The Ukraine ceasefire — which is disintegrating — requires a pullback of Ukraine’s soldiers and artillery from their positions inside Ukraine, and the establishment of a demilitarized buffer zone. Russian soldiers inside Ukraine will have to leave — which will be either very simple or very difficult, because Russia says they don’t exist. And, of course, Crimea remains under Russian control. In Russia, Putin remains incredibly popular; more than two-thirds of Russians say he’s their choice for man of the year.
Russia’s approach to empire building — civil unrest, military intervention, plebiscite, annexation — has frequently been compared to Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, during the leadup to the European half of the Second World War. It ought to be compared to the Second Sino-Japanese War, which triggered the War in the Pacific. In 1931, in order to pick up strategically important territory, natural resources, and a new export market, Japan staged a faux-Chinese terrorist attack on a Japanese railway in China’s northeastern Manchuria territory. The “attack” served as Japan’s excuse to invade. By February 1932, Manchuria had been converted to a Japanese puppet state called Manchukuo. The international community’s response was a League of Nations investigation, report, and condemnation of Japan. And nothing else.
Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and became internationally isolated. But intranationally, the invasion of China was exceptionally popular; in Japan, it was called a “seisen,” a holy war, to civilize the backwards and barbarous Chinese. According to Japan scholar Zeljko Cipris, Japan’s press was subject to censorship but — as in the First Sino-Japanese War, fought in the 1890s between Japan and Qing-dynasty China — censorship was, in practice, seldom necessary: Virtually the entire political spectrum supported the war. If anything, isolation from Western powers was welcome in Japan, which saw itself as the new hegemon of Asia. North east China was added to Japan’s dominion over Korea and a large Asian trade establishment seized from Germany after the First World War. Japan’s stature abroad took a hit, but at home, Japanese nationalism skyrocketed. So did the size of Japan’s military: During the six years between the invasion of Manchuria and the beginning of Sino-Japanese total war in 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army was increased from 200,000 men to 2 million.
After Japan’s subsumption of Manchuria, it continued to poke and prod disjoint China. At the turn of the 20th century, Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang had laid the groundwork for a free and democratic modern Chinese state; Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, led a republican government against Communist rebels. Unable effectively to fight the Stalinists and the Japanese at the same time, Chiang adopted a policy of “internal peace before external resistance.” As the civil war raged, Japan chipped away at northern China.
After setting itself up in Manchuria, Japan fostered anti-Japanese sentiment to the south, which it used as an excuse to invade Shanghai. The Shanghai War of 1932 lasted just over a month, during which between ten and twenty thousand Chinese civilians were killed. The League of Nations, just as potent as the United Nations that followed it, did nothing but call for an immediate ceasefire, whose (eventual) terms included a complete Chinese military withdrawal from Shanghai and its satellite cities, and a small Japanese occupation force. A few months later, in January of ’33, Japan invaded China’s northeastern Rehe province; after six months of fighting, Rehe was annexed to Manchukuo, and China was forced to accept a demilitarized zone extending 60 miles south of China’s great wall. The demilitarized zone was patrolled by the Japanese military, to make sure there was no military there.
Japan continued to subvert northern China with violence and warlord-sponsorship until, in 1937, a skirmish on the outskirts of Beijing triggered a full-scale war; Chiang’s Republicans signed a truce with the Communists, and a nominally unified China directed all the might it could muster against Japan. The results were 20 million Chinese civilians murdered, and a Japan so confident in its imperialist aspirations that it bombed Pearl Harbor.
Before Germany annexed the Sudetenland in 1938, it conferred with England and France, which — speaking for civilized Europe — acceded to Germany’s Sudeten plans. When Japan invaded China, the civilized world — spoken for by the League of Nations — condemned and isolated Japan; nothing more. When Russia invaded Ukraine, and annexed Crimea, the civilized world — spoken for by the United Nations — issued a tepid condemnation. American and European sanctions have isolated Russia, slightly. And now, in Russia as they did in Japan, nationalist urges and military spending are both spiking.
When bellicose world powers try to build empires, lots and lots of people get killed. The stronger the civilized world lets those imperialist powers become before intervening, the larger the subsequent war. If the West had helped China when Japan first invaded, the Rape of Nanking would not have happened. If the West hadn’t abandoned Czechoslovakia, 6 million European Jews wouldn’t have been murdered. In fact, the only people who seem to fully appreciate the danger of the Ukraine situation are Ukrainian Jews — after Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine told them to register and pay a Jew-tax, they started to flee to Israel.
In the Thirties and Forties, Japanese imperialism killed 30 million people. German imperialism killed 30 million more. So far, in the 2010s, nascent Russian imperialism has killed about 5,000. How many more deaths will the civilized world tolerate? An order of magnitude? Two? Despite a ceasefire respite, violence is ongoing in eastern Ukraine. If the ceasefire fails, Mr. Obama has said, the U.S. may consider supplying Ukraine with weapons — “lethal aid” as opposed to the “non-lethal aid” of blankets and meals-ready-to-eat we’ve given them so far. Real, useful, lethal aid to the Ukrainians is an imperative; sending them weapons should be the bare, frozen minimum. The West shouldn’t make the same mistake for a third time.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.