By: Jake Christensen
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet the past month’s events are not new to the eyes of the world. Albeit in a different country and propagated by a different aggressor, Russia’s rapid annexation of Crimea echoes painfully similar parallels to Germany’s 1938 Anschluss (annexation) of Austria. Both annexations occurred shortly after the annexing country’s hosting of an Olympic games; a calculated attempt at establishing each country’s place on the world stage. Both Germany and Russia cited concern for their citizens residing in the sought territory as justification for their actions.
Putin’s reverence and nostalgia for the Soviet Union echoes Hitler’s grand vision for, and relentless pursuit of, the thousand-year Reich. While Putin pushed for a vote of the Crimean people, Hitler ensured that his word was the deciding factor. Hitler knew he would face no legitimate opposition to the annexation of Austria under the appeasement of the soon-to-be Allied powers. A combination of ninety-five percent of Crimean voters favoring rejoining Russia in the March 16, 2014 referendum, and the Russian Duma’s 445-1 vote approving the annexation of Crimea, seem to be a full acquiescence to Putin’s will and the referendum in particular has elicited allegations of fraud. The separate votes appear to be Putin’s attempt to legitimize and distinguish Crimea from the past and to rebut any opposition from other nations or international organizations. With the exception of the sanctions, Putin has been able to push through a national referendum, a parliamentary vote, and the full reimplementation of a former Soviet territory without any significant consequences.
Such a comparison may seem dramatic, but planning for the worst seems far better than idly hoping for the best while allowing the worst to happen; as happened only seventy-eight years ago. While the reactionary increase in the United States’ sanctions against a limited number of Russian government operatives and Putin confidantes has elicited a response-in-kind from Putin, one has to wonder what the next move will be once both sides concede that the enacted sanctions have failed. Although United States allies in the European Union have issued similar sanctions, Russia’s retaliatory sanctions targeted US officials and lawmakers specifically.
The similarities between Germany’s actions more than seventy-five years ago and those of Russia today beg the question of what will happen next. While Russia’s annexation of Crimea has isolated itself from the world and unified those who oppose Putin’s actions, Russia’s opponents have failed to issue a concerted, cogent response and policy. While sanctions can be an effective deterrent for certain actions, they are reactionary rather than preventative, and it is clear that in this case they have failed. The Russian officials who were targeted by the most recent sanctions have publicly mocked their designations, and Putin was able to continue his quest to reunite Crimea with Russia without pause.
The trepidation of entering into another war is a very real and understandable fear, but threat of force does not automatically lead to use of force. When the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan in 1980, President Carter issued an immediate and firm warning to Leonid Brezhnev that the United States would use any and all weapons necessary to protect Afghanistan if the Soviet Union advanced any further. President Carter recalled his ambassador from Moscow, severely restricted Soviet trade and other activities, and withdrew the United States delegation from the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. While the Soviet war in Afghanistan would continue for nearly ten years, President Carter’s assertion of power began at the highest level before military action. He made a legitimate threat that, while an ultimately ineffective deterrent, at the very least was a show of US strength and willingness to act. All our allies’ recent actions prove that our threats are ineffective and Russia will do what it wants.
Putin has repeatedly publicly mourned the fall of the Soviet Union, and his relentless push for Crimea’s reunification with Russia seems to be a way for him to relive the past. Could Crimea be a test for the annexation of other former Russian-controlled areas? If sanctions and condemnations are the only risk, what is stopping him? Or was Putin simply seizing a unique and time-sensitive opportunity following Ukraine’s revolution? The answers are unclear, and only time will reveal Putin’s intentions. But continuing to add sanctions against Russia only increases the global perception that the United States is afraid to act and that Russia can, and will, do what it wants. History may soon repeat itself.