papers is an admonition, during the centennial of the beginning of the Great War, to be mindful of the conditions that led to its launch: hysteria, rabid nationalism, thoughts of the pride and glory of great nations, elements of personal vanity, militarism.”

The great lesson of WWI is that upholding a treaty with an ally, no matter how honorable the intention, is never worth a war that might destroy you, your ally and everyone in between. Treaties are not signed by the people who end up fighting and dying in the wars that result from their breach. No treaty alone is worth risking a repeat of 1914.

Putin’s recent actions are based on a tragically misplaced sense of pride, and the U.S. response must take this into account. The events of February 22nd in Kiev were a humiliation for the former KGB man-turned-president who has made it his personal mission to restore Russian greatness. Further escalation at this point, in the form of hawkish challenges from lawmakers in the U.S. who have nothing to lose, will place allies like Georgia, Moldova and the new Ukrainian government at even more risk. These countries should be prepared to be the targets of a potential standoff, and Western lawmakers should be fully aware of what these countries are risking by standing up to Putin’s assertions. Russia has taken Crimea in an overt and illogical display of power. The U.S. should not react with the same.

The strategy of the Russian government is to use any sign of capriciousness as justification for further invasion beyond Crimea or further force within Crimea. Any minor scuffle, be it provoked by Maidan’s far right, or even a false flag shooting by the Russians to frame the ethnic Tatars in Crimea, could send this country into a full-on war. If the U.S. government and allies also escalate the situation by sending any more naval vessels into the Black Sea or laying down ‘red-line’ jargon, then becoming involved in such a conflict will become an obligation and not a strategic move.

Lesya Orobets’s Ferocious Brand of Pacifism

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As Ukrainian Parliamentarian and newly announced Kiev mayoral candidate Lesya Orobets recently told The Daily Beast, “No government in the world is ready for war with Russia. Ours had just two days of peace.” Orobets believes that even in the Pro-Russian parts of Ukraine, people don’t want Russia to actually invade, “They do not see that as a method of protecting their rights. They do not see Putin to be something different than [former Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovych. People associate him with corruption, with poor management, with no perspective.”

Orobets and her colleagues in the new Ukraine government have adapted and changed tactics in their attempt to counter Russian propaganda. Along with several Kiev-based news networks, they have even switched from their native tongue, Ukrainian, to Russian during public announcements in order to prove to the Russian-speaking populations that they are not enemies.

As for the current conflict with Russia, Orobets states very clearly, “I do not see any army in the world ready to have a war with a nuclear state. We can no longer discuss this in the military terms. This cannot happen. This is not about how many soldiers we have, how many weapons we have. He has a nuclear button. That’s all. And as Angela Merkel says ‘He is mad.’”

As such, Orobets says the new government’s strategy is a “No guns in politics, peaceful resistance” approach. She says they have commanded their troops, especially the Ukrainian naval forces that remain barricaded in Crimea, to avoid provocation. “They are ready to protect their own military units, but they won’t actively or aggressively start a fight, and this made the whole world consolidate into our support.” She says that because of these decisions, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to recognize the new government in Kiev. “Even China,” she says with amazement, “We were not expecting China to say that aloud.”

Orobets is proud of her country’s military and its response to the Russian seizure of Crimea. Last Tuesday when a Ukrainian brigade was surrounded by Russians demanding they surrender and swear an oath to Crimea, she recounts, “The commander replied, ‘Russians don’t surrender.’ The Russian commander was shocked and asked ‘Are you Russian?’ The commander answered ‘Yes and many of my team are, but we made an oath to the Ukrainian people and we will never betray them.’”

However, in order to keep the conflict from escalating, Orobets and the new government now face a homegrown challenge. The country’s far-right groups, who did most of the fighting on the Maidan, were never really controlled by opposition leaders, nor are they controlled now by the new Ukraine government. These groups need to be quickly integrated into the political process lest they become further isolated and unpredictable

“This war,” Orobets says, “will not be won by military actions and we do not ask for any. We would like to win this war in diplomatic methods and informational methods.”

The Region At Large

The seemingly tame reactions from countries like Turkey, which has much at stake, and Azerbaijan, which is typically a neutral player, are quite commendable. Both countries have supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine without giving Moscow a reason to justify more aggression. Make no mistake—if a full-on war breaks out, Turkey will be the country facing down the Russian military long before the other NATO fleets arrive.

Remarkably, the government of Uzbekistan, of all places—which has often been friendly to Putin and has its own Kremlin-esque tendencies—recently criticized the Russian invasion of Crimea. While a majority of the Central Asian countries seem to be taking a stance similar to the Russian media in terms of Crimea, Uzbekistan has stood out in its unlikely opposition to the invasion. The partial glimpses of crackdowns against pro-Ukraine protests in countries such as Kazakhstan and Belarus indicate that despite the muted or concurrent reactions of their governments, there could be growing populations that fear and oppose this kind of behavior from Moscow even more than they fear own governments. The irony is that their own governments may very well agree.

Meanwhile, with the bulk of Russia’s war machine focused on Ukraine and specifically Crimea, the Sochi Paralympics have become an increasingly vulnerable target for Chechen and Dagestani terror groups. The Sochi Olympics were intended to be a display of renewed Russian glory, power and crafty ability to prevent an attack on a global event held in hostile territory near a disputed border. The Olympics proceeded without incident thanks to the sheer volume of Russian police, military and security services. Yet with much of those resources now focused on Crimea, the Paralympics seem alarmingly exposed.

While the threat that faces the Sochi Olympics has nothing directly to do with the events of the past two months in Ukraine, it is not irrelevant—for it, too, is a result of Putin’s determination to re-assert power in areas that were once part of the Russian empire but where a majority of the inhabitants no longer wish to be. By his attempt to restore Russian greatness, Putin finds himself unofficially fighting two different battles in two different parts of the Black Sea, neither of which the Russian government totally controls.

A President At Large

Somewhere out there, former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych is hiding. This is the second time in a decade that an angry Euro-inclined crowd has removed him from office—this must be some kind of record. Even Putin has declared Yanukovych politically dead, though he’s also used the absconded president’s shameful request that Russian troops invade his own country to justify the Kremlin’s actions in Crimea. This is perhaps the only thing keeping Russia’s former geopolitical client alive—that awkward claim that he is still somehow president of Ukraine. Once that narrative has played out, Yanukoych and his history of excessive corruption will only be a liability for the Russian government.

Yanukovych has good reason to be afraid and herein lies his greatest miscalculation: The people of Ukraine—not just in Kiev, but in protests all over the country—have once again reminded leaders throughout the world that they should fear the resolve of their own people more than their most imposing of neighbors. It is this message alone more than any geopolitical impulse or statecraft that has the Russian government scrambling. If it can happen in Kiev, in a matter of months or a matter of days, then it can happen anywhere. All players involved would do well to serve their own people’s interests before the bidding of some contrived geopolitical sense of pride.