Reading Eugene Robinson’s witless recycling of Kremlin propaganda on the op-ed page of the March 11 Washington Post, a scene from Men at Arms, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, came to mind.
Waugh’s hero, Guy Crouchback, has returned to England in late August 1939, eager to take his place in the struggle against the powers that have just signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. To his dismay, he finds his fellow members of Bellamy’s Club (including his appeasement-minded brother-in-law Arthur Box-Bender, a Tory MP) unmoved by the sight of two totalitarianisms ingesting Poland. Yes, Chamberlain’s Britain had declared war on Germany, but it was not about to do the same to Russia:
Russia invaded Poland. Guy found no sympathy among these old soldiers for his own hot indignation. “My dear fellow, we’ve got quite enough on our hands as it is. We can’t go to war with the whole world.”
“Then why go to war at all? If all we want is prosperity, the hardest bargain Hitler made would be preferable to victory. If we are concerned with justice the Russians are as guilty as the Germans.”
“Justice?” said the old soldiers. “Justice?”
“Besides,” said Box-Bender when Guy spoke to him of the matter which seemed in no one’s mind but his, “the country would never stand for it. The socialists have been crying blue murder against the Nazis for five years but they are all pacifists at heart. So far as they have any patriotic feeling it’s for Russia. You have a general strike and the whole country in collapse if you set out to be just.”
I doubt that Eugene Robinson has any patriotic feeling for Russia, but his evident vulnerability to Russian propaganda suggests that he, like other members of the left-leaning commentariat, continue to read the politics of the West vs. Russia through the prism of the anti-anti-Communism on which they were weaned. The willingness to be “understanding;” the suggestion that Muscovite paranoia is not really, well, paranoid, but the product of complex historical factors; the readiness to countenance Russian imperialism while concurrently fretting about the assumed ambitions of the West — all of this has simply shifted from the old USSR to Putin’s Russia, as anti-anti-Communism is transmuted into a strange sympathy for classic Great Russian imperialism. Vladimir Putin does not strike me as a man with an overly developed sense of historical irony. But he surely appreciates what the Leninists termed “useful idiots,” and in left-leaning Western scribblers, he has found himself a bushel barrel of the type.
Thus Robinson’s instructions to President Obama — that he should tell Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk that “anti-Semitism and ethnic chauvinism” in Ukraine are unacceptable – may as well have been dictated by the mendacious Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. The fact that Lavrov has been spouting serial misrepresentations of Ukrainian reality may, just may, have begun to penetrate John Kerry’s coif. But it has made not the slightest dent on Eugene Robinson.
Is Pulitzer Prize–winner Robinson unaware that one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis has publicly accused Russia of staging anti-Semitic “provocations” in Crimea, in order to bolster the Big Lie that the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea is intended to “restore” civil order and combat extensive Jew-baiting? Is he unaware that the Nazis used similar tactics prior to their takeover of Austria? As for ethnic chauvinism, is Mr. Robinson’s grasp on modern European history so weak that he does not know that it was Russian ethnic chauvinism that emptied the Crimean peninsula of its Tatar population during the Soviet period? Does he not know that some of the Tatars who have returned since 1991 now find an “x” being painted on their houses by hooded “ethnic chauvinists” in the service of Moscow?
Perhaps Mr. Robinson should have a look at page A8 of the March 11 Wall Street Journal. There he will find a color photo of a poster anticipating a March 16 referendum, which virtually all Western governments have declared illegal and therefore non-binding, on whether Crimea should remain a part of Ukraine or join the “managed democracy” of Putin’s Russia. The poster features two graphic maps of the Crimean peninsula. On the left, Crimea is painted blood red, and a swastika overlays the peninsula. On the right, Crimea is bedecked in the bright livery of the white, blue, and red Russian flag. Subtlety, it seems, is not highly prized in Russian graphic-arts circles: The choice before Ukraine, the poster trumpets, is between Nazism and a reversion to the motherland.
If one takes Justice Potter Stewart’s “definition” of obscenity seriously — that you know it when you see it — that poster is obscene. It airbrushes from history and memory the 22-month-long alliance between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia — not to mention the long history of Russian anti-Semitism, which did not abate under Communism. It is yet another blatant example of the Muscovite Big Lie about Ukrainian civil reformers and democrats, whose ranks include residents of Crimea.
And it all has an eerily familiar ring to it.
The 1938 Nazi absorption of Austria — the Anschluss — and the subsequent German ingestion of the Czech Sudetenland (the appetizer before the main course, which was the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the incorporation of the Czech lands into the Reich) were both “prepared” by a similar barrage of provocations, claims of irreconcilable ethnic differences, breakdowns of public order — and Big Lies. The Anschluss was completed by the Wehrmacht marching into Austria on March 11, 1938. But the ground for that triumphal march into Hitler’s native land — subsequently “ratified” by a referendum — had long been tilled by precisely the tactics that Putin is now employing in Ukraine. In establishing the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” the following year (while hiving off a vassal-state in Slovakia), the Nazis didn’t bother with a referendum; they simply marched in, which ought not to have been a surprise, but was, to those who thought that, in the infamous Munich agreement, they had secured “peace with honor” by settling a “quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing.”
While Putin’s Anschluss strategy for Crimea — and perhaps for more of Ukraine — has been just as brazen in its deployment of the Big Lie and the diplomatic stonewall (with Sergey Lavrov in the role of Joachim von Ribbentrop), the Russian neo-czar has added a few refinements to the Anschluss methodology. Balaclava-clad “local self-defense forces” aren’t quite as scary as motorized Wehrmacht divisions. Working outwards from the Russian navy base in Sevastopol was also a nifty move; it suggested that Russia had begun its Ukrainian Anschluss by protecting what it already possessed, by reason of a treaty concluded with the now-disgraced and defunct Yanukovych government — and had then moved on to reestablish order in the surrounding territory.
But just as Britain and France dithered in 1938, so Western leaders are dithering today. Angela Merkel may wonder what planet Vladimir Putin inhabits and David Cameron may worry about pressuring the Russian oligarchs who have bought large chunks of London; John Kerry may declare his displeasure with Sergey Lavrov and Lavrov may continue to lie though his teeth about what happened in Ukraine last month and what is happening today; the American president may give lectures from the Oval Office to his Russian counterpart, and EU president Herman Van Rompuy may write a haiku or two about the crisis. But nothing serious has been done, to date, to demonstrate that the major NATO powers mean it when they say that there will be “costs” to Russian aggression, even as it grinds on.
Perhaps, then, it is now time for Canada, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic members of NATO to assert themselves more forcefully within the alliance, demanding serious, not cosmetic, economic pressure on Putin’s vulnerable economy, quickly instituted; the emplacement of the missile-defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland planned by the Bush administration and scrapped by Obama; and the dispatch of serious airpower — such as a squadron or two of USAF F-15E Strike Eagles — to the eastern borders of NATO. Absent such signs of resolve, the slow-motion Anschluss in Crimea may be finalized, with worse to come — for Ukraine, for Europe, for any notion of world order, and for the United States.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.