In 1918, the bloodiest war yet experienced ended, with three former great powers reduced to insignificance or outright erased from the map. Germany was not only reduced territorially, but also returned to its former status of second-rate power. Austria-Hungary ceased to exist, while the once mighty Russian Empire descended into the chaos of a civil war that was to last until 1922.
After the dust settled, both in Germany and in the Soviet Union strong leaders captured the absolute power. Both Hitler and Stalin had the same goal: first, restoration of the great power status and then, world domination. Both of them started by consolidating the internal situation, securing their rule and building up the means necessary to proceed with their plans.
I believe it is significant to review briefly the timeline of Hitler’s actions in the first six years of his rule:
- 1933: at January 30 comes to power, by March 23 receives dictatorial powers from the Reichstag, effectively ending democracy. The Parliament would continue for some time as a decorative entity, until Hitler grows tired and dismisses it;
- 1935 – London Naval Treaty – the military limitations imposed by the Versailles Treaty are abolished;
- 1936 – invasion of the Rhineland;
- 1936 – 1939 - The Condor Legion fights in Spain, gathering critically important data on modern warfare;
- 1938 – The Anschluss and occupation of Czechoslovakia;
- 1939 – World War II begins.
Two things should be noted regarding these events: first, that Hitler publicly stated his plans, beginning with the “Mein Kampf” written in 1923 and subsequently in every speech, he made. Secondly, that he believed in small steps, calculated to offer the gullible Western leaders a chance to refrain from any determined actions. It is quite possible that he realized that the first global conflagration had such severe effects on most of the politicians that they were quite determined to avoid any repeat. Hence, they claimed to believe Hitler’s repeated assurances that he was not interested in westward expansion or indeed any expansion outside Germany’s 1914 borders.
Jumping ahead in time to 1991, we find the Soviet Union much in the situation Germany was some 70 years before: having lost a foreign war in Afghanistan, the country descended into turmoil, the economy was nearing total collapse and civil war broke out (after all, both the 1991 coup and the Chechen wars can be considered as such). Like in Germany, the government was unable to take measures that would redress the situation. Moreover, just like in Germany, the population wished for a strong and determined leader, a leader with a vision of restored greatness.
Such a leader did indeed show up. Leaning on his previous experience as a KGB officer and an administrator in Sankt Petersburg, Vladimir Putin captured the presidency of the Russian Federation to the extent that he could sit out one cycle and be re-elected without a hitch. Nowadays, although there is an opposition in the State Duma, it is feeble, with the majority rubber-stamping the presidential decisions.
In the first years, Putin rebuilt the Russian economy, raised the living standards and reaffirmed Russia’s prominent place on the world stage. Once the economy was booming, he turned to reforming and strengthening the Russian military, testing it in the last Chechen war, which – unlike the one fought under Yeltzin – they handsomely won. Next, he ordered the intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of the Georgian provinces being occupied and transformed into de facto Russian territories.
This year, based on a “referendum” which later proved to be fraudulent, Russia occupied Crimea. This was followed by first providing weapons and ammunition for pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine, then by providing “volunteers”, finally, by intervening openly, and fighting the Ukrainian Army.
The similarity between these two periods is quite striking. In both cases, once great powers were diminished and relegated to second-rate status. In both cases, the reconstruction was initiated by strong leaders, who started first by consolidating their hold on power, followed by stabilisation and expansion of the national economy.
Looking at these similarities, the question arises: what will Russia’s next step be?
In my opinion, there are three possibilities: Russia declares herself content with Crimea and stands down in Ukraine, Russia continues to fight until Eastern (Russophone) Ukraine joins her and finally, Russia continues to expand.
In this latter scenario, the primary targets of Russia will be the countries of “near abroad”, i.e. the former republics of the USSR. Such a design will however mean a direct confrontation with NATO, unless the Russians can orchestrate an “internal movement” that takes over power, leaves NATO (in the case of the Baltic States) and joins at least an upgraded, confederation-like CSI (if not outright the Russian Federation).
The first move is unthinkable. 25 years after the end of the Cold War, a renewed threat of nuclear annihilation is unacceptable for all parties involved. However, there remains the possibility of the Kremlin thinking that they have correctly gauged the West’s lack of determination and keep pushing on, just as Hitler did in his first six years. Today, with the EU resorting to economic sanctions only and not offering any security guarantees or at least limited military aid (like electronic intelligence, satellite imagery and suchlike), Russia’s leaders feel emboldened and confident, that in the worst case, they will have succeeded in enlarging their territory while clearly defining the final extent of NATO enlargement.
The internal threat has variable degrees of potential success in the potentially threatened countries. In the Baltic States, although there are large Russian communities, any such movement would be undoubtedly given short shrift. The chances of success are however much higher in Moldavia, while Armenia might choose to protect herself from an increasingly dangerous Azeri-Turkish-Iranian threat by tightening her ties with Moscow, even at the cost of giving up much of her independent foreign policy (and the goodwill of the West).
Under these conditions, the West has two options: withdraw from the East and hope to appease the Kremlin, which solution has been tried by Chamberlain, Daladier & Co, failing miserably. The other option is a renewed enlargement of both NATO and the EU, clearly drawing a line to Russian expansion and signalling the determination to resist such actions. Time will tell, whether Chamberlain or Churchill are the role-models of the current set of Western political leaders.