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Editor's letter: Putin's perilous grab

The Russian president will be beating historical odds if his Crimean exploits end the way he plans.

People will always find something to fight wars over, but one particularly useful excuse over the years has been the need to save ethnic brethren stranded beyond some pesky international border. Hillary Clinton was hardly the first to note the parallel between Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading Crimea for the sake of ethnic Russians and Adolf Hitler’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland. That’s a howitzer-grade comparison, of course, since Hitler’s action led to world war.

But even if the specter of Hitler is being invoked too loosely these days (see Best columns: Europe), the perils of this Machiavellian technique are plain. I watched them unfold firsthand in the 1990s in Yugoslavia. Ethnic Serb enclaves balked at being part of an independent Croatia; Serbs in Bosnia started viciously acting out seething resentments about Muslims. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic nursed his cousins’ sense of grievance, backed them with clandestine military aid, and ended up locked in battles he couldn’t win. Serbia lost everything, including the province of Kosovo, which NATO wrested away in more than two months of bombing. Milosevic died awaiting trial in The Hague. Every historical comparison is askew, of course: Putin is probably neither as megalomaniacal as Hitler nor as likely to lose control of his henchmen as Milosevic. But he’ll be beating historical odds if his Crimean exploits end the way he plans.

James Graff

P.S. This will be my last note in this space, as I’ll soon be starting a new job with another publication. I’ve appreciated the many comments—and the occasional corrections—from observant readers of The Week over the last three years.

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