Belgian news reports that next week President Obama will be visiting the only American Great War cemetery in Belgium. He will pay his respects to those brave Americans who fell during the fierce fighting that took place in the First World War. This year marks the 100 anniversary of the start of the Great War. It all began with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. Hard to imagine such an isolated event could spark a world war, but luckily nothing so serious has happened in recent times, unless you count Russia invading the Ukraine and annexing Crimea.
While on his trip to Belgium, President Obama is also scheduled to attend meetings at the European Union and NATO, both in Brussels. There is little doubt that, in both locations, he will be discussing current events here in Europe and how America can assist in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the crisis. We can all hope that these leaders will take a lesson from history.
Apart from the continuation of economic sanctions, there is little expected to come out of these meetings. No one in Europe or the United States is eager to call for a military response to the unlawful aggression on display in the Ukraine by Russia. Few pundits believe Russia will budge from their occupation of Crimea, regardless of the economic sanctions in place. Sadly, for those Ukrainians living and working in Crimea this means either accepting their new condition or leaving their life behind to start anew somewhere else in the Ukraine.
In 1940, the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were invaded by the Soviet Union. The Hitler-Stalin pact had created the circumstances that allowed the takeover of these once independent states by the Soviets. In defense of their actions, the Soviets claimed the citizens of the three states had freely elected to join the Soviet Union. Not so different from what they now claim has occurred in Crimea.
The whole world was shocked by the joining of Hitler and Stalin because the two ideologies were vastly opposed to one another. However, it was a pact with political ulterior motivates for both men. Each hoped to conquer the whole of Europe while using the other to accomplish the goal until the bitter end, when they would betray the pact. It was Hitler who made the first move towards betrayal and ultimately lost the war because of his decision.
In the United States, the response to the annexation of three independent states was met with a similar response that we see today in the Ukraine. The actions of the Soviet Union were decried as illegal because of the violation of multiple international laws. In addition, to show their strong support for Lithuania, the US maintained the embassy of Lithuania for the next 51 years. Further, the US Government only recognized the pre-war independent government of each nation state, another similarity we are bound to see occur in Crimea. Essentially, the government of Lithuania, was exiled to their Embassy in the United States where they governed their nation in theory rather than fact. This of course came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 and the end of the Soviet Union.
Now, let’s talk about what happened in the Ukraine. Not one single military official who is worth their weight in salt was surprised by Russia’s actions. However, our President seemed to be caught completely off guard by the sudden aggression on display in the Ukraine. A simple study of geography would explain why Russia would never allow Crimea to fall into pro-western hands. As the Black Sea along the Russian coast is only ice free a few months out of the year, maintaining a warm water naval base and port was essential to Russian survival. The bases located along the coast of Crimea offer the only such warm water ports to the Russians and as such would not be let go easily.
Perhaps President Obama missed that lesson in geography or maybe it was explained in one of the many intelligence briefings he skipped to go play golf. Americans and Ukrainians will never know why the world was caught with their backs turned while Russia did what was plainly in its own best interest. Further, now that Obama has been re-elected maybe he will start demonstrating what he meant when he told Russian President Medvedev, “After my election I’ll have more flexibility.” Then again, perhaps he has already demonstrated this flexibility.
This writer predicts that the situation in Crimea will continue in much the same way we saw the occupation of the Baltic States continue. The US and much of Western Europe will likely refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of a Russian controlled Crimea. This action will have the same impact it did for the Baltic States, nothing will change. Save for the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would still be a part of the Soviet sphere of influence. In the long run, it may be that Putin plans to reunite them with his homeland. So far, Putin has won every diplomatic contest against Obama, and he doesn’t appear the least bit weary from the struggle.
History is indeed a good teacher and only a lazy student would fail to learn the lesson. A student who ignores history is well, bound to repeat it. This is a paraphrase of the famous quote from George Santayana, who wrote in The Life of Reason in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, when the leaders of nations are the ones who forget history, it is not only them who are condemned but entire nations.