By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her @FridaGhitis. The views expressed are her own.
History, as we know, echoes loudly in the present. Some version of what we see unfolding in Ukraine, and more specifically in the Crimean Peninsula, has occurred before. Indeed, today’s headlines recall countless events and bring to mind long-ago read chapters in history books; brittle, yellowed newspapers carefully preserved in libraries; and old black and white newsreels.
But as world leaders try to chart a response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, hoping to learn from the successes and failures of the past, it isn’t quite clear precisely which chapter – or even which era – the current crisis is replaying. Are we back in the Cold War? Are we about to step into a new Crimean War? Or should we go further back, perhaps to Catherine the Great’s conquests on the shores of the Black Sea?
When the U.N. Security Council met last week to discuss Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the British ambassador pointed to what is arguably the most troubling of all possibilities.
“We are witnessing the illegal behavior of a large country bullying its neighbors, disregarding international law, and unilaterally adjusting international borders to its advantage,” he said. “One only has to think back to the 1930s to recognize the dangers of a complacent international response.”
He was of course alluding to the infamous “appeasement” of those who tried to accommodate Hitler’s ambitions in the hope of preventing a major new conflict when Europe was still exhausted from World War I.
The analogy is an explosive one. When Hillary Clinton suggested Putin’s claim to be protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine was reminiscent of moves by the Nazis, the comment was dismissed by some who suggested the former secretary of state should know better.
The mere suggestion that we face a similar threat carries the implication that no response is too swift or too muscular. The reality, though, is that while there are clearly some parallels, no one should seriously be arguing that an age marked by the atrocity of the Holocaust is similar enough to events in Crimea to be the best historical guide (even if the Crimean referendum brings to mind the joyful scenes that followed the unification of Austria and Germany in the 1938 Anschluss, itself “democratically” endorsed in a “referendum”).
Another analogy that analysts, including myself, have suggested is that we have returned to the Cold War. The term “Cold War” is neat shorthand, and it certainly captures some elements of what we now face: a Russia under Vladimir Putin that defines itself in opposition to the West generally and to the United States in particular – and an aggressive, militarized foreign policy that largely disregards international opinion and seeks to push back against the West. Indeed, this new conflict has revived the old definitions of “East” and “West.”
But while the push of Russian troops into Crimea recalled Soviet forces rolling into Hungary in 1956, there are vast differences between the Crimea and the central Europe of that period, just as there are enormous differences between the Cold War and whatever new era we have just entered.
Ultimately, the Cold War was both a geopolitical power struggle and a battle between two competing world views – between two economic and political systems, democratic capitalism and authoritarian communism. Fast forward to today, and there is no overarching ideological battle. Even if Putin has eroded democratic norms and has interfered unabashedly with private property rights and the functioning of a free market, Russia is essentially a capitalist country, as is Ukraine. In addition, the Cold War also pitted the world’s two undisputed rival superpowers. Today, the U.S. economy and its military are each several times larger than Russia’s.
Going back further, the annexation of Crimea in a sense harkens back to the time when Russia sought to expand its borders, as Catherine the Great conquered the peninsula in the 18th century, wresting the Muslim Crimean Khanate from the Crimean Tatars.
This assertive approach had some echoes in more recent history, when Russia sided with the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. Both territories declared themselves independent states, and although they were not formally annexed by Russia, Moscow recognized their independence. The only other countries to do so were Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu. Unsurprisingly, the new “states” are deeply loyal to Putin’s Russia. Seven years later, there is no sign that Georgia will ever regain its lost territory, or that diplomacy will help resolve the dispute. It’s a bad precedent for a Ukraine hoping to someday regain Crimea.
Yet each analogy has its limits as a template for understanding current events, not least because history, in this case, is still writing itself – the new East-West crisis is still being played out. And it is also being written not just by Russia, but by Western responses to Putin’s actions.
All this means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know which chapter of history the events of the past few months will ultimately come most to resemble – or whether they are actually creating unique precedents that will themselves draw comparisons from future observers.