An autocratic national leader raises concern about the treatment of his ethno-cultural group, which forms a substantial minority, in a neighbouring country and threatens invasion if the territory they inhabit is not merged with his own country.
Does this seem like what we are witnessing in Russia and Ukraine, or between Russia and other post-Soviet Union states — with a few changes?
Not exactly. This was the late summer of 1938, when Adolf Hitler, flush from the Anschluss, or “reunion” of Austria with his Third Reich earlier that year, demanded that Sudetenland, where German settlers had been living for centuries under the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, and had become a part of the then Czechoslovakia following the World War I settlements, be handed over to him.
Comparisons between Hitler and Russian President Vladimir Putin started doing the rounds as soon as war returned to Europe following the Russian military action in Ukraine. Before considering how valid these are, let us see what the Sudetenland crisis led to.
As prominent statesmen from leading western democracies — the UK and France — buckled to Hitler’s demand, giving rise to the phrase “appeasement politics”, used (and misused) ever since then around the world, and Czechoslovakia, the sole democracy in Central Europe, was dismantled. Hitler assured the world that this was his last territorial demand.
He did not stick to his word — occupying the rump Czechoslovakia early next year and then, made demands on Poland for a corridor to Danzig, separated from German territory because of the same post-World War I settlements. From Lithuania, he asked for Memel. The latter may not be that known to many, apart from the fanatical history buffs, but the Polish demand triggered World War II.
Comparisons between Hitler and Putin may spring to mind, but these can be a bit laboured. For one, unlike Hitler, the Russian President is not that keen on territorial aggrandisement, despite seeking the restoration of the Soviet Union/Tsarist Russia boundaries.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the primary focus for leaders of Russia, the primary successor state, has been the interests of ethnic Russians in the “near abroad”, as the other post-Soviet Union countries, are named. This has also been accomplished by granting them Russian citizenship, as Russia has done now in the areas of Donetsk and Lugansk, which were out of Kiev’s control.
This worked elsewhere too – the Latvian aircrew arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in connection with the 1995 Purulia arms drop case were pardoned and released in 2000 after they acquired Russian citizenship while in an Indian jail.
The Russian leader whom the Fuehrer can be better compared to has been Stalin, and Alan Bullock, one of the pioneering biographers of the German dictator, went on to compare their lives in parallel.
A better comparison between what President Putin is believed to seek with his Ukrainian gambit — a neutral, non-aligned neighbour — would be how the Soviet Union dealt with its northern neighbour Finland from 1939 till 1991.
Finland, which had been a part of the Tsarist Russian empire for over a century till it was granted its freedom in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and after defeating its own Bolshevik revolution, had a varied foreign policy in its initial years, including participation in the Russian Civil War, and association with its Scandinavian countries.
After the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union demanded some of its areas, especially a stretch just around 30 km from the then Leningrad (St Petersburg). Negotiations failed to make any headway and Soviet troops invaded Finland in November 1939, leading to the “Winter War”.
To the surprise of Soviet leaders, Finland more than held its own for two months, but ultimately capitulated early next year. The peace treaty in April 1940 made it give up considerable territory — almost 10 per cent. The only European power that promised help was Hitler’s Germany, and when it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Finland also joined it — but did not operate out of its former territory.
Following the Nazi reverses on the eastern front, Finland sued for peace in 1944. It faced tough conditions, including the relinquishment of some more territory, but remained unoccupied and independent — a fate no other ally of Nazi Germany enjoyed.
There were some more conditions — especially, that it remain under the Soviet orbit, but this control was much lighter than seen in central and east European countries.
Its situation, in fact, became a political term – “Finlyandizatsiya” in Russian or “finlandisation”, about how a powerful country makes a smaller neighboring country refrain from opposing the former’s foreign policy rules, while allowing it to keep its independence and its own political system.
Though the term, which originated in the West German political debate of the late 1960s as Willy Brandt began his “ostpolitik”, is considered “pejorative”, it is of course a more pragmatic way, and isn’t politics the art of the possible?
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)