Carroll County Times

Tom Harbold: Keep an eye on Russian aggression

Russian President, strongman and former Soviet KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin, fresh from his triumphant celebration of a "new Russia" in the Sochi Olympics, has reverted back to type.

The Russian Bear may shed a tear at the extinguishing of the Olympic torch, but it has clearly not changed its fur coat.

Of course, Putin has made no secret of his belief that the downfall of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," or his desire to reformulate, not necessarily the USSR, but certainly clear Russian hegemony over his "Near Abroad," the former Soviet republics bordering Russia.

And, to be fair, Ukraine is something of a special case. Kiev was the historic capital of the Rus, the Swedish Vikings who became the overlords of the native Slavic people, and gave their name to Russia itself. So Ukraine's significance to Russia transcends mere closeness or its utility as a buffer against the West.

It's hard to translate this in U.S. terms, but maybe if New England decided to hive off to join Canada, that might be close to comparable.

Then there's Crimea itself, a special case within a special case. Historically part of Russia, but inhabited by Muslim, central Asian Tatars, the Crimean peninsula was forcibly depopulated by Stalin, who replaced the Tatars with Russians. Krushchev then gave Crimea to Ukraine for no apparent reason - although in retrospect it may have been to further cement Ukraine to Russia, just in case something like this happened.

None of this excuses or forgives Putin for his rather brutal and thuggish, although so far not as brutal or thuggish as it could have been, intervention to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. It is simply to point out that his recent actions are very much in keeping with his long-term goals.

It has been particularly interesting to watch the news anchors fly into a tizzy because former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dared to compare Putin's argument that he's just protecting the rights of ethnic Russians with Hitler's argument that he was just protecting the rights of ethnic Germans.

So they keep asking their guest pundits about this, and every one, without fail, when you actually decode or unpack their response, has said some variation on "Well, you know, she's actually right. But she still shouldn't have said that, because, you know, we just don't compare people to Hitler."

True, so far as we know, Putin isn't committing mass genocide. And I doubt that too many people beyond maybe Winston Churchill would have believed, as he re-occupied the Sudetenland, annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, etc., that he was really dragging Europe inexorably toward a second World War. The Great War had been the war to end all wars. It just wasn't possible. It was only when he turned his sights on Poland that they finally woke up ... and by then it was almost too late.

Putin has re-acquired Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and functionally controls pretty much all of Georgia, since 2008. Now he's got Crimea and undoubtedly could, and yet may, take the rest of Ukraine - his version of Hitler's Austria, the sine qua non of Greater Russia.

It's not surprising that Poland got spooked enough to invoke an Article 4, calling an emergency meeting of NATO. The Poles know their history. And they - and the Baltic Republics - have good reason to be more than a little nervous.

Let's hope we're not seeing a repeat of the pre-WWII pattern. But refusing to take history seriously as a guide, just because any mention of Hitler is the "third rail" of diplomacy, isn't helpful.