Hillary Clinton is only the highest profile figure to compare Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine to Hitler's expansionist policies prior to World War II. This week, as The Washington Post helpfully lists, we’ve heard other versions of the Hitler analogy from John McCain, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Garry Kasparov, and many others. As Nazi analogies go, this one is not as absurd as, say, those spouted by Jonah Goldberg and Tom Perkins. Putin’s declaration that “Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers” living in Ukraine is similar to Hitler’s justification for his incursions into Czechoslovakia and Poland, ostensibly to liberate German-speakers in those countries. Saying so shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as another instance of Godwin’s Law.
In practice, however, Nazi comparisons are unhelpful. Beyond being inflammatory, these comparisons follow the lazy habit of treating World War II as the only thing that has ever happened. Hitler is not the only leader to use irredentism as a justification for invasion, nor is his policy in the Sudetenland the sole or most useful way to understand what Putin is doing in Crimea.
For an alternative example, we might look 1,000 kilometers south of Crimea to the island nation of Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and drew international outrage. Forty years later, Turkish forces still occupy Northern Cyprus, which Turkey (and only Turkey) recognizes as an independent country. Cyprus (which in practice means the southern areas not under Turkish control), meanwhile, became a member of the European Union in 2004.
There are a lot of similarities between what Turkey did and what Russia is trying to do. Cyprus was once part of the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire, much as Crimea and the rest of Ukraine were once ruled by Russia. During the Ottoman period, large numbers of ethnic Turks settled on the mainly Greek island. After a period of British rule, Cyprus won independence in 1960, but was politically divided from the start between its Greek and Turkish citizens.
Turkey’s pretext for invading Cyprus was a coup, which is the term Putin uses to describe the overthrow of Ukraine’s corrupt but democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. In this case, the coup was sponsored by Greece’s military junta with the aim of uniting Cyprus with Greece. This aim was unpopular among ethnic Turks, many of whom welcomed the Turkish invasion. Turkey faced near-universal condemnation for its actions, and has weathered regular UN resolutions criticizing the occupation ever since. While Cyprus never ended up joining Greece, both countries eventually found a home in the EU, where membership has continually eluded Turkey.
Based on what’s transpired so far, even this analogy may be too hard on Putin. Turkey bombarded Cyprus and Turkish troops fought Greek troops for several days before a ceasefire, whereas, to date, Russia has not fired any shots in Ukraine. Turkey also went on to expel 180,000 Greek Cypriots from the North, with parallel expulsions of Turkish Cypriots from the South, and so far nothing of the sort has occurred in Ukraine. While Crimea is a unique region of Ukraine in terms of its longstanding ties to Russia, Northern Cyprus was simply the section of the island Turkey managed to seize, and it only became majority-Turkish as a consequence of the invasion.
But going forward, Northern Cyprus may prove the right precedent for thinking about Crimea. So far it is clear that Putin effectively controls the peninsula, that Russian forces have faced little resistance from the predominantly Russian population there, that Ukraine has taken no military steps to expel them, and that Crimea’s parliament is set to vote on annexing the region to Russia. The near-unanimous condemnation of Russia makes any alteration of Ukraine’s borders unlikely as a matter of international law, while at the same time a Russian withdrawal from Crimea appears unlikely in practice. In other words, we may be seeing a new status quo in which Ukraine as a whole moves away from Russia and toward eventual EU membership while tolerating de facto Russian rule of a breakaway province. It seems like an improbable scenario, but we’ve seen it before in Cyprus.
The official U.S. line on Putin is that he’s fighting a nineteenth century war of aggression. The implication is that Russia will face twenty-first century non-military consequences, but also that in the twenty-first century, borders aren’t supposed to change so easily. Ukraine’s borders, like those of Cyprus and many other countries, bring together ethnic groups that might prefer to live apart, but that doesn’t mean an outside military power has any right to change them. This is a good principle for maintaining peace and international law, but it’s also one that sometimes has to be bent in order not to be broken. No one is satisfied with an illegally occupied, indefinitely divided country. But no one has to die because of it either.