When in 1938, then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain described the German invasion of Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” the adjective in that phrase could be quantified as the 1,000-plus kilometres between London and Prague – the distance between this city and Kyiv is almost 13,000 kilometres and yet in today’s globalised world Ukraine has also become a major talking-point here in the past week.
The Russian incursions into Ukraine have been repudiated virtually across the political board here with only slight variations in degrees of emphasis – thus Congress Speaker Sergio Massa added the verb “condemn” into the government’s “firm rejection of the use of armed force” and its call on Russia “to desist from military action,” while the moderate wing of the opposition at least seemed broadly satisfied with the official statement.
These perfectly correct reactions are also uttered in a vast sea of ignorance – the “of whom we know nothing” in Neville Chamberlain’s famous quote is almost as true as the “far-away.” For example, Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta said: “We must be firm in condemning the violation of these principles (respect for international law and human rights) from the first moment” yet this is very far from being the first moment in the Ukrainian situation – Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been occupying the Crimea since 2014, while a Kremlin-backed civil war claiming at least 15,000 lives has been raging intermittently in eastern Ukraine since then.
And yet, all the mass ignorance (both here and elsewhere) apart, not even the best-informed have any idea of how the Ukrainian tragedy is going to play out. In the case of 1938, everybody knows what came next, thus leaving Neville Chamberlain looking more foolish than he was – placing his comment in its exact context without hindsight, Europe’s main drama then was a Spanish civil war eventually claiming almost a million lives with its outcome still in the balance at the ongoing five-month Battle of the Ebro, thus giving Chamberlain every right to consider the Sudetenland a sideshow. But is history repeating itself now?
There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the Sudetenland and the Donbas – Adolf Hitler only moved into German-speaking areas in 1938 while Putin is only laying claim to Russian-speaking areas now with both despots leaving the rest of Czechoslovakia and Ukraine alone for the time being at least. But will events take the same course and is the threat to the world the same? The formidable Nazi destructive machine defied virtually the rest of the world for almost six years and could only be stopped by the democratic Allies adopting its methods of total war. In contrast, Russia reportedly has a superannuated army, a rust-bucket navy and a Gross Domestic Product smaller than Brazil, never mind the major economies – but also nuclear armaments. So most things point to a bluff waiting to be called – but who really knows?
There is no lack of potentially separatist situations around the world (Scotland, Catalonia, Québec, etc.) but the Donbas is less negotiable than most – the more so because the Kremlin aspires beyond since the umbilical cord of Russian nationhood is not Moscow or Saint Petersburg but Kyiv, the cradle of both Rus (the first Russian state) and the Russian Orthodox Church, an umbilical cord which cuts hard. On their side, Ukrainians have traumatic memories of the Holodomor, the genocidal famine stemming from Stalin’s collectivisations. Yet Ukraine’s ethnic divisions should not be considered purely binary (quite apart from numerous smaller minorities). Just as India’s 1947 partition saw almost two-thirds of the subcontinent’s Muslims opting for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan but over a third remaining Indian, so Ukraine’s Russian-speakers are similarly divided in their loyalties if not necessarily in similar percentages.
Last but not least, Putin’s flagrant breaches of international law do not automatically sanctify those condemning it. Ahead of any real quantum leap in Russian aggression since 2014, it might be asked why the likes of Joe Biden (with slumping popularity due to continued pandemic and inflation from throwing money at the problem) and Boris Johnson (whose breach of his own quarantine led to the loss of such an ultra-safe Conservative seat as North Shropshire) were already expressing extreme concern. Yet that was then – with Russian tanks reportedly closing in on Kyiv, the international crisis is real enough and deserves to top Argentina’s generally parochial agenda.