There is an saying on the Internet called Godwin’s Law, which states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one. It is a sign that the discussion has gone stale and that crude analogies, usually by a left-wing commentator, are being employed to bolster an otherwise doomed argument. To be inappropriately denounced as a fascist by a left-winger in an online discussion is a tacit admission of defeat as it does mean that the socialist has as usual run out of ideas to back their point of view. Indeed, a large amount of left-wing activity is regularly devoted to scrutinising government policies in Western nations to see if they are the thin end of a wedge that will ultimately lead to a full-blown national socialist dictatorship. This is so the policy can be denounced with a soundbite that will resonate with those who are unable to examine political concepts in any detail for dogmatic or other reasons.
It is perhaps a similar sentiment that led Labour in Rotherham to ignore organised mass rape for over a decade lest any meaningful action could be interpreted as officialdom targeting members of an ethnic group that in this case appeared to be exclusively responsible for the crimes committed against thousands of vulnerable teenage girls. Such criminal levels of negligence by state officials in very secure jobs that were entirely funded by the taxpayer have so far failed to attract proper prosecution for apparently the same reason. But then these are the contradictions of socialist equality in English local authorities.
Godwin’s Law appears to apply on the international stage as well. At present there is an international crisis on Russia’s western borders. The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, appears to have an expansionist policy which is swallowing up the eastern portions of Ukraine on the basis that this is the only way to protect ethnic Russians from persecution. This does seem similar to the argument used for the annexation of the Sudetenland and the pretext for war against Poland by Germany in the late 1930s. In this context, the negotiations taking place between European leaders and Putin assume the mantle of appeasement, merely putting off the inevitable clash between the West and Russia in a replay of the Cold War or perhaps something unpleasantly hotter.
Well, up to a point. Putin is definitely not Hitler. And even when it had several Eastern European countries in thrall, the USSR was not Nazi Germany. And neither is Russia. Hitler’s policies were based on acquiring territory by conquest in the East so that up to one hundred million Germans could colonise it, forcing the indigenous population into reservations, exterminating them or using them as peasantry tied to land ruled by their Teutonic overlords. Putin’s policy bears no relation to this at all. In fact Putin may be acting like any other Russian leader would act in his place.
There is a never-ending debate as to whether it is people of destiny or deterministic forces that shape historic events. In the case of Britain in May 1940 it is generally accepted that no-one but Churchill could have set Britain on its policy of challenge rather than accommodation with regard to Germany’s military ascendency over Europe. In the case of Russia in the teen years of the twenty-first century, however, her current policy may be due to historic forces.
The problem is that all the reporting of Russia’s conduct is from the perspective of a West that faced down Russia’s predecessor the USSR with the same determination as the West that liberated Western Europe from Nazism. It is also from the perspective of English-speaking nations that have, with minute exceptions, never directly experienced being subject to the rulers of another country.
The strongest evidence for the theory that God is an Englishman has to be how no country that is now governed by the descendants of English settlers has had to endure the jackboot of foreign tyranny. This is also true of the Mother Country where we celebrate this year eight centuries of a document that limited the arbitrary exercise of power by the State over the people. The fortuitous combination of security and freedom resulted in the free exchange of ideas making these realms fertile ground for the sustained growth of commerce and invention. It is no hollow boast to state that the fruits of technology and industry that the human race enjoys today were harvested from trees planted in English-speaking soil. The English-speaking nations attracted and continue to attract talented writers, artists and scientists from all over the world. The plaque celebrating man’s exploration of the Moon is written in English. The words used by the first man to walk on the Moon were English.
Let us compare this era of unbroken freedom and security in the English-speaking world over the last two centuries with Russia’s history in the same period. In 1812 she was invaded by Napoleon from the West and three-quarters of Moscow was burnt to the ground. Fast-forward to 1854 and Russia was on the losing side in a war fought against Western Powers which was conducted on her own territory. In 1877 she defeated Turkey decisively but was required to divest herself of the spoils of that victory under threat of war from a coalition of Western Powers.
In 1905 there was a new development. This time the national humiliation and defeat came from a rising power in the East, Japan. In 1914 Russia was the victim of a pre-emptive war sparked from the West by Imperial Germany, fearful of her progress in French-financed modernisation. In 1918 defeat brought the humiliation of an imposed peace of Brest-Litovsk in the wake of national collapse in 1917. In 1919 the Western Powers were at it again, invading to support one side of the ongoing civil war between the White and Red forces. Two years later Russia was defeated from the West by Poland, having to cede portions of Ukraine.
In 1939 Russia got her own back as part of an agreement with its Western ideological foe to partition Poland. However this one period of respite in the ongoing history of humiliation and defeat lasted less then two years before a massive land war of extermination was unleashed from the West once again. Russia fought well, but inefficiently, losing double the number of soldiers to those of her enemies as her troops clawed their way to Berlin and victory. In 1992 Russia was further humbled as the USSR collapsed into its component states as Soviet society went into political meltdown mainly due to a military budget that was out of control and had sapped the life out of the economy. She had lost the Cold War decisively.
In retrospect, Russia’s imposition of its rule on a slew of Eastern European states seems prudent behaviour as they provided her with buffer against future Western aggression. Even after she had done this, Russia had to endure illegal flights by Western Powers for fifteen years over her territory until she developed surface-to-air missiles that could shoot down the spyplanes.
Had Russia been a liberal democracy with these countries in some form of alliance of democracies for mutual security, there would have been scant comment. Unfortunately by this time it was a vicious paranoid dictatorship and for these buffer countries this meant a dark age of Stalinist repression and terror. For decades people talked of the ‘Russian Steamroller’ poised as it was to drive westwards across Europe. It is curious that the steamroller has in practice been in the opposite direction, aimed at Moscow. In reality the Bear has only really struck westward when poked and poked well.
Russia was at her weakest when she bordered directly on to the Western Powers. She was at her strongest when she was able to impose her rule on a host of states that created a security barrier between her and Germany and the other Western Powers. She now faces a German-led political and economic alliance that is steadily moving towards her borders.
Putin may therefore be acting rationally, trying to protect a nation that has been much reduced from it Soviet peak and facing an existential threat from the traditional direction. The fall of the USSR resulted in Russia being stripped of her Western subject nations and these are now turning away from Moscow and towards Berlin, a development that must be causing alarm in Moscow. As a consequence Putin has broken a treaty guaranteeing Ukrainian independence in return for Ukraine divesting itself of its legacy nuclear arsenal. He is making menacing flights of long-range bombers around the British Isles. We seem to be reverting to cold-war levels of hostility, but this time with a shooting war taking place on the ground.
The Post-Soviet settlement is breaking down, but this may be due to the encroachment of the West in the form of the EU, which is reminding Russians of the traditional direction from where all their imported misery came from. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in this context could be regarded as a revision of one of the many acts of political buffoonery by Khrushchev, who ‘awarded’ the region to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic at a time when the collapse of the USSR was inconceivable As such it may not be so serious in the scheme of things.
The question to ask is whether any other Russian leader in Putin’s place would act any differently? In this respect, the deterministic forces of history indicate that this is not the case. No leader of a country with a history of ruination from the West could survive in power should Ukraine become a member of the EU and Nato.
Thirty years ago, there was a conference in Helsinki that was part of a process of détente that was derailed only when the USSR invaded Afghanistan and deployed mobile SS-20s in Europe. The Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) seems moribund as a Cold-War relic at present, being ineffectual and actually exhibiting pro-Russian bias in the current Ukraine conflict.
It may be time not to appease Putin, but to have a new conference on security in Europe to find out how Russia, with a sad legacy of destruction and death caused by Western Powers, can once again feel secure without having politically to dominate its weaker neighbours to form a cordon sanitaire. It is clear that there needs to be a new political settlement concerning the post-Soviet states to allow them to develop as they choose without causing security issues. Should Russia turn down such a conference, as Imperial Germany did in 1914 during the July Crisis, at least we will know her true intentions are much more hostile than we currently calculate.