In The Media

Blinded by history in Crimea 

by David Carment

March 7, 2014 

Reasoning through analogy, while being an accepted form of argument, runs the risk of imposing blinders on policy makers by restricting their access to relevant information. This is especially dangerous during a crisis situation — because analogies are a lazy way to make decisions.

Reasoning through analogy is like taking a short cut. Good policy choices arise from considering a range of inputs and information sources. They help us weigh and balance pieces of information, revise initial assumptions and develop viable options. In crisis situations, decision makers can’t predict their adversary’s actions, nor do they have the benefit of time to gather the information they need. They must assume a great deal about their adversary’s intent with the prospect of war looming in the background.

An easy way to infer adversary intent is to consider past behaviour — even if the comparison lacks consistency. Historical analogy is sometimes helpful because it not only provides a convenient and simple package to assess the problem, it also provides ready-made policy options. It lets us skip all that messy stuff about collecting and analyzing detailed information.

A convincing analogy allows a decision maker to jump from assessment to decision. If the analogy is convincing enough, however, decision makers run the risk of descending into collective ‘groupthink’ — a psychological constraint where alternative points of views are discounted and even discredited because they don’t fit the analogy. (Oddly enough, the idea of “not going along to get along” is a very good way of avoiding groupthink.)

Today, American and Canadian leaders are relying on historical analogies to describe Putin’s recent decision to send his troops into Crimea as bad — perhaps even evil. In 1938, Adolf Hitler demanded the annexation of a portion of what was then part of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. With the acquiescence of leaders from the UK and France, the annexation became a fait accompli. Events that followed saw Germany formally invade Czechoslovakia as a lead-up to a wider war.

It is important to remember that Hitler was successful in this because of his supporters, admirers and sympathizers in the region. For example, the Sudetenland became one of the most pro-Nazi regimes under German control, while the Slovaks broke away from the Czechs to become an ally of Nazi Germany.

Comparing Putin’s Russia to Nazi Germany today will lead Western decision makers to two worrying assumptions about Putin’s behaviour: first, that his primary goal is to annex territory that does not rightfully belong to Russia; and second, that he will find allies in the region by doing so.

In reality, support for Crimean independence has existed in Crimea since at least 1991, when its Parliament voted multiple times in support of autonomy and independence. On March 16 there will be a referendum to consider whether Crimea should join Russia — but a second question will be considered on whether Crimea should pursue independence. The term ‘annexation’ is not used in either of these questions.

The 1938 analogy fails the basic test of credibility for other reasons. First, both the U.S. and Canada have claimed that Putin’s maneuvering resembles Soviet-style aggression. This begs the question of whether the West believes Putin is a communist or a fascist. Let’s assume for the moment that western leaders believe that Putin is behaving more like Hitler did in 1938.

In this case, the appropriate response would be firmness — the opposite of the West’s response to Hitler in 1938 — rather than appeasement. Firmness could extend to compelling the aggressor to vacate the territory through force, punishing the perceived aggressor, or building up a deterrent mechanism.

On the other hand, Western leaders may be using the analogy to illustrate how dire the current situation is: We must stop Putin now, his thirst for power is unquenchable. He is very likely to take all of Ukraine and we must do something about that.

The analogy is particularly troubling for New Europe and frontier states that border Ukraine and have lived through Nazi occupation. Fear, it seems, is a great motivator for justifying limited policy options.

Thus, the options being presented by the West right now are focused on either punishing or compelling Putin. There is little debate around why Putin might have sent his forces into Crimea in the first place. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister John Baird have discredited Putin’s claims that the invasion was undertaken at the behest of Crimea’s leaders, or that it is meant to protect Russian nationals in the country. They argue that, like Hitler, Putin has ulterior motives.

The West is comfortable with calling Putin a liar, but what if Putin is right? Is there evidence that demonstrates insecurity has increased in the Ukraine after the ‘revolution’? Are Crimea’s Russians right to be fearful?

There is some evidence to suggest that some Ukrainians feel less, not more, secure with a new government in Kiev. For example, Israel — in response to what is perceived as a rising tide of anti-Semitism — has dispatched self-defence trainers to aid the Ukrainian Jewish population. Only last week a rabbi urged his people to flee Kiev.

Similarly, Hungary is preparing for the possibility that ethnic Hungarians will be forced to flee to Hungary from the trans-Carpathia region. Both groups feel threatened by what they believe to be a rising wave of far-right nationalism in Ukraine from political parties who now have more clout in the fledgling government in Kiev. Under pressure from these right-wing parties, Kiev recently overturned legislation that would protect minority language rights.

Do these concerns also make them liars? While the fears expressed by Israel and Hungary may not be as evident as Putin’s claims to be protecting Russian nationals, the intent is the same: to pre-empt and prevent the possibility of hostilities against a particular group of people.

Even if Western policy makers find Putin’s claims hard to believe, their fixation on him as an ‘enemy’ is blinding them to alternative scenarios. Violence is a very strong possibility in Ukraine, and it is unclear what efforts are being made to provide for the security of all Ukrainians.

What would have happened if Putin’s forces hadn’t scrambled across Crimea in a manner similar to Hitler deploying his troops in Sudetenland? There is little doubt that Crimea would have sought independence anyway and that the situation would be far more unstable than it is now. In 1994, when Crimea’s parliament voted for autonomy and an ‘independent Ukraine’, they were thwarted from achieving full independence by then-Ukrainian leader Leonid Kuchma. Furthermore, transfer payments from Kiev to Simferopol have been dwindling over the last two decades and the prospects for an economically weaker Ukraine would have been unpalatable.

The question remains whether the secession would have been peaceful without Putin’s intervention. It’s unlikely peace would have been in the cards given the recent unrestrained approach taken against protestors in Kiev.

Relying on analogies shows how little the West really understands Putin. They misread the importance of Crimea for Russia. Even if one discounts the so called ‘ethnic card’, looking at the intervention in hindsight, Putin’s efforts were clearly pre-emptive in nature. Anticipating the possibility that he might lose the peninsula to a pro-Western government, along with a long-standing lease arrangement for a naval base, his actions can be understood.

Understanding an adversary’s motivation is an essential ingredient in crisis decision-making. At any rate, it’s an approach far superior to reasoning through analogy.

David Carment is a Fellow of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute and professor of International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

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