As President Putin carefully assembles the legal plinth upon which to seize the strategically vital Crimean Peninsula; and perhaps other regions of the ethnically divided Ukraine, the script he is using has very familiar story lines.
Russian media proclaims that “Fascist” or “terrorist” elements operating inside regions of the former USSR are “illegally seizing” power and threatening the lives and property of ethnic Russians, thus presenting Moscow with no choice but to protect their threatened citizens and brethren.
Such seemed to be the case with Saturday’s unanimous “vote” by Russia’s upper house of Parliament to approve the deployment of armed forces already stationed in Ukraine until the situation there “stabilises.”
Mind you, it wasn’t President Putin who ordered the takeover. It was every single member of the “independent and freely elected” Russian upper house that demanded he act. What choice then did poor President Putin have, but to accede to the cries of his countrymen?
Only after the vote did Putin’s office issue a crisp statement that read as though it had been written in advance: “Due to the extraordinary situation in the Ukraine which represents a threat to the lives of Russia citizens, our compatriots, the contingent of Russian Armed Forces in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea according to an international treaty, as stated in the Russian Federation, I ask the upper house of Parliament for permission to use armed forces in Ukraine until the situation stabilises.”
Russian media is presenting the intervention as just another case of urgent Russian paternalism at work. Russia’s Parliament did not sanction an invasion. They simply responded to an urgent request by unnamed “officials” of Crimea’s semi-autonomous regional government for assistance in protecting key administrative buildings from being seized by unnamed “armed men” allegedly sent by Ukraine’s new government, which Moscow has decided to label “the putsch regime in Kiev”.
The official Russian claims, which have not yet earned much corroboration by third party or Western news sources, is that overnight Friday, forces of the “The Putsch Regime in Kiev” dispatched by the new Ukrainian government tried storming several administrative buildings in the early hours of Saturday firing weapons and percussion grenades. According to Moscow’s narrative, these “attacks” were repelled by what it is describing as ‘local groups’ of Russian volunteer “self defense squads.”
How these squads spontaneously anticipated the arrival of allegedly secretly dispatched special forces, and were able to repel the coordinated assaults by well trained units of the Ukrainian armed forces are questions Russian state media has apparently not yet addressed. Other details that remain lacking include which “key administrative buildings” were targeted? Were there any casualties? What is the current status of the allegedly defeated Ukrainian armed units? Have they been identified? Are they still at large or are they in Russian custody?
The Crimean Prime Minister used these alleged attacks to announce that he was assuming full control over all region’s security services, including local police, the Russian army, the Russian navy and all border control personnel. He said the attacks required him to request immediate Russian assistance to protect the Crimea from any further threats emanating from Kiev.
Local authorities in Crimea also changed the date of a just scheduled referendum aimed at deciding whether or not Crimea should have more independence from Kiev from the end of May to this month. How a regional referendum can be organised and fairly administered while in the midst of turmoil and armed rebellion in a matter of a few weeks was not addressed.
But if all of these story lines sound a little too familiar, there is a good reason. They are too familiar.
An almost identical plot line was used in 2008 to justify Russian interventions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist regions of the Republic of Georgia. But they harken back much farther still. These tactics were routinely deployed by Soviet forces fighting to keep satellite states in Moscow’s orbit during the Cold War. The USSR manufactured similar scripts to crush freedom movements, starting in East Germany in 1953 – then largely through subterfuge, then followed by full throated Soviet military invasions, first of Hungary in 1956, then Czechoslovakia in 1968 and finally Afghanistan in 1979.
As good as the Soviets were at this game, they weren’t the ones who invented it. They learned it from the penultimate master; Adolf Hitler, who almost single-handedly created the art of conquest through manufactured political farce so brilliantly it almost lead to the total destruction of the Soviet Union itself.
Hitler succeeded in defanging the West long before he had assembled the military means to do so. He did it primarily through his skilful use of such manufactured political crises. The Nazi leader assumed powers over a Germany not completely different from the Russia Putin took over in the late 1990’s.
Both Weimar Germany and post-Soviet Russia emerged following catastrophic national defeats. Germany in World War I and Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Weimar Republic never won the legitimacy of the German people, never produced a statesman able to earn much national confidence and the political parties that constituted the Weimar Germany were never able to develop much appeal beyond their own regional or commercial interests. The Russia before Putin suffered almost exactly the same maladies. Hitler was able to seize upon all of by turning Weimar Germany against itself. Putin did much the same.
The tactic of expansion through bombast would be refined, accelerated and masterfully deployed after Hitler assumed power. First, he used the successful (by German standards) results of the 1935 plebiscite in Saar; the heavily German region annexed to France after World War I as a template to reacquire German lands lost in World War I. He later built upon that model to seize new territories that had never been part of Germany, like Austria, that Germany was banned by the Versailles Treaty from ever merging with. Hitler got around that nicety by orchestrating a series of phoney disturbances and false crises that culminated in 1938 with the Austrian government’s attempt to reassert its sovereignty, which Germany claimed was an effort to ‘prevent’ an independent referendum on unification. Hitler always created pretexts and carefully crafted fictions to dress-up his bloodless conquests. It wasn’t the West he was focused on convincing. It was his own people. In this regard, Putin’s tactics and audiences don’t appear that different.
In March 1938, German forces poured across the Austrian border, hastily called their own referendum on ‘Anschluss’, or union with Germany, which with the Nazi’s already in control, passed with 99.7 percent of the vote. The Austrians were anything but victims. Of course Hitler himself was Austrian. Sentiment in favour of Anschluss was massive. German troops were met with exhilarating approval. Had a fair vote been held, it may well have passed with similar numbers.
Less than year later, Hitler, again using Nazi agents, successfully incited political crisis in Czechoslovakia with the spurious claim that ethnic Germans who were being brutally oppressed by the Czechs needed the protection of the Reich. In reality of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. Germans in the Czech regions Hitler targeted enjoyed far more political freedom than Germans in Germany and were much wealthier too. Nonetheless, the West, led by Britain, had no stomach for conflict with Hitler and were prepared to pay any price to avoid war. At the infamous Munich Conference of September 1938, together with France, Italy and Germany, Britain signed Czechoslovakia’s death warrant by fully capitulating to Hitler’s demands. Czechoslovakia was to be immediately dismembered. Her potent and large army dismantled, and large and strategic regions ceded to Germany.
The collapse did more than demoralise the West and encourage Hitler that nothing could stop him. It also terrified the small states of Europe who found themselves with but one of two choices. They could either scamper for cover of treaties with the Allies or the Soviet Union, or they could try to get on the feast.
The following year, Hitler used the tactic again – this time in Poland. To justify German expansion there, he manufactured complete hysteria among the Germans living in Danzig, an ‘international’ city run formally by League of Nations across the Polish Corridor and thus geographically separated from Germany itself. They were being denied their rights, Hitler claimed. The Danzig Germans deserved to be reunited with Germany. They needed to be protected. Hitler had no choice but to assist them.
He even stage managed his actual invasion of Poland which started World War II. The day before the planned invasion of Poland, the SS kidnapped and murdered several Polish Jews and then dumped their bullet ridden corpses dressed in Polish military uniforms inside a German radio station in the town of Gleiwitz to make it appear as they were killed by German units defending themselves against a Polish invasion.
Are the German and Soviet manipulated events of the 1930’s through the collapse of Communism in 1990 identical to recent events of a newly resurgent Russian Federation? Of course not. There are striking differences in both degree and intensity.
The “oppression” – such as it is – of Vladimir Putin’s Russia Federation of 2014 bears almost no relation whatsoever to the totalitarian monstrosities of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Putin was bequeathed a vital handbook cataloguing nearly 80 years of skilful, cynical and largely successful examples of manipulated statecraft drafted and edited by his German and Soviet predecessors.
As he attempts to construct his own 21st Century Imperial Russia, Vladimir Putin does not seem to have any problem re-staging the plots and tactics of the German and Soviet empire builders who preceded him.