They Could Bring Back the Tanks

March 3, 2014 - 7:21 AM

In the late 1980s, there were teams of Americans -- Republicans and Democrats -- who were deployed to nations that had been members of the Warsaw Pact but were now free of the Soviet yoke.

We worked with local groups to help them jump start political organizations. Center Right parties were guided by teams sent by the International Republican Institute (IRI); Center Left parties were aided by teams sent by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

My travel mate was one of the smartest people I've ever met, Maxene Fernstrom. We were largely responsible for Hungary, but we also spent time in Romania, Bulgaria and what was then Czechoslovakia. Poland, the birthplace of the Revolutions of 1989, wasn't in our portfolio.

One of the people we worked closely with was a man who had spent many years in the West while Hungary was under Soviet control. He had an odd accent, and had the habit of saying "And so far and so far" when he meant to use the idiom "And so forth and so on."

Nevertheless, his English was way better than my Magyar.

Remember, this was still almost two years from the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so people were still pretty jumpy. I asked this man whether he thought Hungary could ever fall under Soviet control again. He said "Sure. If they bring back the tanks, what could we do?"

Typing that just now sent the same chill up my back today as it did when he said it 25 years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Crimea, part of Ukraine. I don't know whether tanks were involved. At least not yet.

Crimea is in southernmost region on a map of Ukraine. As we discussed last week the western half of Ukraine is literally and figuratively westward facing. The eastern half is mostly Russian-speaking and Russian facing. Crimea is among the most Russian-facing.

It seems to me that Putin's audacity in occupying Crimea was a total surprise to the West. As I Tweeted yesterday:

Future History: While Putin was smiling and waving to Western nations at the Sochi Olympics his military was plotting the invasion of Ukraine.

After his 90-minute phone call with President Obama, Putin issued a statement that said, in part:

"In the case of any further spread of violence to eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas."

There is an eerie parallel to Putin's justification for the invasion of Crimea and Adolph Hitler's annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in the Autumn of 1938. Hitler's justification was:

"I am simply demanding that the oppression of three and a half million Germans in Czechoslovakia cease and that the inalienable right to self-determination take its place."

In spite of his assertions that his geographic hunger had been sated, Hitler went on to invade Poland one year later, on September 1, 1939.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly spoke with Putin on Sunday. Reuters reported the Russian take on that call, thus:

Merkel expressed concern about developments in Ukraine, she and Putin agreed that Russia and Germany would continue consultations in bilateral and multilateral formats to seek the "normalization" of the situation, a Kremlin statement said.

Ok, then. Clear as driving through a fog, on a night with no moon, with your headlights off, and the kids fighting in the back seat.

French President Francois Hollande's office reported that as a result of a weekend phone call between them, Hollande urged Putin to "avoid any use of force and to seek a solution to the crisis with the international community."

It is not clear whether anyone had briefed Hollande on the fact that Russian troops had already surrounded government buildings and had seized control of the airports.

President Obama has announced we have ceased planning activities connected to the G-8 meeting scheduled for June in Sochi. There are also financial and trade sanctions that the President has available to put pressure on the Russians.

Putin, for his part, has the geographic advantage and has the natural gas valve available to him. He has used cutting off natural gas supplies to Ukraine and Eastern Europe to make a political point before.

It is unlikely we will go to war with Russia over Crimea. But, if those Russian tanks were to begin to roll westward, we might be looking at Cold War II and President Obama's choices would shrink very quickly.

On the Secret Decoder Ring page today: Links to the Revolutions of 1989, to Maps of Ukraine via the NY Times (very useful) and to a discussion of the upcoming G-8 from ABC News. Also the Mullfoto of a restaurant sign showing the daily specials from downtown DC last week.