Again, a rumble from Putin's Moscow to challenge the American hegemony. I think it was that far-sighted Prussian historian Karl von Clausewitz who wrote that he who ignores history is doomed to repeat it. As the diplomatic taffy-pull over the fate of Ukraine begins to threaten the solidarity of the Atlantic Alliance and enrage John McCain, perhaps it is time to go back over the high-points of recent history in the region and grope for some perspective.
One point probably worth making is that Ukraine -- and the Crimea -- have been under Russian control most of the time since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, when modern Europe began to emerge. Twice during the twentieth century a coalition led by Berlin has invaded the Russian heartland, each time involving the Russians in ghastly, human-wave-style campaigns to defend themselves. Russian losses during the Second World War have been estimated as high as forty million; the nation has never recovered.. After 1945 Stalin made sure the Red Army would remain in occupation of the so-called satellites -- most of which had signed on without hesitation for Hitler's invasion and included such units as the Kosovar Skandahar battalions, a more genocidal collection of fanatics than the SS could muster. They tore up Kiev. Joseph Stalin was resolved to head off another catastrophic Aryan eruption through the Fulda Pass.
Throughout the decades prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union I was in and out of Eastern Europe -- East Berlin, Poland, all over Yugoslavia, Dresden, Hungary.... There were several uprisings by the discontented natives, especially in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In each case the Red Army moved in and put these flareups down, ruthlessly. While I was a student in Germany in 1956 the Hungarians revolted. The CIA had been training an estimated million refugees from the East in camps in West Germany, the so-called Vlasov Army -- later on, in the military, I encountered one detachment down the road from my base in Goeppingen. As I documented carefully in my book The Old Boys, both the Dulles brothers attempted to pressure President Dwight Eisenhower into infiltrating these homicidal irregulars into Hungary to fight the Russians. Eisenhower had brains enough to say No, emphatically. He understood what would trigger World War III.
Behind the headlines about Ukraine these days several large considerations are lurking. One is that, from Moscow's point of view, NATO is closing in. Formed originally among the Western nations during the middle forties to confront Soviet aggression in Western Europe, NATO survives as a militarized command directed primarily from the Pentagon and available for geopolitical chores like the replacement of Qaddafi. By 1991 the decision had been made by the Gorbachev government to pull the Russian boundaries back not only from countries independent before 1938 like the Baltics and Poland but also to cut loose a number of the prior Soviet republics. Several of the stans, Georgia and Ukraine were among the newly constituted independent states. The thinking in Moscow was apparently that these sister republics would remain a problem to govern and expensive and in every case there was a sizable irredentist faction pushing for independence. Empire, as we have all discovered, is extremely costly, and Russia was a struggling oil kleptocracy.
Meanwhile, NATO kept moving in. Poland was signed up, and agreed along with the Czech Republic to accept U.S. anti-ballistic missile batteries ostensibly to protect Europe from Iran, which had and has no long-range missiles. The Russians protested. The Baltics were incorporated into NATO, summoning up memories of the Finnish-Soviet war at the end of the thirties. With Ukraine largely bankrupt the International Monetary Fund appeared; there are apparently conditions requiring NATO involvement before the money could be released. Eager for Western ties, mobs swarmed the Ukrainian parliament and threw out the elected pro-Soviet president. Putin roared about fascists and anti-Semites on the borders of Mother Russia.
Faced with the prospect of losing its only warm-water port, the powers in Moscow staged a takeover in the Crimea. This was standard operating procedure -- in 2008 the Russians had grabbed off control in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia with barely a hiccup from the Bush administration. Challenged by Republican hotheads, Obama may be backing the administration into the most dangerous confrontation, in the opinion of Princeton Russian scholar Steven Cohen, since the missile crisis.
The time is overdue for enlightened diplomacy, by all hands. Once we understand the Russians' motivation, perhaps we can condition our own.
Hold your breath, troopers.