What follows is an instructive parallel chronology, from which one can draw unmistakeable conclusions.
On 8 May 2008, after two terms as President, Vladimir Putin is appointed Prime Minister of Russia. He illegally turns the post into Russia’s supreme leader, getting around the constitutional bar to a person having more than two terms as President, which Putin had just done. Putin manipulates and/or represses media and opposition to ensure his continual re-election and in effect a dictatorship.
On 31 January 1933, Adolf Hitler is appointed German Chancellor after his Nazi Party gets the most seats, but not a majority, in the Reichstag. On 27 February 1933 the Reichstag is burned down by Nazis who blame communists and introduce emergency laws paving the way for a Nazi dictatorship. On 19 August 1934 Hitler abolishes the post of president and anoints himself Fuhrer.
On 1 August 2008, Russian-backed South Ossetian forces shell villages in Georgia, a former Soviet republic seeking to join NATO. The shelling is in breach of an earlier ceasefire agreement. Putin’s support of separatists in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in Georgia leads to them to in effect become vassal states of Russia. The Russian-backed separatists “ethnically cleanse” the two regions of Georgians. Western democracies do nothing.
On March 7, 1936, Hitler sends 20,000 troops into the Rhineland in breach of the Treaty of Versailles under which the area that borders France, Belgium, and the Netherlands was to be demilitarised. The allies do nothing.
On 26 February 2014, Putin’s Russian forces seize administrative buildings in key cities in Ukrainian Crimea. Russia eventually annexes Crimea in defiance of international law. Western democracies do little more than impose a few ineffective sanctions.
On 13 March 1938, Hitler’s troops march into Austria after Germany gives Austria a no-choice “Anschluss” or union agreement which really amounts to an annexation. The allies do nothing.
In March 2014 Putin’s Russian-backed separatists and disguised Russian troops seize Ukrainian government buildings in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. They declare Donetsk and Luhansk independent states. Putin defies 29 ceasefire agreements mainly arranged under the Minsk agreements with international players like France and Germany. The Minsk agreements were to guarantee peace for our time
On 30 September 1938 the Munich Agreement is signed by Germany, Britain, France and Italy allowing Germany to take Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland which has a majority German population. Chamberlain declares: peace for our time.
On 1 October 1938, Hitler’s troops march in and take Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. Sudetenland contains all of the Czech western defences, leaving the rest of the country exposed.
In March 1939 the Czech President is coerced into ceding the rest of Czech territory to Germany under the control of a Reichsprotekor. The bulk of remaining Slovakia is carved up and handed to Nazi sympathetic Hungary. The allies do nothing.
Like Putin seven decades later, Hitler starts ethnic cleansing – read wholesale murder. The allies and western democracies do next to nothing.
On 23 August 1939 the Soviet Union and Hitler sign a peace pact. Like the Munich agreement the year before, Hitler has no intention of keeping it. On 3 September 1939, Hitler’s troops invade and occupy Poland. The allies declare all-out war. On 10 May 1940, Germany conquers France and Hitler goes to Paris. On 7 September 1940 Hitler begins the bombing of purely civilian targets as the Blitz begins.
The Soviet Union and the US do little.
Not until invaded does the Soviet Union enter the war on 22 June 1941. Not until invaded does the US enter the war on 7 December 1941.
On 24 February 2022, Putin’s Russian troops launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Western democracies impose more sanctions raising the question why were there any more sanctions left to be raised after the criminal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Western democracies dither about what and how much aid to give Ukraine.
In 2022 and 2023 Putin’s Russian forces deliberately target civilians in Ukraine.
On 10 May 1940 Churchill is elected Prime Minister. Conservative appeasers plan a peace treaty with Hitler led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. Churchill wins the day with support from key Labour members of the war Cabinet. On 4 June 1940 Churchill gives his “We shall never surrender” speech.
On 25 February 2012 Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejects US defeatists’ offer to evacuate him saying: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
The genocide of the Jewish people does not end in Nazi Germany and its conquered territories until Hitler is dead. Putin’s attempt at genocide in Ukraine continues and will continue until he is killed or captured and jailed.
The obvious lesson is that there can be no peace agreements with evil autocrats like Hitler and Putin. They will just be broken. Even when Ukraine gets all its territory back there can be no peace agreement while Putin holds power in Russia. He will just wait, replenish and invade again.
Ukraine should be invited into NATO and the EU as quickly as possible. And the western democracies should give it as much weaponry as possible. It would be cheaper in the long run as the events in Europe between 1933 and 1945 attest.
The western democracies should be grateful that they can avoid putting boots on the ground. The Ukrainians are shedding the blood. The western democracies’ contribution is only in treasure: money and weapons.
Intervention in foreign conflicts is invariably fraught. Too often the US and other democracies say they are supporting the brave people of XYZ for, in the words of British Prime Minister Rushi Sunak, sovereignty and freedom. That is too fuzzy. Many autocracies have sovereignty but lack freedom. Democracies cannot take up the cause of freedom, democracy or sovereignty everywhere.
You get more clarity when you ask what you are fighting AGAINST rather than what you are fighting FOR. And perhaps one of the best answers to that comes from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. They are crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, or more precisely waging an aggressive war, genocide, and targeted violence against civilians.
The western democracies must not give up on Ukraine using weasel words like “reality” and “compromise”. The enemy is not Russia or the Russians, but Putin. As it was not Germany or the Germans, but Hitler.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 23 May 2023.
Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.