Russia's annexations in Ukraine echo prelude to World War II in Europe

Published 6 months ago

Vladimir Putin claims ‘our unity’ as justification for latest land grab

Nikkei Asia. Shogo Akagawa. 1October, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had "four new regions" in a speech at the Kremlin on Sept. 30.

LONDON – Russia’s move Friday to annex four occupied regions of eastern and southern Ukraine bears an ominous resemblance to developments in pre-World War II Europe.

A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council – a body responsible for upholding the stability of the international order – is taking territory by force from a neighbor in the name of protecting ethnic Russians living there.

In 1938, Nazi Germany claimed to be protecting oppressed ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia when it moved to annex the Sudetenland. The U.K. and France appeased Germany to avoid a conflict. But Germany proceeded to invade Poland the following year, ultimately engulfing the world in war.

After Friday, observers fear similar scenarios could play out in other areas of Russia’s perceived sphere of influence. South Ossetia, a separatist region of Georgia, has been eyeing a referendum on joining Russia, and an annexation proposal is a possibility in the pro-Russian breakaway territory of Transnistria in eastern Moldova.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed Thursday that “any annexation of a state’s territory by another state, resulting from the threat or use of force, is a violation of the principles of the U.N. charter and international law.”

An honor guard takes part in a ceremony in Moscow to declare the annexation of four Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories on Sept. 30.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin was undaunted. Residents of the annexed regions “have voted for our unity, for our common future,” Putin said Friday in a speech intended to justify the move.

Russia’s task is not complete. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has signaled that Kyiv will not let up in its fight to regain the occupied territories, denying Moscow the cease-fire it would need to cement an east-west split of Ukraine.

“Everyone in the world understands well what such an attempted annexation would actually mean,” Zelenskyy said in a speech Thursday. “It will not mean what the Kremlin hopes for.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin poses with Russian-installed leaders of four Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories on Sept. 30.

The West is staying firmly on Kyiv’s side.

“We will ensure he loses this illegal war,” British Prime Minister Liz Truss said of Putin in a statement Friday.

Nils Schmid, spokesperson on foreign affairs for Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party, told Nikkei that Berlin “will continue to provide humanitarian, economic and military support to Ukraine until territorial integrity is restored.”

Russia, seeking a comeback from its battlefield defeats, has ordered a partial mobilization of military reservists, and it has threatened to use nuclear weapons in hopes of keeping the West out of the conflict. Moscow is pinning its hopes on discord among democracies.

“With the war going on, it will be difficult to rebuild the annexed regions,” political scientist Sergej Sumlenny argued. “They’ll be an economic burden on Russia.”

European economies are already battered. Germany is seen as all but certain to suffer stagflation.

Krisjanis Karins, prime minister of Russian neighbor Latvia, has sounded the alarm about Moscow’s strategy.

“We see how Russia is looking to undermine democracy,” he said in 2020. “Look for divisions within any democratic society, and actually fuel the divisions between.”

Critics say the U.S., Europe and Japan were too lenient with Russia after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. This was a failure they cannot repeat.

During the Cold War, the Western bloc established a vehicle for trade controls – a multilateral committee known as COCOM – even with the risk of nuclear war looming. Though the sanctions regime was criticized as being riddled with holes, it helped to drive Communist dictatorships to collapse over the course of four decades.

Instead of balking over economic risks, Western nations should now impose even bolder sanctions, such as a total import ban on Russian natural gas. Japan, as next year’s Group of Seven president, is no exception.

If Russia is not stopped, the wrong message will be sent to other autocracies, including China, sowing the seeds of potential future trouble in the Far East. Democracies must stand firmly against Moscow’s anachronistic imperialism.