Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer, said of Poland, perilously positioned between Russia and Germany: “If you pitch your tent in the middle of Fifth Avenue, it is quite likely you will be run over by a bus.” Poland has been run over hard and often; indeed, between 1795 and 1918 it disappeared from the map of Europe.
Geography need not be destiny, but it matters, as Ukraine is being reminded. During its hazardous path to the present, all or bits of it have been parts of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, the Russian empire, the Soviet Union and now another Russian empire. Czarist Russia, which Lenin called “the prison of the peoples,” is re-emerging and has in Vladimir Putin an ambitious warden.
In last week’s Kremlin address, he said, “Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that.” The word “need” is not reassuring. It suggests that Russia’s needs are self-legitimizing, and recalls the definition of a barbarian as someone who thinks his appetites are their own justification.
Speaking of which: Six months after Germany’s absorption of Austria, which was quickly ratified by a plebiscite, Adolf Hitler, on Sept. 26, 1938, spoke about the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, home of many ethnic and linguistic Germans. Speaking three days before the Munich Conference began, he said: “This is the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe.” On March 15, 1939, six months after Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland agreed to at Munich, Hitler swallowed the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Then his attention turned to “protecting” the German-speaking population in Poland. On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland on the pretext of responding to a Polish provocation. Ten days before, he had told senior military officers, “I shall give a propagandistic cause for starting the war, whether it be plausible or not. The victor shall not be asked, later on, whether we told the truth or not.” On the night of Aug. 31, a German prisoner was dressed in a Polish uniform, killed and displayed as a casualty of a Polish attack on a German radio station.
Mr. Putin, whose lamented Soviet Union was then Hitler’s ally, knows Hitler’s tactics. If Mr. Putin had a sense of humor he would justify as R2P — “responsibility to protect” — his policy of bringing home to the safety of mother Russia many of the Russians residing in contiguous countries. R2P was the moral principle the Obama administration invoked to justify the seven-month assault on Moammar Gadhafi, who posed no threat to us but supposedly did to Libyans.
On Sept. 26, 1938, Hitler said “10 million Germans” lived “in two large contiguous regions” outside the Reich, and that “if I were simply to renounce 10 million … I would then have no moral right to be fuehrer of the German people.” Mr. Putin, whose Russia had about 142 million people before he added the 2 million in Crimea, must envelop many more if he is to match the 200 million the last czar, Nicholas II, ruled 100 years ago.
Can NATO help restrain Mr. Putin? After NATO was created in 1949, its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, said its purpose was to protect Europe by keeping “the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” The task of keeping Russia out of its neighbors is being complicated by something that would have improved the last century — German passivity. Angela Merkel may think that bringing Barack Obama to a confrontation with Mr. Putin is like bringing a knife — a butter knife — to a gun fight.
In a recent New Yorker interview, Mr. Obama praised himself for being “comfortable with complexity” and unraveled the Middle East’s complications: “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other.” This is the president as poseur — detached, laconic, arch, almost droll: If only — apologies to Kipling — the lesser breeds without the law would behave.
Mr. Obama evidently harbors the surreal hope that Mr. Putin will continue to help regarding Syria and Iran. Continue? Mr. Putin’s client in Damascus, Bashar Assad, is winning his civil war. And regarding attempts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Mr. Putin’s helpfulness, if not fictitious, has been ineffective.
Mr. Obama, always a slayer of straw men, has eschewed something no one has contemplated, “a military excursion in Ukraine.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines “excursion” as “a usually short journey made for pleasure.”
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org).