, Newburyport, MA


May 3, 2014

Letter: History's uncertain lessons for Ukraine


By now you surely have ascertained that this is a column about the terrible choices Obama faces as Vladimir Putin flexes his muscles and thrusts Ukraine — once known as the bread basket of Central Europe, critically defined as the largest country completely within the borders of Europe — into crisis.

And as this crisis deepens — the presence of so many Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders assures that the crisis deepens — Obama faces critics on the left and right.

But mostly he faces difficult questions and uncertain historical lessons. For this crisis contains parts of the characteristics of both World Wars and parts of the characteristics of the Cold War, but not enough of any of them to provide sure guideposts in an era where communication is faster than it was in 1920, 1938, 1956 and 1968.

That is because the natural antecedents are more facile than effective, and the lessons are difficult to discern:

— The Sudetenland. The similarities with Hitler’s aggression in Czechoslovakia in 1938 are obvious: claims of repressed nationality and phony grievances in a land contiguous to the aggressor.

But for all his venality and brutality, and perhaps his greed and expansionism, if Putin harbors a genocidal impulse, it is far less apparent than that of Hitler, whose views on the elimination of Jews and others were clear to all as early as 1925, and apparent to the sharp-eyed as early as 1923.

Potential lesson: While Hitler sought Lebensraum, or elbow room, beyond his borders, Putin seeks to assert his primacy in an area regarded for more than a century as part of his country’s sphere of influence — a subtle but important difference.

— The rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. There are fateful and frightening similarities between those two uprisings behind the Iron Curtain and the determination of free Ukraine to retain its independence from Russia. But the outcomes in 1956 and 1968 are sobering, even bitter. The United States talked bravely about its support for the Budapest rebels and Radio Free Europe stirred the insurgents, but ultimately the United States failed to provide military support. The situation a dozen years later in Prague was little different.

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