It’s hard to keep up with events in Ukraine. Every twelve hours some new development upsets what we thought to be true. Fortunately, longstanding Book Haven friend Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed Bloodlands and one of our leading experts on Eastern Europe (we’ve written about him here and here and here, among other places), has been writing a good deal. He’s worth googling, or following on Twitter and Facebook. Here’s an excellent primer, “If Russia Swallows Ukraine, the European System Is Finished.” An excerpt:
In Vienna, where I live, one also hears constant mentions of 1938. Austrians and other citizens of European Union countries are beginning to consider what the end of Ukraine might mean for their own European system. The point is not that Putin is like Hitler; the point is that the removal of a state from Europe has consequences for the continent.
When we consider any state in isolation from the system, it can seem fragile, new, perhaps unnecessary. Ukraine today, like Austria in the 1930s, is a creation of a dramatic change in the world order. Austria as an independent republic owed its existence to World War I, just as Ukraine as an independent republic owes its existence to the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union. Independent Austria lasted for two decades; independent Ukraine has existed for only slightly longer. For some, an artificial creation that had no right to exist; for others home to a people indistinguishable from Germans, Austria had few friends in 1938. Ukraine finds itself in much the same position today. Just as most European leaders were happy to accept the German idea that Austria had no right to exist, many people around the West seem ready to forget about Ukraine or to believe the Kremlin’s propaganda that half of the country is Russian.
Yet the reasons why states are supposed to exist are general, transcending their particular histories. The principles of international law are not subject to particular claims about identities. As with Putin today in Ukraine, Hitler in 1938 in Austria based his claim on the need to protect fellow ethnics. It is easy to criticize Putin’s arguments in some important details. He claims to be defending Russian citizens. But since dual citizenship in Ukraine is illegal, the most visible of Russian citizens in Ukraine are (1) the Russian soldiers and sailors based in Sevastopol, (2) the Russian soldiers who have just invaded southern Ukraine and (3) Ukrainian riot police who are being given Russian citizenship at the Russian consulate in Simferopol to reward them for beating Ukrainian protesters. Putin claims to be defending “compatriots,” but that is a category that has no meaning. The suggestion is that anyone who speaks Russian needs a Russian invasion; that would mean that since I am writing in English I need an English invasion.
Read the rest here. Or read his “Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda” in the New York Review of Books here. Or even his warning over a month ago in the New York Times – “Don’t let Putin Grab Ukraine” here.
Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, Sławomir Sierakowski‘s assessment is unsparing in “The West Must Act on Ukraine, But Nobody Wants to Pay the Price” (we wrote about him last month here):
“We can already hear politicians muttering that Crimea is in effect already lost. And the only specifics mentioned concern what the west will certainly not do, precluding military intervention and the irritation of Gazprom. ‘Economic sanctions against Russia would damage Germany itself,’ Philipp Missfelder, a member of the German government and key ally of Angela Merkel, told the Wall Street Journal. British government advisers are speaking in a similar tone, attempting to avoid aggravating Russian oligarchs.
“Even the mildest sanction – removing Russia from the G8 – is being questioned. The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, says: ‘I’m more with those who say the G8 format is actually the only format in which we in the west still talk directly with Russia. Should we really sacrifice this only format?’ This is quite a renunciation. Who here is ‘out of touch with reality’, Mrs Merkel?
“If the west allows Crimea to be torn from Ukraine, this will be a major shock for the countries that are celebrating a quarter century of freedom from Russian tutelage and who are the west’s most faithful allies and the EU’s greatest enthusiasts. They will have to seriously reconsider their foreign and defence policies. It is difficult to predict the direction – good or bad – in which this development will lead. One thing is almost certain – if the US and EU remain as indolent as they have been in dealing with the situation in Ukraine, eastern European countries will put article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, which may be summarised as ‘one for all, all for one’, back on the shelf with their fairy tales. Just like Russia. Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, no one will believe that the west would move to defend one of the alliance’s smaller members.
“A fundamental reason for the west’s increasingly embarrassing ‘softy power’ in global politics is the growing weakness of democratic systems. The addiction of politicians to opinion polls, unbridled consumerism, the disintegration of social ties and the consequent weakening of the sense of solidarity between people have completely demobilised western society.
“The leaders of the western world would surely like to do something for Syria or Ukraine, but they know that any serious economic or military engagement, which would require sacrifices of their citizens, would amount to political suicide. Opinion polls have deprived politicians of conscience, character and any sense of responsibility for the future of democracy and freedom.
“This is not something dictators need to worry about, which is why Putin can do what he pleases. At least as long as he does not target the west. And the same applies to others who may be encouraged by his success.”
Read the rest here.