The story is all too familiar: shortly after his nation hosts a controversial Olympic games, a radical authoritarian with an eye toward expansion begins moving into other nations' sovereign territory throughout Europe.
One of his first moves takes place in an "autonomous" region that represents a vital strategic asset, given its location on the sea.
His reasoning for his actions? His nation's ethnic peoples are being treated unfairly -- a problem that has become so severe as to ostensibly necessitate external involvement. This autocrat, fueled by a belief that his country was historically wronged, believes his own actions will ultimately rectify past injustices. Meanwhile, a weak Western leader proclaims appeasement and tepid diplomacy as the tools necessary to de-escalate the international predicament.
Students of history will recognize this narrative as the build-up to World War II, just before Adolf Hitler began his march across Europe. And anyone who has turned on a television or picked up a newspaper this year will recognize the exact same narrative as the recent actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Consider the speeches each leader delivered to justify their respective invasions: Hitler's takeovers of the autonomous city-state of Danzig and, later, the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and Putin's invasions of the Crimea in Ukraine and regions of Georgia.
Speaking to the Reichstag in 1939, Hitler explained, "For months we have been suffering under the torture of a problem...which has deteriorated until it becomes intolerable for us. Danzig was and is a German city. The Corridor was and is German. Both these territories owe their cultural development exclusively to the German people...As in other German territories of the East, all German minorities living there have been ill-treated in the most distressing manner."
Speaking to Russian officials and allies in Crimea last month, Putin explained that "In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia...despite all the dramatic changes our country went through during the entire 20th century." Ethnic Russians, he said, have been "threatened with repression...In view of this, the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives."
Both men expressed their desires to resolve the situation peacefully.
Hitler: "On my own initiative I have, not once but several times, made proposals for the revision of intolerable conditions. All these proposals, as you know, have been rejected..."
Putin: "First, we had to help create conditions so that the residents of Crimea for the first time in history were able to peacefully express their free will regarding their own future," before explaining that, above all, "we want peace and harmony to reign in Ukraine."
But, much to their chagrin, neither considered the representatives of the governments whose lands they were invading interested in serious dialog:
Hitler: "I am wrongly judged if my love of peace and my patience are mistaken for weakness or even cowardice. I, therefore, decided last night and informed the British Government that in these circumstances I can no longer find any willingness on the part of the Polish Government to conduct serious negotiations with us."
Putin: "It is also obvious that there is no legitimate executive authority in Ukraine now, nobody to talk to. Many government agencies have been taken over by the impostors."
Thus, ultimately, each man resolved to do what they deemed right, regardless of the subject government’s opposition:
Hitler: "When statesmen in the West declare that this affects their interests, I can only regret such a declaration. It cannot for a moment make me hesitate to fulfill my duty... I have repeatedly offered friendship and, if necessary, the closest co-operation to Britain, but this cannot be offered from one side only. It must find response on the other side."
Putin: "Some Western politicians are already threatening us with not just sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. At the same time, we will never seek confrontation with our partners, whether in the East or the West, but on the contrary, will do everything we can to build civilized and good-neighborly relations as one is supposed to in the modern world."
Both men found motivation in perceived injustices of the past.
Writing in "Mein Kampf," Hitler referred to the German surrender at the end of World War I and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles as the "greatest villainy of the century," calling those responsible "miserable and degenerate criminals" who "were ready to sacrifice the whole nation, and, if necessary, to let Germany be destroyed; and in my eyes this made them ripe for hanging." He asked, "how could this deed be justified to future generations?"
Putin employed similar terminology in discussing the fall of the Soviet Union: "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory."
Of Crimea and surrounding regions, more specifically, Putin decried that "the Bolsheviks, for a number of reasons – may God judge them – added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine." And "the residents of Crimea...were handed over like a sack of potatoes." Similarly, "the people could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice."
Thus each man sought a similar goal -- reuniting a conceptual historical nation that had supposedly lost many of its "rightful" lands.
Hitler's ultimate goal -- the Third Reich -- sought to bring together all peoples and lands Hitler perceived as Germanic: "the German nation has arisen and has unfurled the banner of a reunion which symbolically announces, not a political triumph, but the triumph of the racial principle."
Likewise, in announcing the annexation of Crimea, Putin asked for support for "the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity." From Ukraine's perspective, this mindset is in keeping with Putin's remark to George W. Bush during a 2008 NATO summit: "You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country. Part of its territory is in Eastern Europe and the greater part was given to us."
We must understand, then, that we are dealing with a leader who doesn't see himself as violating national boundaries. The land is Russia's, by right, in his mind. What possible effect can lukewarm appeals to "international law" have in the face of what Putin views as the moral obligation and historic destiny of the greater Russian nation?
Let us recall that it was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's weakness that preceded Germany's invasions of large swaths of Europe. Chamberlain, believing feeble diplomatic agreements sufficient to appease Hitler's philosophically-driven thirst for land, declared the crisis averted.
Now recall, finally, that a week after Russia annexed Ukrainian land, and just two days after the Russian military seized 85 percent of the Ukrainian navy's ships, President Obama's response was to privately "underscore to President Putin that the United States continues to support a diplomatic path."
The frightening reality is that Obama's childishly naive "reset button" may well become the 21st Century version of Chamberlain's "A Peace for Our Time."