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Column: Putin Seeks to Reclaim Russia’s Lost Tribes

At 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, a German warship opened fire on the city of Danzig, a Polish-administered enclave — overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Germans — that had been separated from Germany since World War I.

Throughout the previous decade, Adolf Hitler had intimidated neighboring states into relinquishing regions where German speakers made their homes: France in the Rhineland in 1936, the Anschluss absorption of Austria in 1938, followed by the most famous such capitulation, the Franco-British appeasement that forced Czechoslovakia to hand Germany the Sudetenland region — again, largely populated by ethnic Germans.

But it was in Danzig where bullying failed and true violence began. Among the city’s residents was Günter Grass, a German boy whose description of the opening salvos of World War II would later win him a Nobel Prize for his novel The Tin Drum.

It’s so easily written: machine guns, twin turrets. Might it not have been a cloudburst, a hailstorm, the deployment of a late-summer thunderstorm like the one that accompanied my birth? I was too sleepy, such speculations were beyond me, and so, the sounds still fresh in my ear, like all sleepyheads I simply and aptly called a spade a spade: Now they are shooting!

As I write, they are not yet shootting in Crimea and in Donetsk. But efforts to enforce the rights of ethnic groups across international borders often lead to war, especially when those groups are the remnants of a collapsed empire.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s stridently nationalistic president, should consider the parallels as he plots his next move. Putin talks a lot about precedent these days as he seeks to justify his infiltration of Russian special forces and intelligence agents to seize government centers in the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

“I believe that only residents of a given country who have freedom of will and are in complete safety can and should determine their future,” Putin said last week. “If this right was granted to the Albanians in Kosovo, if this was made possible in many different parts of the world, then nobody has ruled out the right of nations to self-determination.”

No one, of course, is fooled by this. Indeed, when compared with the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, the Russians today are playing the Serbian card. At issue in Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Serbia, was the protection of an ethnic Albanian majority from a larger power using violence. That is, a larger power using a “lost tribe” — in that case, ethnic Serbs — as an excuse to occupy and repress another ethnic group. And this is precisely what Russia has in mind in Ukraine.

If Putin wants to consider the potential consequences of his current actions, he should first remember his stint as a KGB agent — in Dresden — a city obliterated by firebombing at the end of a world war started in the name of reuniting the lost tribes of Germany.

Putin is no Hitler. This goes without saying, but must be said nonetheless. But Putin’s own frequent evocations of Nazis and fascists in his descriptions of the Ukrainians who overthrew and impeached pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych has invited Hitler into the conversation.

So — when considering ethnic ties as a pretext for bold diplomatic bullying and outright military adventures — are there actual similarities between Hitler and Putin?

The dispersion of ethnic groups across multiple states in diasporas is not new or confined to Germany and Russia. Nor, of course, is it peculiar to Europe. Often, the lost-tribe argument proves a useful pretext for diplomatic snubs, and sometimes war.

For example, Thailand and Malaysia dispute ownership of southern Thailand, where Muslim insurgents have been battling security forces since the 1970s. India and Pakistan have gone to war repeatedly — in 1947, 1965 and 1999 — over their rival claims to rule the people of Kashmir. Indonesia invaded the island of East Timor in 1976 allegedly to free it from colonial Portuguese rule — but truly to prevent Timorese independence (which it granted only reluctantly in 1999).

Non-Russian former Soviet states have also experienced this plight. In the early 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians were resisting Azerbaijani rule. When Georgia’s ethnic Russians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared separatist states in 1991, Georgia pushed back and tried to squash these attempts. But Tbilisi was unsuccessful: Russia rolled in with tanks and troops in 2008.

Even in the Americas, the ghosts of plantation policies and imperial collapse are present. In 1836, the Republic of Texas cited protection of the rights of ethnic Americans — Anglos — as part of its reason for declaring independence from Mexico. More recently, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to war in 1982 over the “ethnic Britons” of the Falkland Islands.

The Soviet empire’s collapse is only the most recent example of ancient ethnic diasporas — or colonial remnants — sparking modern wars. Ever since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union (which we are constantly reminded ranks as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century in Putin’s eyes), Russia has played this card, arguing that when sizable Russian communities remain in former Soviet states, there is justification for treating these countries as less-than-sovereign entities.

This hardly began with Putin. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, ordered a Russian army led by Gen. Alexander Lebed to Moldova to support a separatist bid by ethnic Russians in that newly independent — and largely ethnic Romanian — country. This would become a harbinger of things to come in Georgia in 2008 and possibly now in Ukraine. At the time, the ethnic Russian (and some ethnic Ukrainian) citizens of Moldova declared themselves the republic of Trans-Dniester — named for the river that formed the border of a region called Bessarabia, which, history buffs may recall, Joseph Stalin stole from Romania in the 1939 deal that also split Poland between Stalin and Hitler.

There he is again. Nary a bad word about Stalin from the current Russian government, of course — a man who, some scholars argue, killed even more people than the Austrian corporal, if not in such a spectacularly racist, efficient and megalomaniacal way. But Hitler stalks the current narrative in multiple ways. Here, European history offers a template for reassembling an imploded empire, as well as trade craft for stoking up public support in Russia for actions that might otherwise be seen as reckless.

While Putin’s motives may only pay lip service to the alleged peril ethnic Russians face outside the federation’s borders, he has rich ground for sowing doubt about the motives of Ukrainian nationalists. In the months before Hitler turned on his Soviet ally in 1940, German agents expertly fomented anger and intrigue in many non-Russian communities within the Soviet Union, from the Baltic lands to the Tatars of Crimea to Ukraine.

Few remember now the many divisions of Hitler’s armies that were drawn from ethnic groups in conquered territories and even neutral states, including Ukraine. Indeed, Ukraine contributed some 80,000 troops in three divisions to the German Wehrmacht, including one division of the Waffen SS. Ukrainians were hardly alone. Germany fielded divisions manned by Georgians, Armenians, Finns, the Vichy French and even the neutral Swedes during the war. And Russia itself was not immune: Ten full divisions of anti-communist White Russian émigrés joined Hitler’s army — some 250,000 officers and Russian elite styling themselves as the “Russian Liberation Army” under the czarist general Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov.

Ukrainians and others also fought Russian partisans alongside German units and served as guards in Hitler’s death camps — John Demjanjuk, the former U.S. autoworker from Cleveland whose prosecution on war crimes made headlines in 1993, was one of them. But Ukrainian nationalists — and their cohorts in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia and countless other places duped by Hitler into siding with the western “liberators” — had been murdered and starved to death in the millions by Stalin’s communist tyranny in the 1930s. What might have seemed as a lesser of two evils may, in retrospect, have been a greater evil — or at least a commensurate one.

Nonetheless, for Russians, the word “fascist” has very real and profoundly divisive emotional consequences. The shame of non-Russian nationalists at the sins of their grandparents remains fertile today. The sins of Stalin, however, have been downplayed repeatedly, particularly since Yeltsin’s brand of romantic Slavic nationalism gave way to Putin’s Soviet nostalgia and all its big-power trappings.

For all his citations of Western-led interventions in Libya and Kosovo as precedents for Russia’s actions, Putin must understand that he is stirring a very dangerous pot. Russia has land borders with 14 countries — more states than any other nation on Earth other than China (which also borders 14, including Russia). Many of those neighboring states contain large populations of people who self-identify as Russians. But Russia itself also contains millions of ethnic Koreans, Mongols, Uighurs and others whose crowded, resource-starved motherlands may someday have their own designs on reincorporating their lost tribes.

In the Russian Far East, this dynamic is palpable, and it is common to hear Russians in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk complain about the influx of Korean and Chinese money, along with immigrant workers. Some 80 million Chinese and 45 million Koreans live in the provinces that border Russia. The population of Russia’s own Far Eastern territory, Primorsky Krai, is below 2 million.

All that land, all that oil — and lost tribes, to boot. Putin should be worried less about the precedents he cites and more about those he sets.

Michael Moran is author of The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power. He was an editor at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich from 1990 to 1993.