Putin’s land grab

Speaking to a Russian while holidaying in Cuba, I was told by him that both Putin and Obama were basically cut from the same cloth and were both playing footloose with the peace of the world. While expressing no great love for Putin, the man seemed intent upon pursuing this interpretation of world affairs and lumping U.S. President Barack Obama with the land-grabbing Russian president.

It was a mystifying claim. When I pointed out that Vladimir Putin sanctioned the invasion and annexation of the Crimea  and was providing arms and sending troops to the Ukraine border to support pro-Russian rebels in another land grab, he claimed the latter was nonsense and that Crimea was historically Russian territory — Ukraine had no right to the peninsula. When I mentioned that Crimea had been ceded to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist Party general secretary, in 1954, thus guaranteein g Russian recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty over the region, the man claimed it was a meaningless treaty in the new Russia.

I gave up trying to reason with the man. I was also aware that the latest polls show that 81 per cent of Russians have a negative view of the U.S., and many Russians believe the U.S. wants to encroach on Russian territory, which is the slant provided by Russian newscasts — all of which are effectively controlled by the Putin regime (opposition media have been shutdown or muzzled in Putin’s Russia).

“My attitude to America is bad,” one Russian woman told CNN. “The way I watch the news, I realize the Americans want to get hold of half of Russia.”

The U.S., Canada and any other of the nations which have implemented sanctions against Russia for the seizure of Ukrainian territory, merely want the land returned to Ukraine, which does not in any way equal a desire “to get hold of half of Russia.”

In a recent interview, Putin told CNN that there was no chance Crimea, which was annexed in 2014 by Russia, would be returned to Ukraine, saying it was the choice of the people, although internationally, it was conceded to have been a rigged referendum manipulated by Putin.

Putin is counting on further inaction by the Western nations, including the U.S. He said a war with Ukraine would be “apocalyptic,” and probably never happen.  

Actually, it is already happening, as there is an ongoing conflict in the region between Ukraine and rebel separatists supported by Russia, the nature of which Putin has continually lied about.

Putin expressed confidence that the crisis would be stabilized by the Minsk Agreement, an accord for a cease-fire   that also calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, signed by Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. But some rebel forces appear not to have understood the meaning behind “truce” and are violating the terms of the agreement by shelling the city of  Donetsk. The ceasefire called for under the September 2014 Minsk Protocol was also ignored by the rebels.

As 167,000 people reside in Manitoba with some portion of Ukrainian heritage (1.2 million in Canada), what is happening in Eastern Europe has attracted a great deal of local attention. It is obviously quite disconcerting for Manitobans who still have contact with relatives in Ukraine to watch as fighting claims more lives.

Some commentators have asserted that the recent treaty is to Putin’s advantage, since it allows the consolidation of land already occupied and provides time to re-equip the rebels for a future push into Ukraine. Some have even likened the present Minsk Agreement with the Munich Agreement signed in 1938 between Britain, France and Germany, which Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler later called a worthless piece of paper, and was an appeasement that set the stage for Hitler’s future land grabs.

Although there are some similarities, there are also differences that arise simply because of the changed nature of global politics in today’s world.

When the Munich Agreement was signed on September 30, it was one of the great tragedies of world history and one of its great betrayals, although it wasn’t recognized as such at the time. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepped off an airplane on British soil waving the agreement, proclaiming that its signing was the beginning of “peace with honour. I believe for our time.” In a telegram to the British prime minister, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King said, “Your achievements in the past month alone will assure you an abiding and illustrious place among the great conciliators.”

Much of the world actually breathed a collective sigh of relief with the signing of the agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia (now separated into the Czech and Slovak republics) to Germany. To the cheers of the world, Hitler said, “This is the last territorial claim I shall make in Europe.”

But in 1939, with the exception of Winston Churchill, few recognized that Hitler had no intention of honouring the agreement. Churchill said the agreement was not the end of fear in the world, but “only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup ...” Winnipeg Free Press editor John Wesley Dafoe echoed Churchill, issuing his own warnings about the threat posed by the Nazis. 

In 1938, Dafoe called for Canada to “arm swiftly, efficiently and with thoroughness, and upon the largest scale possible ... it is the price we shall have to pay for the loss of security due to the rejection, by democratic countries, of the League (of Nations) ...”

The League of Nations, established after the First World War for collective security, disarmament and arbitration, had proven ineffective in stopping the drums of war as Japan invaded Manchuria, the Italians invaded Ethiopia ( Abyssinia) and the Germans marched into Czechoslovakia. In fact, Germany and Japan had both left the League in 1933, while Italy left in 1937. 

The world was inadequately prepared for war, and that’s why British, French and even Canadian politicians were grateful for the agreement. Yet, being unprepared was just one excuse for the Munich agreement, as leaders like Chamberlain truly believed peace was possible with Hitler. Hitler’s gamble was that France and Britain, by signing the agreement, had shown a cowardice that would continue as he expanded his reach beyond the Sudetenland. His assessment seemed to have been proven when German troops seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March 10, 1939,  and the free world ignored it.

When the Allies told Germany of their resolve to protect the independence of Poland, Hitler ignored them, believing it to be a hollow promise. After the Germans launched an attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany, followed by Canada on September 10. 

As was the case with Hitler, the Western democracies have continually misjudged or ignored the aspirations of Putin, so the outrages he encourages, including those against the sovereignty of Ukraine, continue despite a new treaty having been signed.