75 years ago today Great Britain declared war on Germany.
Two days earlier, Germany had invaded Poland and Hitler’s geopolitical ambitions had become clear.
Within months, Germany conquered other countries in Europe. Eventually, Britain stood alone in Europe against the Third Reich.
It was to be almost two years before Hitler made his fatal mistake, invading Russia. The month before the declaration of war, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between the two countries’ foreign ministers had pledged non-aggression and divided up Poland. Less than two years later, in June 1941, emboldened by success elsewhere, Hitler thought he could succeed where Napoleon failed and conquer Russia. Like Napoleon, he failed.
75 years ago Germany and Russia were the two greatest powers on the continent of Europe. That remains the case today.
This time, of course, it’s Russia’s leader that is the aggressor, invading the Crimea and now trying to take eastern Ukraine. The Europeans, led by Germany, are desperately trying to get Russia to back down, so far without success. Russia’s leader shows no remorse and certainly is not ready to do a strategic rethink. This could be 1939 all over again.
As Gerard Baker put it in yesterday’s Wall St Journal: “In a letter to the rebels, Mr. Putin has resurrected the term ‘Nororossiva,’ or New Russia, the czarist-era name for modern-day Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast, a telling indication of his expanding objectives.”
It’s not the first time Putin has shown czarist credentials. He is frequently shown on television walking vigorously down a long corridor and through an impressive eighteenth century doorway of a czarist palace, in true czarist style.
What will surprise many is that, like the last Czar, Nicholas II, Putin is a devoted Bible reader. He even has a Bible on his private plane, the Russian equivalent of Air Force One. (Accounts of the final captivity of the Romanovs show that the Imperial Family were reading through the minor prophets before they were all assassinated.) One day after the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane, Putin was shown lighting candles in an Orthodox cathedral. Was this an example of executive penance?
However, first and foremost, Putin is a Russian nationalist who once described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. His recent actions in Ukraine suggest he is trying to resurrect the old Soviet Union (without communism — Putin has done quite well out of Russia’s crony capitalism!).
The question is: will anybody try to stop him?
Could the world once again be taken by surprise by another pact between Moscow and Berlin? Putin clearly wants Ukraine for his revived Russian Empire. He would also like to see the end of NATO, a very real possibility if he can do a private deal with Germany.