A Repeat of the Sudetenland Crisis? Russian Forces Encircle the Crimea

Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, has compared the Russian military incursion into the Crimea with Adolf Hitler’s purposeful advance into the Czechoslovak Sudetenland in 1938.

Russian forces have swarmed into the Crimea
Russian forces have swarmed into the Crimea

Certainly, Vladimir Putin’s ‘muscular diplomacy’ is not too far removed from Hitler’s defiant aggression. By using the pretext that his forces are protecting the ethnic-Russian population in the Crimea from Ukrainian malice, Putin is employing a tactic Hitler used recurrently during his expansionism of the 1930s.

Ethnic Russians make-up some 58% of the Crimean population. The German percentage of the Sudetenland people prior to WWII was probably higher, indeed 23% of the whole of Czechoslovakia spoke German as their native tongue. A case can be made by Putin, therefore, that a majority of the population of the Crimea would naturally prefer a closer association with Russia rather than Ukraine, to which the region was assigned as a ‘gift’ by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.

There is a problem with this perception, however. Just because ethnic Russians constitute a majority in the Crimea does not necessarily suggest that all Russian-speakers want a closer political association with Moscow. Whilst there were many Sudeten Nazis that encouraged Hitler’s invasion in 1938, other German-speakers had no desire to become part of the Third Reich. 

Many ethnic Germans welcomed the Nazi incursion into the Sudetenland in 1938 - something Hitler's propaganda machine exaggerated as a sign of universal support
Many ethnic Germans welcomed the Nazi incursion into the Sudetenland in 1938 – something Hitler’s propaganda machine exaggerated as a sign of universal support

Another similarity in the two cases relates to the strategic importance of the territories in question. The Crimea is home to Sevastopol and the Russian Black Sea Fleet and allows a projection of Russian power to the west and south. Putin would not want this to be undermined by a more determined, pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev. Likewise, the Sudetenland was of great potential importance to the Nazis. It was the centre of Czech industry, home both to vital natural resources and the manufacturing and assembly plants that produced finished goods.

Furthermore, both Putin and Hitler laid false claim to their desired territories being an inextricable component of their nation’s history. Whilst the Crimea was part of the Soviet Union and had been under the influence of the Russian Empire since the 18th century, it ha a longer association with the Muslim Tatar people. The Sudetenland, meanwhile, formed a part of Central Europe where territorial boundaries were forever changing, falling under the control of a variety of Germanic and Imperial princes before being incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Crimea's Tatar minority is largely anti-Russian
Crimea’s Tatar minority is largely anti-Russian

Whatever the similarities of the situation, it must be ensured that their conclusions are different. The international community must face down Putin in a way the Western European powers never managed against Hitler during the Sudeten Crisis. With Russia’s economy and political system in a precarious state, Putin must be made to realise that his bluster will be fruitless.