Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Under Control?

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 8, 2014 --  

Trouble in Ukraine doesn't mean a new Cold War. It might mean something far more deadly.

If there were any doubt about the motivations of Vladimir Putin toward Ukraine, the tens of thousands of troops massed on the country's eastern border should make things quite clear.1 One month after Russian special forces seized positions in Crimea as a prelude to annexation to Russia, even more egregious events are taking place in Donetsk, a Ukrainian city near the Russian border.

Protesters waving Russian flags have seized the regional government building, where they declared independence and requested Russian peacekeeping troops to help their aspirations to join Russia. America claims that some of these protesters are non-Ukrainians being paid by the Russian government.2

If all of this sounds similar to last month's events in Crimea, the more worrisome parallel is with events in the Sudentenland in 1938. Back then, German-speaking citizens in the border areas of Czechoslovakia were egged on by Germany to seek separation. Germany accused the Czechoslovakian government of mistreating their ethnic brothers, and in the name of protecting them, they ultimately invaded and annexed the territory. Western Poland and the French territories of Alsace-Lorraine were soon annexed as well.

Like the Germans in Sudentenland of 1938, today's Eastern Ukraine has a majority of Russian-speakers, and Russia is agitating the situation to its own advantage while maintaining a veneer of deniability. Who are those Russian-speaking troops without insignia on their uniforms? "Not ours," says the Kremlin. Why are there so many Russian troops on the border of Ukraine? "Just routine maneuvers," says the Kremlin.

Given the rust-belt economy and political backwardness of its people, Ukraine would likely be better off without its easternmost territories. The bigger problem is that the Russian actions inflame an already dangerously nationalistic environment that is likely to lead to even more destructive acts.

The seizure of Ukrainian territories is ratcheting up patriotic feelings in Russia, where people are proud of the country's newfound strength. It also heightens nationalistic feelings in neighboring countries, where frightened people are angry about Russia's actions. The inevitable Western sanctions against Russia increase the divide. They reinforce on Russia that it is not part of the West (and therefore not subject to its rules) while creating pain for its people who are more vulnerable to easy answers from a nationalistic leader.

What happens if Vladimir Putin becomes addicted to nationalistic support for his regime, especially as Western sanctions create economic pain that prevents him from basing his rule on economic prosperity? He may be forced to take ever more aggressive actions against neighboring countries to justify his continued rule.

Many folks like to point out that events in Ukraine do not indicate a return to the Cold War. While this is true, the situation today could prove even more deadly. The Cold War was a relatively stable period where fear of a nuclear conflict prevented a major confrontation. The events in Ukraine are happening because there is no such fear — people think that a nuclear conflict is all but impossible.

While Putin is not a madman, it is easy to imagine events that could spiral out of control quickly. If Russia invades Ukraine, neighboring Poland (a member of NATO with close ties to Ukraine) could easily be drawn in by accident. History is filled with cases where nationalistic constituencies demanded honor-defending action that triggered unwanted wars.

The big difference between Germany in the 1930s and Russia today is the absence of a large military buildup. Russia's military has merely stabilized from its steep decline after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia still has an extremely dangerous nuclear arsenal, and a conventional military powerful enough to push around the weak former Soviet republics. But it is no match for America's conventional military might, and has been in many ways eclipsed by China as the world's second largest military power.

The risk, therefore, is not of Russia overtly threatening the West, but of it accidentally triggering a war with the West by letting dangerous events get out hand. That doesn't sound a lot like the Cold War or tensions with Germany in the years leading up to the Second World War. But it sounds like trouble nonetheless.

Related Web Columns:

An Amicable Divorce, February 25, 2014

Democracy's Key Lesson, December 17, 2013

The Rise of the Rusted Curtain, February 9, 2010

Abandoning Friends, September 22, 2009

Revolution for a Slow Decline, November 23, 2004


1. Bloomberg News, NATO Warns Russia Force on Ukraine Border Ready to Act, April 2, 2014

2. International Business Times, White House: Eastern Ukrainian Protesters May Have Been Paid By Russia, April 7, 2014