Staunton, November 12 – Adolf Hitler infamously observed that he believed that he could get away with killing the Jews of Europe because “nobody talks about the Armenians anymore’ and the way that they were killed in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire. If the world forgot that, he reasoned, it would soon forget his actions against the Jews.
Fortunately for the world, almost no one has forgotten or forgiven Hitler’s Holocaust; and thanks to Armenians around the world, some people still continue to talk about what happened in 1915. But at a time when the attention spans of leaders and their citizens appear to be shortening at ever more rapid rates, the dangers that Hitler’s words point to are ever more present.
That is especially true when the world is divided between democracies where voters expect and leaders typically focus on what they define as current problems and dictatorships where rulers can outwait their counterparts, all too confident that if they wait long enough, the others will come around.
This bitter reflection is prompted by the remarks of Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov that “we understand that tie is required for our partners in Europe and the US to understand” that Crimea will always remain part of Russia and “we are sufficiently patient to wait” for them to “understand” (charter97.org/ru/news/2016/11/12/230829/).
There are obvious reasons for his confidence and for this as Kremlin policy: Ever more people in the West say, using expressions like “there are more immediate issues” that must be addressed and that “the time has come to move on,” that the West should not hold Moscow accountable for its violation of international law.
Today, far too few people are prepared to remember Putin’s crimes. Few talk about his blowing up of the apartment buildings in Russian cities to boost himself to office and to restart a vicious anti-Chechen war. Few talk about his willingness to kill those taken hostage at Beslan or elsewhere.
Few talk about his role in downing civilian aircraft carrying the Polish president or ordinary citizens of Malaysia and other countries. Few talk about his openly racist policies and his repression of civil rights in his own country. Few talk about his aggression against Georgia and his subversion of other post-Soviet states.
And so it is no surprise that the Kremlin expects that ever fewer people will remember his Anschluss of the Ukrainian peninsula or his continuing aggression against Ukraine in the Donbass and elsewhere. And it is tragically the case that media coverage of Ukraine and expressions of support for Ukraine against Moscow have declined sharply in recent months.
It is perhaps too much to hope that Western societies will come to their senses on all these issues, but it should not be too much to hope that Western governments will hold fast to the principles of the international order that Putin violated by his annexation of Crimea and not conveniently “forget” that continuing crime and threat to world peace.
As American non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania shows, there are ways and means of doing that while talking about other things. If the US and the West more generally are not to fall into the trap Hitler talked about, Washington and other Western governments need to put in place a new non-recognition policy for Crimea.
It may not end Putin’s criminal occupation as quickly as those of good will and good sense would like, but such a policy would promise to hold Putin and his accomplices responsible for their actions there – and it would prevent the Kremlin leader from saying to Western leaders that “nobody talks about Chechnya, Georgia or Ukraine anymore.”