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Munich Revisited: Is Putin Hitler?

Andrew Sullivan lambasts John McCain’s bellicosity on Russia as displayed in his “Today We Are All Georgians” speech:

Sully retorts:

All of this is quite potty. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. You’d think conservatives would understand this distinction. There is a difference between totalitarian states seeking world expansion and authoritarian petro-states in demographic collapse bullying neighboring states because of perceived humiliations.

Look: every Republican wants to be Churchill. But this is not 1938. And Putin’s Russia is not Hitler’s Germany. You’ll have to find another fantasy on which to base a campaign.

I tend to agree that the Munich analogy has been so misused in the ensuing decades as to be meaningless and that Russia’s reach and grasp are much more modest than that of Nazi Germany.  Then again, Neville Chamberlain and virtually everyone else thought Hitler’s aims were modest and not totally without justification. Hitler didn’t become Hitler until he invaded Poland in 1939.

To the extent that the lessons of Munich still have any bearing, they are that unilateral concessions to despots with territorial ambitions only serve to whet their appetite.  The Russians aren’t going to launch WWIII in an attempt to reconstitute the old Soviet bloc.  Putin and company understand that they lack the resources to do that.  While the West isn’t going to war over Georgia or Ukraine, it would, again, go to war over Poland.

The West needs to recalibrate its foreign policy towards the region with an understanding the Russia is a regional power with real concerns about NATO expansion to its borders.  At the same time, however, Russia has to be made to understand that there are real consequences for bad behavior.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Derrick says:

    You advocate for a common-sense solution, but one that Republicans would poo-poo as appeasement. The Republican party’s position on military strength is beyond fantasy at this point. Every conflict is WWIII, every despot is Hitler and of course as Andrew states they all envision themselves as Churchill. It’s disappointing that people won’t cover this pattern for the radical fanaticism its become. Obviously, there has to be repercussions, but this bellicose stance by Kristol, McCain and others is just plain crazy.

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  2. Anderson says:

    Hitler didn’t become Hitler until he invaded Poland in 1939.

    Not to quibble — okay, well, yes, I’m quibbling:

    Hitler could’ve sat pretty in his half of Poland, and it’s very unlikely that Britain and France could have kept up the “Phony War” indefinitely. There was only so much indignation available in the West over the fate of Eastern Europeans.

    So Hitler didn’t become the would-be master of Europe until May 10, 1940 … if then. Really, for the combination of bidding for mastery of Europe + genocidal monstrosity, one has to look at June 1941 and the invasion of the Soviet Union.

    One way to think of it Hitler choking on a peach on January 1, 1940 … or 1941 … how would he be remembered?

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  3. Jeffrey W. Baker says:

    If Canada supported the breakaway republic of Idaho, I would dare say we might move some forces into that contested territory.

    The overheated rhetoric here is ridiculous. This is a dispute between a huge power and its overreaching neighbor over an almost unoccupied strip of land. Hardy the stuff of world wars.

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  4. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner, you’re right that the Munich episode is much-cited and perhaps over-used, but that’s because it is so very clearly illustrative of how to badly mishandle a frequently recurring conflict.

    Me, I wish more people would remember Hitler’s 1936 re-militarization of the Rheinland, a clear treaty violation which occurred at a time when the Nazis and Hitler were at a much easier tipping point and could have quite conceivably have been toppled without much of a military conflict. The modern parallel is Russia ignoring the internationally accepted boundaries of Georgia, sending occupying “peacekeepers,” foot-dragging in withdrawing former Soviet forces from the rest of Georgia, and handing out Russian passports like confetti in the provinces. Because no one from the West acted effectively to check Russian ambitions then, now we’re in a situation like that which confronted Chamberlain in Munich, in which there are no pleasant options.

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  5. Snoop Diggity-DANG-Dawg says:

    “Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. You’d think conservatives would understand this distinction.”

    Sully’s correct that ‘Russia’ is no longer the Soviet Union.

    But something else John McCain understands is, there’s a PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN underway. And it just so happens JOHN McCAIN IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT.

    You’d think a political pundit like Andrew Sullivan would understand that distinction.

    Perhaps he thinks McCain should be elsewhere. Oh, I don’t know, maybe on vacation in Hawaii & NOT looking so darn presidential.

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  6. Andy Vance says:

    Russia has to be made to understand that there are real consequences for bad behavior

    You’re so cute when you’re angry.

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  7. Cernig says:

    James,

    “To the extent that the lessons of Munich still have any bearing, they are that unilateral concessions to despots with territorial ambitions only serve to whet their appetite.”

    But Hitler planned to go to war with Britain and France in 1943 anyway. He expected some pushback and had made his plans accordingly – then advanced them when the pushback didn’t happen. There was no “whetting his appetite” by concessions, it was already whetted and there wasn’t a much to be done about it. The fact that Hitler could be neither deterred nor appeased meant that war could have been avoided only via Hitler’s death or removal from power, options that prior to the war were apparently not considered by London or Paris.

    See an article in this quarter’s journal of the US Army War College, by Jeffrey Record, Professor of Strategy at the Air War College in Montgomery.
    Parameters – Retiring Hitler and “Appeasement” from the National Security Debate.

    Regards, C

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  8. Bithead says:

    I tend to agree that the Munich analogy has been so misused in the ensuing decades as to be meaningless and that Russia’s reach and grasp are much more modest than that of Nazi Germany.

    Precisely why I was quite careful in my linking to that historical example in my comment of yesterday, where I said that there are many similarities between this situation and that, and that it is an uncomfortably apt a comparison, rather than suggesting one equaled the other.

    Look, I tend to agree that large steps toward re-gathering the old shepere of influence are not really viable given the state of things there. Then again, we thought such matters beyond Germany’s reach as well.

    It bears watching. Let’s hope, however, that we don’t wacth the situation grow beyond our ability to contain it should the need to contain it arise. As Beldar correctly points out, lives would be saved by reacting sooner in the growth cycle.

    This is a dispute between a huge power and its overreaching neighbor over an almost unoccupied strip of land. Hardy the stuff of world wars.

    To the contrary; History shows us that’s how they start.

    One way to think of it Hitler choking on a peach on January 1, 1940 … or 1941 … how would he be remembered?

    That depends on who succeeded him, and if the new leader was able to maintain the direction of the National Socialists. History, after all, is always re-written by the victors.

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  9. John425 says:

    “All of this is quite potty. Russia is no longer the Soviet Union. You’d think conservatives would understand this distinction. There is a difference between totalitarian states seeking world expansion and authoritarian petro-states in demographic collapse bullying neighboring states because of perceived humiliations.”

    I think that is a crock. Russia is BOTH a totalitarian regime seeking world expansion AND a bullying neighbor. If you don’t expect a squeeze on Russian-fed oil to western Europe you live in a fantasy world.

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  10. roy says:

    I think Bush is the new hitler. who forged documents and faked evidence of weapons of mass destruction, killed civillian iraqis in indiscriminate bombing campaigns and humiliated and impoverished a country. I think the world stands by the side of russia in this ( with due sympathy for Georgians and with zero sympathy for their leader who is a us stooge). It is unfair to call any one standing for himself to be called a hitler. Enough America. Your time is up

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  11. anjin-san says:

    Cernig,

    Interesting post, you make an excellent point. All this talk about “appeasement” seems to have some linkage with the “embolden the terrorists” line, the implication being that if we do not pursue the neocon agenda, terrorists will somehow become more bold. The folks already attacked the Pentagon and New York City, and we have every reason to believe they were going after the White House. I would say they are as bold as brass already…

    Anyway, looking forward to hearing more thoughts about the Hitler de jour.

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  12. od says:

    I suspect many Russians use the same Hitler analogy when speaking about the US going into Iraq – its more or less become common usage today when describing someone who fights a war you don’t like. For example, a bit of Googling will show China being described as Nazi-German like for whats going on in Tibet, the Russians for Georgia, the US for Iraq. And of course, people in the above mentioned countries all say the comparison is ridiculous in their case and valid in the others.

    Godwin’s Law is funny simply because its so true – the lesson of Munich has been trivialized to the point where it doesn’t mean anything because it now refers to any military action anywhere. The US going into Grenada was likened to the Nazi’s going into Czecheslovakia – seriously.

    BTW, I think there are good invasions (Afghanistan comes immediately to mind), more bad or at least unnecessary invasions (Georgia and Iraq come to mind), but I can’t think of a current example which seriously is comparable to what went on with late 30′s Germany. Georgia is in Russia’s sphere of influence, Iraq was in the American sphere, and neither invasion shows a desire to take over the rest of the world, just to secure their respective spheres.

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  13. Alex Knapp says:

    It’s also worth remembering that at the time of the Munich accords, there was no way in hell that the French and British could have stood up to the German war machine. One of Chamberlain’s aims was to BUY TIME for the British military to build it self back up…

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  14. DC Loser says:

    Alex,

    I would have to respectfully question your notion that the German war machine was anything much to fear. It was at best all bark and very little bite. German officers, including some at the highest levels, were going to stage a coup if Hitler had decided to go to war over Czechoslovakia in case the French and British didn’t back down. Those officers were bitterly let down by the turn of events. I think the reason France and England wanted to appease Hitler was a legacy of the Great War and the catastrophe it stood for at that time in their history. Most adults had vivid memories of that war and the millions of dead and maimed and they didn’t want that repeated again and avoided war at almost any cost.

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  15. bains says:

    James, are you hoping to replace Brooks?

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  16. anjin-san says:

    Worth noting that for all the GOP posturing on the issue, Bush has not done a damn thing about it. (Perhaps Nancy Pelosi is doing her Jedi mind tricks to hold him in check. They are very effective on the weak minded),

    Also worth noting that McCain is actively interfering in a crisis for political gain. Observe the silence from the right regarding said interference.

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  17. legion says:

    Worth noting that for all the GOP posturing on the issue, Bush has not done a damn thing about it.

    Indeed, Anjin-san – it appears that Russia has no more respect for “Russian expert” Condi Rice than we do. It figures that the single, solitary thing that happens in the last 8 years she might actually have some skill at dealing with, and she doesn’t want to come off vacation. Tho I suppose now that she’s on the case, she’ll proceed to make things worse…

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  18. Bithead says:

    It’s also worth remembering that at the time of the Munich accords, there was no way in hell that the French and British could have stood up to the German war machine. One of Chamberlain’s aims was to BUY TIME for the British military to build it self back up…

    Trouble of course was, that the Germans also had time to build themselves up as a result. Not that they were not already rather formidable, Loser’s comments not withstanding.

    Loser, I suggest to you that Poland of they day would ahve an argument for you on that score.

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  19. Michael says:

    Also worth noting that McCain is actively interfering in a crisis for political gain.

    That’s okay, so is Putin.

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  20. DC Loser says:

    Bit – for the sake of historical discussion, the Germans military were absolutely shocked they got the Czech fortifications in the Sudetenland without firing a shot. If they had to go in frontally against them it would have been very bad for the Wehrmacht. Munich was a bluff that worked, much to the chagrin of those anti-nazi elements in the German military that hoped it would have led to Hitler’s downfall if the west didn’t back down. Also, the Czech army was much better than the Poles at that point in time.

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