1914, 2014, And Putin

A reader writes:

I am really struck this morning with the difference between 381px-Russian_Troops_NGM-v31-p379US and German newspapers in their handling of the situation in Ukraine. The reporting of the facts is the same, essentially. But the editorial voice couldn’t be more distinct. Echoing through the German papers is an admonition, during the centennial of the beginning of the Great War, to be mindful of the conditions that led to its launch: hysteria, rabid nationalism, thoughts of the pride and glory of great nations, elements of personal vanity, militarism. These are forces that have historically led to great misery for humanity and that have clouded the history of Europe. They are all also things that can be found in some measure in the current controversy.

The Germans find much frightening in Putin, and in particular they see in his dealings unpleasant echoes of the predatory practices of the Hitler regime. But they are also sharply critical of the US, of the hyperventilation coming out of the Beltway, and even of Kerry’s desire to push promptly to isolate Russia, when they sense that post-Putin Russia is more likely to be a responsible part of Europe and relaunching a Cold War would only tend to strengthen the reactionary elements in Russian society.

They favor a response that is more incremental, cautious, measured, and one that avoids absolutely demonizing Russia. They prefer one that will bolster over time the more positive elements in Russian society. They are focused on extending a strong helping hand to Ukraine.

But beyond this, there is both a lack of a clear prescription of what to do next and a strong distrust of America. Obama is a big improvement over his predecessor, they reason, but he is still far too beholden to the toxic voices of neo-conservatism that sound so loudly within the Beltway.

It says a lot that Germans see this current moment as redolent of the folly of 1914, while Americans see it through the prism of the 1930s. The Germans, it seems to me, are more on point. Yes, there are some tactics that Putin is using with respect to diaspora Russians the way Hitler did with diaspora Germans, but the parallel, like all such Godwin-like parallels, can be dangerously misleading. Putin does not have a massive, modern industrial state behind him, and a unified mobilized citizenry; he has a faltering petro-oligarchy, atop a fragile Potemkin “democracy”; Putin claims no global ideology except the preservation of Russian power in its sphere of influence; Putin could only fight or occupy Ukraine at huge costs to his own power and the stability of his regime. When you consider all this, he is a problem to be contained or, so far as is possible, ignored.

What worries me about some of the signals coming from the White House is that they are repeating some of the errors of the past. They seem to have a solid grip on a realist and sober foreign policy, and then they have a spasm of relapse: intervening in Libya, declaring a “red line” in Syria. Putin needs to be contained and there need to be costs if he doesn’t retreat from Crimea. But grandiose threats and polarizing rhetoric can be deeply counter-productive. He’s made a huge blunder. The core task right now is to ensure we don’t make an even bigger one.

(Photo: Russian troops awaiting a German attack, 1917)