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Will Ukraine invasion be Russia’s Anschluss?

by Leonid Bershidsky

Bloomberg

A corollary to Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies states that once a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis is made in an online discussion, the thread ends and the person who mentioned Hitler automatically loses the argument.

In some cases, however, the rule doesn’t apply — such as when the behavior of other totalitarian regimes is discussed. I never thought the day would come that I would say this, but it no longer applies to discussing my country, Russia. Here’s a Nazi analogy.

“It is not only the same people but above all a long communal history and culture which bind together the Reich and Austria,” Adolf Hitler said in February 1938.

On March 11, Austrian Nazis seized power in Vienna, and the following day, Josef Goebbels read this statement from Adolf Hitler on German and Austrian radio: “The German Reich will not tolerate persecution of Germans in this region because they belong to our country or because they hold certain opinions. There must be peace and order. I have therefore decided to help the millions of Germans in Austria with the resources of the Reich. Since this morning, soldiers of the German Wehrmacht have marched over the German-Austrian borders. The new National Socialist government in Vienna has itself summoned panzer troops, infantry divisions, and SS legions on the ground and the German Luftwaffe in the blue sky. Our soldiers guarantee that the Austrian people will shortly be given the opportunity to determine their future themselves and thereby their fate with a plebiscite.”

In the plebiscite, held soon afterward, 99.7561 percent of the “Austrian people” gave their support to the Anschluss.

“We are one people,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said of Russians and Ukrainians in September 2013. “We have, unquestionably, common historical roots and a common destiny.”

On Feb. 27, 2014, the local parliament in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea appointed Sergei Aksyonov, head of the Russian Unity Party, the republic’s prime minister and set a referendum for May 25 on expanding the autonomous government’s powers. The parliament was meeting in a building seized by armed people who wore no insignia but who raised a Russian flag.

On March 1, Aksyonov asked Russian President Vladimir Putin for “aid in establishing peace and quiet” in the Crimea. Putin responded immediately by asking the Russian parliament for permission to invade Ukraine. The request mentioned “a threat to the lives of Russian citizens.” Permission was gleefully granted.

Many commentators now assume that Putin wants to annex the Crimea and possibly other southern and eastern Ukrainian regions. “The Sochi project to create an attractive, modern Russia may be considered closed,” commentator Alexander Baunov wrote on slon.ru. “The medieval project of gathering up territories has prevailed.”

It is possible to cling to the hope that Putin, and Russia, are not going to live out the Nazi analogy. There have been no bloody clashes between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers in the Crimea or elsewhere in Ukraine. The Russia-leaning regions have not attempted to secede, though mass rallies under Russian flags have been held in Donetsk and Kharkov, and the new Ukrainian nationalist government has little or no control over that part of the country. There is instability, but as yet no war.

The fact that Putin is now formally allowed to invade Ukraine does not necessarily mean he will. Even if Western leaders behave as they did in 1938, allowing Putin to get away with a border-redrawing invasion, it presents a bloody prospect. Ukrainians will fight, as they fought their own government forces on the streets of Kiev in the last three months. People are already showing up at enlistment centers to volunteer for the military.

“The idea of a brief victorious war, after the model of Hitler’s Anschluss, is one of the most tragic misconceptions that can afflict a power-crazed politician,” columnist Mikhail Yampolsky wrote on Colta.ru.

One can hope Putin is not afflicted by this misconception. Perhaps he will make a lasting deal with the Ukrainian leadership, something Hitler failed to do with Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. Ukrainians do need to recognize Russia’s interests in the region and the rights of the Russian- speaking majority in the southeast of the country, and if they show good will, Putin may generously pull back. It is not too late.

There are, however, signs pointing to the grim alternative. Government-controlled media are already whipping Russians into a patriotic frenzy. The strongest anti-Putin opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has been placed under house arrest. On Sunday, police in Moscow detained several dozen people who attempted to demonstrate against a war with Ukraine.

What next? “Any criticism of the authorities will be equated with treason,” blogger Dmitri Chernyshev wrote on LiveJournal. “Dissidents will be rounded up. History textbooks will be rewritten.

Show trials will begin, and so will hyperinflation. Food will start disappearing from the stores.” Chernyshev said he expected vitriolic comments on his post and promised not to delete them. “It’s important to see how fascism comes to Russia,” he wrote.

As a Russian citizen, I can only pray Putin does not cross the hair-thin line that separates my country from this scenario.

Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at: @Bershidsky.