If you were born before 1930, the word “Sudetenland” may still make you shudder.
Hitler’s foreign aggressions began with his sending the German army into the Rhineland, from which it was barred by treaty. Later came the Anschluss, joining German-speaking Austria to Germany proper. In the meantime, Germans living in the area of western Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, were agitating in favor of Hitler. Italy showed how ineffective rules against hostile occupation were when it invaded Ethiopia.
Hitler demanded the Sudetenland be joined with adjacent Germany for the protection of Sudeten Germans. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, following a policy of appeasement, signed the infamous Munich Pact in 1938, ceding the Sudetenland to Germany. He came home to Britain proclaiming “peace in our time.” Realizing later how mistaken this was, he vowed to protect Poland, but the following year, when Germany invaded Poland, Britain, with France, tried unsuccessfully to come to its rescue, as World War II began.
Since those times, we have often heard how the Allies should have drawn a line in the sand long before 1938, warning Hitler to go no further or be at war. The most effective action might have been to immediately drive the Wehrmacht out of the Rhineland. But a threat to do so would have been a hollow bluff, since the Allies were then seriously under-armed.
Now, some U.S. leaders cry out for the country to “get tough.” But it is up to them to declare exactly what action they want. Do they want to land U.S. troops in Ukraine and confront Russian troops? Would we go to war to protect against Russian occupation of all Ukraine?
In the background of present events in Ukraine is Georgia’s loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 after fighting between it and Russia, leading to Russia’s recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Suppose in the months to come Putin, one-by-one, takes over Russian-speaking portions of the Russian Federation formerly belonging to the Soviet Union. Will we make it our business to use threats and even force to halt his grasp? Will we act with force to keep Russian troops out of eastern Ukraine, arguing that the 1994 Budapest Memorandum is a full-fledged treaty Russia is bound to obey?
Will we rely on UN Charter Article 2 to persuade Putin, said to be a lawyer, he must not take over territory by the threat or use of force? Article 2 is where UN members are required to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
Russia argues in reply the people of Crimea have a right of self-determination and can go their own way if they so decide in a referendum. But the determination whether a particular vote is free and fair can best be made in so volatile a situation is by impartial international monitors. Any such monitoring was blocked for Crimea’s vote.
We are living in a dangerous time, and must tread bravely but warily.