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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Warmongering Putin, a feeble West and chilling echoes of the 1930s


By Dominic Sandbrook
Daily Mail
Horror: Relatives of a victim killed by shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramotorsk yesterday. Scenes like this were supposed to have disappeared from the European continent a generation ago (AFP/Getty Images)
Horror: Relatives of a victim killed by shelling in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramotorsk yesterday. Scenes like this were supposed to have disappeared from the European continent a generation ago (AFP/Getty Images)
Yesterday, watching the news on television, I saw something that felt like a scene from the darkest days of World War II.
In an apartment building in Kramatorsk, a railway town north of the breakaway Ukrainian city of Donetsk, a weeping mother films Russian separatists’ rockets coming closer and closer to her tower block. As the shells burst on the horizon and the sobs catch in her throat, it is impossible to mistake the sense of looming tragedy.
Scenes like this were supposed to have disappeared from the European continent a generation ago. For centuries, it had been scarred by bloodshed and fear, but when the Cold War ended, we told ourselves that it could never happen again.
But the conflict in Ukraine, now perilously close to all-out war, has turned that naive optimism on its head. And as the Kremlin-backed separatists push further west, using their superior weaponry to outfight their Ukrainian adversaries, it is increasingly clear that the West has utterly and shamefully failed to halt President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist ambitions.
The terrible irony of the Ukrainian conflict is that it is happening in precisely the same eastern borderlands that suffered the worst horrors of the 20th century. It was in the villages of Ukraine that Stalin’s demented policies saw some ten million people killed by starvation, and it was there, a few years later, that the Nazi occupiers murdered millions of Jews.
Yet although we in the West love to congratulate ourselves on our parents’ and grandparents’ victories over Nazism and Communism, it is now horribly clear we have learned nothing from the history of the 1930s.
For as Mr Putin has proved, we are simply too self-interested, too spoiled and too weak to stand up to aggression.
The last few days alone could hardly have made for a more depressing spectacle. While the separatists virtually encircled the Ukrainian army, pushing deeper into the country’s interior, the presidents of France and Germany flew to Moscow to beg Mr Putin to call a halt. Tellingly, their peace plan reportedly concedes the separatists’ gains on the battlefield. And it makes no mention at all of the annexed Crimean peninsula — which the West now appears, disgracefully, to have allowed Mr Putin to keep.
As the admirably clear-sighted U.S. senator John McCain remarked, it all feels like a dismal re-run of the 1930s and Nazi Germany’s expansionism. ‘History shows us that dictators will always take more if you let them,’ he explained on a visit to Munich. ‘They will not be dissuaded from their brutal behaviour when you fly to meet them in Moscow — just as leaders once flew to this city.’
There is, of course, a telling difference between what happened in Munich in 1938 and the events of the past week. In 1938, Britain played the central role in appeasing Hitler.
But in 2015 we have been reduced to watching from the sidelines. There could hardly be a more damning indictment of the decline of our military clout and diplomatic influence.
Of course the parallel with the 1930s can only be taken so far.Putin is not a second Hitler. He appears to have no grand plan for world domination, no blueprint for mass extermination.
But ever since he came to power 15 years ago, Western leaders have blinded themselves to his cold-bloodedly authoritarian tendencies, his nostalgia for the Soviet empire and his desire to restore Russian power in Eastern Europe.
The parallel between Germany after World War I and Russia after the Cold War is compelling. Both countries felt bruised and humiliated. Both believed they had been stabbed in the back by traitors and politicians. And, crucially, both had lost large slices of territory, including areas containing many of their native speakers.

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