George Santayana famously said, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” But when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, Western leaders can’t seem to decide which century’s lessons they should take to heart.
When Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Crimea, a stunned Secretary of State John Kerry initially opined: “It’s a 19th-century act in the 21st century.” In other words, 21st-century rules of an interconnected world barred anything as atavistic as forceful seizure of European territory. Kerry was so stunned he could only suggest as punishment that Russia be kicked out of the club of G-8 industrial nations.
Initially, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed equally flummoxed, saying she thought “we had transcended” 20th-century conflicts over territory. Germans are now debating whether World War I or II holds the more relevant lessons for Crimea: Should Europe go slow on Putin lest it sleepwalk into war as it did in 1914? Or does it need a military response to Putin’s anschluss of the sort Europe failed to provide in 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria?
The problem with swallowing Santayana’s warning whole is that history never repeats itself to the letter. Any attempt to base current strategy on what happened 75 or 100 years ago is likely to end badly for all concerned.
Yes, Putin has reintroduced into Europe the pre-1945 concept of annexing territory by force — which has not been seen since the onset of the nuclear era. He can’t justify this practice by claiming he has a duty to protect Russian speakers outside Russia proper (who weren’t in any danger). “That’s like saying France has a duty to protect French speakers in Belgium or Switzerland,” says Francois Heisbourg, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Or, more ominously, like saying China has a right to seize Taiwan or islands whose possession is disputed with Japan or the Philippines.