In Ukraine, Putin Takes A Page from Hitler's and Israel's Playbook


            Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan for seizing control of parts of Ukraine mirrors Adolf Hitler's dismantling of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Czechoslovakia was a new country created out of provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I, so it was barely 20 years old.


            Claiming that the ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia were being discriminated against because of their higher unemployment rate during the depression, Konrad Henlein organized a Sudeten German political party that was surreptitiously funded and controlled from Berlin. Hitler told Henlein to make unacceptable demands for autonomy to the Czech government, then demanded at the famous Munich Conference that the French and British renege on their defense treaty with Czechoslovakia and allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland to protect the ethnic Germans living there.


            Unfortunately, most Czech defenses and arms industries were in the Sudetenland. So, when the British and French (no Czechs were present at Munich) agreed to let Germany occupy Bohemia, they acquired tremendous military assets at no cost.


            Putin is playing the same tune in Ukraine. Contending that the Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (Donbass) are being oppressed by the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians and Russians have been at war since 2014 when the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, sparking mass demonstrations that resulted in the overthrow of Yanukovych's pro-Russian government. Putin wants Ukraine to link its future to Russia, not the west.


            In response to the overthrow of Yanukovych, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and supplied arms to Russian separatists in the Donbass.


            Ukraine has a longstanding list of grievances against Russia. In 1932-1933 there was a famine that killed two or three million people, 10% of Ukraine's population. Some consider it a genocide, others just the unfortunate result of Stalin's crash industrialization program that necessitated the confiscation of peasant crops. Others blame poor weather. The cause is probably a combination of all three.


            World War II claimed another four million Ukrainians. When the Germans invaded, some Ukrainians greeted them as liberators and fought with them against the Russians. Putin justifies his military incursions against the current west-leaning Ukrainian government as a fight against Nazis. In so doing, he conveniently overlooks the fact that Russia and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact that resulted in Russia supplying huge amounts of raw materials to the Germans between 1939 and Germany's invasion of Russia in 1941, when the French were defeated and the British were fighting for their lives alone. (In fairness, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the direct result of Poland refusing to allow the transit of Soviet troops to Czechoslovakia in support of their mutual defense treaty. Britain, France and Russia had jointly guaranteed Czechoslovakia's borders.) Still, the Soviet Union had secretly helped the Germans rearm in violation of the Versailles Treaty after World War I when neither country was a member of the League of Nations. Like the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the Donbass, the coal country, is important in Ukraine's economy, producing about 13% of its GDP.


            The Ukrainians have other complaints against the Russians. Foremost is the Chernobyl nuclear power plant management techniques that have rendered 1,600 square miles of the country unusable and off-limits forever. Ukraine is a big country, the second biggest in Europe, after Russia. The Chernobly exclusion zone is bigger than the whole State of Rhode Island, plus about 7% of neighboring Connecticut. Ukraine is about 6% the size of the United States, so a relatively equal catastrophe for the United States would be the contamination of West Virginia.


            The reason that the United States is involved in the Ukraine is that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine was the third biggest nuclear power in the world. In exchange for giving up its missiles, Russia and the United States agreed to guarantee Ukraine's borders. So, the United States had no option but to impose sanctions on Russia when it seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and has to respond now that Ukraine has been invaded.


            Putin's claim that Ukraine is not a real country but part of Russia is belied by the fact that during the Soviet era, the Russians insisted that Ukraine have its own seat at the United Nations. Western nations complained that Ukraine was a Soviet satellite and not truly independent but acceded to its demand.


The West's Double Standard


            The western democracies are powerless to come to Ukraine's defense because they, too, invade sovereign nations under various pretexts. Iraq was a Soviet client state in the 1980s and early 1990s, even though the United States tilted toward Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. After Iraq annexed Kuwait, Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to negotiate a solution to the problem. Kuwait was nothing but a fishing village and trading port until the discovery and export of oil began in 1946. Ibn Saud had tried to conquer it and incorporate it into Saudi Arabia when he was cobbling together his country in the 1920s, but the British intervened with modern weapons. As part of its lines of communication to India, the British made Kuwait a protectorate from the Ottomans in 1899 and granted it independence in 1961.


            In 1950, there were only 150,000 people in Kuwait. Kuwait, with its excellent harbor, was essentially built on the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, leaving Iraq, its far more populous and larger neighbor, virtually landlocked. Iraq is about 35 times bigger than Kuwait in population and 25 times bigger in area. Iraq, much poorer than Kuwait, was also a British client state, and even under its Kings, laid claim to Kuwait as its nineteenth province.


            After my grandparents died, I found in their library The Story of Kuwait a 76-page book. Published in 1959 by the Kuwait Oil Company Limited, it is similar to a glossy annual report of a corporation with no attributable authorship. Filled with pictures of oil facilities, mosques, and charts of oil production, it also contains a brief history of the country's relations with Britain. Before oil, the economy of Kuwait was shipping, shipbuilding, fishing, pearl fishing, and camel breeding. A photo with the caption "Shipbuilding in Kuwait" shows a man affixing by hand wood sides to the wooden ribs of a vessel. Tellingly, it extolls its paternalistic school system: an Anglo-American school for children aged 5 to 14 (before they are then sent abroad for secondary school), an Indian-Pakistani school for pupils aged 5 to 12, and a school for Arab boys and girls.


            Kuwait had extended huge loans to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. After the war was over, Kuwait demanded repayment. Iraq, which had shed the blood to protect the Sunni Arabs from the alleged Iranian Shiite hordes, was outraged at Kuwait's request. To make matters worse, the Kuwaitis started slant drilling into what Iraq considered its side of the Rumaila oil fields.


            Fed up, Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990. It was in response to this invasion that President George H.W. Bush saw his opportunity to "kick the Vietnam Syndrome" and unleash American military power. The United States organized an international coalition to enforce United Nations resolutions to liberate Kuwait. Saddam Hussein was given a deadline of six months to evacuate Kuwait, or he would be expelled by force.  


            Gorbachev was humiliated by his inability to protect Soviet interests. The first Gulf War combined with the catastrophe at Chernobyl exposed the incompetence and weakness of the communist state and led to its collapse and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.


            The west's stand on the inviolability of national borders does not extend to the west's own clients like Israel. The United Nations passed resolutions in the wake of Israel's aggression in the 1967 Six-Day War, calling on the Jewish State to evacuate the Arabs lands it had seized. Israel did nothing, and the United States, far from levying sanctions or exerting any pressure to comply with international laws governing occupiers, floated Israel away on massive amounts of armaments and economic aid.


            Private organizations poured money into Israel to enable the creation of Jewish settlements on conquered Palestinian land. Israel claimed the land on the basis of Jewish possession one hundred and 2,000 years before, then populated it with people it could claim needed protecting like the Germans in the Sudetenland or the Russian speakers in the Donbass.


            President Trump unilaterally handed Israel everything it wanted, moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and even Syria's Golan Heights. Syria is another Russian client state. Israel bombs Syria regularly with American military hardware, and there are no threats of retaliatory military action or even economic sanctions. Senators have introduced bills to make supporting boycotts of Israel, a peaceful form of protest similar to sanctions, a federal crime. Israel's annexations are clear violations of international law. Worse, Trump gave Israel everything not only without getting anything for Palestinians in return but further punishing them by closing the PLO liaison office in Washington and cutting payments to the Palestinian Authority.


            Putin's behavior toward Ukraine is identical to Israel's American-backed behavior in the Middle East.


The Continuing Catastrophe of Trump's Presidency


            It's hard to criticize President Putin for failing to stand by prior commitments when President Donald Trump had a penchant for unilaterally pulling out of agreements concluded with Russia by his predecessors. Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord and left the Iran Nuclear deal negotiated with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany.


            Agreements do become obsolete as external circumstances change. I am not a never-changer. But negotiated agreements must be superseded by other agreements or by agreed disengagement.


            When I was on the Princeton Regional School Board, our superintendent discovered "illegal language" in the teachers' contract. In the existing contract, teachers had negotiated that a 20-minute extension of the teachers' day sought by the administration could be used only for instruction, not playground or lunch duty. The assignment of teachers is a management prerogative of principals and administrators. In New Jersey, management powers are not negotiable. Our superintendent determined that a previous board had bargained away this administrative power. While negotiating the new contract, the superintendent just removed the offending language. 


            I pointed out that presumably the teachers had asked for something in exchange for the longer working day,  probably it was the inclusion of the instruction-only limitation. I said that what was negotiated into the contract should be negotiated out. This logic failed to persuade some of my fellow board members, or the superintendent, who continually cited "illegal language."


            Whereas the district's teachers had previously worked for as long as nineteen months without a contract without even mentioning a work stoppage, this time, they threatened to strike immediately without a new agreement. Teacher's strikes are illegal in New Jersey. The botched negotiating strategy precipitated the first teacher's strike in recent Princeton memory.


            More fatally than peremptory exiting agreements, Trump publicly questioned NATO's continued utility. Putin was probably hoping for a re-elected Trump who would destroy NATO from the inside. Trump might as well have sent Putin an engraved invitation to invade Ukraine. Once Biden was elected, and support for Ukraine's association to NATO strengthened, Putin felt he had to act. Trump's go-it-alone obsession and undisciplined tongue have done the United States and the world incalculable damage. One can only hope it won't be fatal.


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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf