Some people are framing Putin’s so-far bloodless invasion of Ukraine as a repeat of Hitler’s invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
It is worth remembering Marx’s famous quote:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Hillary isn’t wrong: Putin has been performing from Hitler’s playbook
Putin has been performing from Hitler’s playbook for quite a while. In the wake of the first Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Putin created four ‘youth movements’ of thugs whose role is to ‘own the streets’ should a democracy crisis threaten.
The youth movements are conspicuously modeled after the Nazi stormtroopers, and are the primary movers of Putin’s violent attacks on gays. The objective being to remind Russians that Putin is a thug.
But we don’t need to look to the Second World War for a conflict with a strong parallel to the invasion of Ukraine. It is only ten years since the tanks and troops of a former cold-war superpower rolled into a foreign country while the rest of the world stood by.
If anyone needs to ask why Putin feels emboldened to invade Ukraine, they need only look to the response to George W. Bush’s mis-adventure in Iraq.
The most important lesson of the Iraq war was that in the modern era invading a country is easy — but occupation is hard. The NeoCon plan was to turn Iraq into a giant aircraft carrier from which the US would invade Iran and control the flow of all gulf oil. Ten years later, in retrospect, “they sunk our battleship.” The US has no troops in Iraq, and has given up its bases in Saudi Arabia. US influence on Iraq is negligible.
The first problem facing Russia: The possibility of armed conflict
So far no shots have been fired in Ukraine, but that won’t last, unless the occupation ends soon. Russian troops and collaborators are easy targets for Ukrainian partisans. And Russian partisans are just as likely to provoke a confrontation with the Ukrainians. Then again, it’s entirely possible the Russians want to provoke an armed conflict that they would easily win, at least initially.
Second problem: Russia can pressure Ukraine, but Ukraine can pressure Crimea
Then there’s the fact that Crimea itself is a desert with little water. The peninsula is supported by power, water and transport links that are deeply integrated within the rest of Ukraine. While Putin can cut off gas to Ukraine, Ukraine can cut electricity to Crimea. Gas might have been the winning card in November, but electricity is the stronger card in March. Without electricity the fabric of modern civilization collapses. Gas stations can’t pump gas bringing transport to a standstill. Waterworks can’t pump water or dispose of sewage. Things can easily spin out of control.
Third problem: Occupations cost a lot of money and manpower
While there’s concern that Russia might also make a move for the eastern portion of Ukraine, the scope of the occupation only increases the scale of the problem. Holding more territory requires more troops. Ukraine has a population of 45 million, ten million larger than Iraq. Russia might be able to hold a territory that size, but if it did it won’t be able to threaten similar actions in Georgia, Belarus and the rest of its collapsing ‘sphere of influence’.
The US occupation of Iraq cost upwards of $2 trillion. Russia’s industrial economy is stagnant, the country is kept afloat through sales of oil and gas. Crimea, aka “Putin’s Iraq,” will be costly, and Russia has far less ability to afford it than the US.
There is however a third frame that is foremost in the minds of Western diplomats. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, a was that began as Russia mobilized its troops in response to Austrian mobilization in the Balkans which in turn triggered mobilization of German troops against Russia and the invasion of France. We are as the UK politician Paddy Ashdown stated ‘one mistake from war’.