April 2, 2014
Americans hate to see Russia win, but much to our chagrin, Russia has been winning quite a bit lately. From Russian leadership on Syria’s chemical-weapons negotiations, to the Sochi Olympics, to Russia’s expansion into Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s triumphs are piling up. Idealists and liberals are incensed that Putin thumbs his nose at international norms, while hawks would have you believe he threatens the entire American-led global security system. But as US policymakers squirm with discomfort over Russian aggression in Ukraine, perhaps we should question whether Moscow’s latest victory really threatens American interests at all.
In recent weeks, editorials have been full of “I-told-you-so” attitude and alarmism, citing American “weakness” and falling NATO budgets as a cause for Putin’s actions. Some have even gone so far as to make the comparison to the appeasement of Hitler at Munich. Of course the use of military coercion to redraw borders in Europe should give us pause. But there are few substantive parallels to draw between the expansionist Third Reich and Putin’s Russia. The conditions leading to these crises and the gravity of their consequences are completely different. The distinction is important, because the lens through which we view Crimea will greatly influence policy prescriptions.
In 1938, Germany was a rising yet frustrated great power, coveting Czechoslovakian industry to complete its rearmament. Great Britain and France negotiated from a position of weakness because they were insufficiently armed and motivated to fight another war against Germany—having prioritized social programs over defense. Meanwhile, the United States was an ocean away and in no mood for more Euro-drama. Facing the prospects of tremendous industrial gains and no credible threat of retribution, Hitler confidently invaded Czechoslovakia. Only when the balance of power was in Germany’s favor could he set his sights on the rest of Europe.
In contrast to interwar Germany, Russia is a stagnant middle power trying desperately to stay relevant, not a juggernaut on the rise. And though Hitler felt safe to expand with impunity, NATO severely constrains Russia’s options in 2014. Today, the United States fields the very best conventional and nuclear forces in Europe, while the UK and France each has its own nuclear deterrent. Putin is confident enough to threaten Ukraine, but he could only expand so far before risking war with three nuclear powers—a danger that Hitler never had to consider. The United States’ combination of forward-deployed forces in Central Europe, nuclear weapons, and record of defending its allies is a far cry from the impotent Anglo-French alliance of 1938.