Paul F. de Lespinasse
Historical analogies are always dangerous and incomplete, but as long as we remember their limitations, analogies are sometimes useful in trying to understand current developments.
An obvious question for today is whether Vladimir Putin is Hitler II or Bismarck II. Hopefully he looks like Bismarck.
Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) started several successful small wars leading to the political unification of Germany. Bismarck knew enough to abandon his military adventures when he was ahead.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) lacked Bismarck’s wisdom and prudence. Proclaiming the limited objective of bringing together regions populated by German-speaking people in neighboring countries, Hitler asserted himself as a man of peace. (He just wanted a piece of Czechoslovakia, a piece of Poland, etc.!) But he had bigger plans and started World War II, which was disastrous for Germany, for Hitler and for the whole world.
Based on his overall record, I think Putin probably looks more like Bismarck. But there’s no way to be sure, and maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Indeed, his recent speeches are much more like Hitler.
The world can live with small wars over contested territory. Indeed, these wars have been the way political boundaries have traditionally shifted. Looking at a historical atlas of Europe over the past thousand years, one cannot help but be impressed by the instability of borders.
What is unusual is the idea, widely held since World War II, that the use of force to change borders is illegitimate. Unfortunately, no institution has been created to provide a peaceful way to change borders, and history suggests that borders are inherently unstable. Russia’s takeover of Crimea and now its invasion of Ukraine may just be an open return to traditional ways of doing business.
During the Falkland Islands War of 1982 between England and Argentina, some students asked me which country really had the right to govern the Falkland Islands. I replied that we wouldn’t know until we saw who had won this war. It turned out to be England. But England’s war was defensive, since the war was started by Argentina.
Contrary to Putin’s lies, Ukraine did not start this war. A runt doesn’t pick on a 300-pound bully.
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The economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and our allies will likely do more harm to the world than the invasion itself. But something had to be done, if only because of domestic political considerations, and a military response would have been even more damaging.
If Putin is like Bismarck, he won’t be mad enough to attack the Baltic countries on the pretext that they discriminated against Russian minorities who were stuck there when the Soviet Union broke up in 1992. That would force a military response from NATO. , since Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are members and probably started World War III.
Chinese leaders are likely watching the Ukrainian situation carefully, given their claims on Taiwan. But Taiwan’s military situation is very different from Ukraine’s.
Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by approximately 100 miles of ocean. As D-Day of World War II showed, moving large numbers of ground forces over a similar oceanic distance is logistically difficult.
And modern military technology would allow the United States to decimate invaders before they even reach Taiwan’s shores without using atomic weapons that could ignite a catastrophic war.
Yet anything that encourages Chinese leaders to attempt to invade Taiwan is regrettable.
Ironically, China might be inspired, if Putin’s takeover of Ukraine is successful, to seize much of Russia’s sparsely populated eastern regions for itself. Russia, with its declining population, would struggle to defend this region against an overwhelming Chinese workforce.
Putin is teaching the world an unfortunate lesson, but it could ultimately come at Russia’s expense.
— Paul F. deLespinasse is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.