Center for Strategic Communication

By James Hinton, Guest Contributor

James Hinton is a former U.S. Army soldier and communications expert. He focuses a critical eye on International Affairs with the eye of a combat veteran seeking to avoid future conflicts wherever possible.

They are an ethnic minority here. They don’t speak the local language. Once members of a proud empire, the demise of that great state has left them on the wrong side of the border. They want to redress this error, and their former nation has taken keen interest. This neighbor is led by a demagogue who won’t stop at anything to see them reconnected with his great nation.

No one would be surprised if this were a description of the Russian separatist movements in Ukraine, backed by Vladimir Putin. In fact it’s a reference to the Sudetenland in 1938. The ethnic minority spoke German, wanted to separate from Czechoslovakia, and their champion was Adolph Hitler.

The Sudetenland Crisis.

In 1918 France and England had an axe to grind. Their combined casualties in WWI had included 2.5 million dead. They sought to cripple Germany and so they shattered their opponents with reparations and redrawn borders dividing the German people. Germans suddenly found themselves living inside of Poland, France, and Czechoslovakia.

In Czechoslovakia most of the German speaking minority lived in the Sudetenland. They held that the allies’ principle of self-determination granted them the power to choose their allegiance. Vindictively, they were refused. This set the stage for twenty years of conflict in the Sudetenland.

(Image sourced from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons.)

The Sudetenland’s economy was dependent on export. With Germany’s economy destroyed by the Treaty of Versailles and the Allies wracked with war debts there was no international market. The economy of the Sudetenland tanked. In Sudetenland Germans blamed the Czech government.

By 1938, 20 years after the Czech Republic was created, tensions remained high. When Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and a strong symbol of German power in 1933 a state of revolt formed in the Sudetenland. Between the threats of an increasingly powerful  Germany and the rising nationalism of ethnic Germans, Czechoslovakia began fortifying the Sudetenland. In March of ’38 Germany annexed Austria. It was a bloodless coup that united the two largest groups of German speakers. Germany was chastised by national leaders but no further steps were taken.

The message couldn’t have been clearer. Sudeten separatists presented the Czech government with 8 demands to redress perceived inequalities. Desperate to avoid an extended crisis, the government agreed.

It wasn’t enough. Sudetenland Germans wanted complete autonomy. By August things had spiraled out of control. The British government put pressure on Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudetenland to Germany. On October 1st, the Sudetenland became a German holding. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke with Hitler personally and concluded that British diplomatic efforts had been the key to ending the threat. Famously he declared that he had achieved “peace for our time.”

(image courtesy of

Any student of diplomacy knows how well this ultimately worked out. The remainder of Czechoslovakia would be invaded and portioned within the year. Britain and France align themselves with Poland, leading to the start of World War II in 1939.

So how does this reflect on Ukraine?

The nation of Ukraine was formed in 1991 during the breakup of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, the Crimean Peninsula had been added to Ukraine, where it remained post U.S.S.R. Further, the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk were also within Ukranian borders. In these three areas Russians formed the largest single ethnicity, with large minorities seen throughout the rest of Southern and Eastern Ukraine.

 (Image sourced from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons.)

Disputes between the Russia and Ukraine quickly arose after 1991. Disgruntled with the cost of gas from Russia, Ukraine began syphoning gas intended for Europe. Russia responded by shutting off the gas for a time. This pattern would continue for years.

Worsening ties led to Ukraine seeking partnership with the European Union. When the EU had reservations about the agreements, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pushed through reforms to reassure Europe. The trade association appeared poised to happen.

Vladimir Putin was less easily mollified. One of the conditions for association included Ukrainian withdrawal from the Eurasian Customs Union. For Russia this was unacceptable. As Norwich University Professor of Diplomacy Angela Kachuyevski put it, “There can be no Eurasian Customs Union, there can really be no special role for Russia without Ukraine.” In August 2013 Russia changed importation laws, effectively embargoing Ukrainian trade. Significant losses of industrial production in Ukraine were seen by October. Concerned, Yanukovych suspended negotiations with the EU in November and sought reconciliation with Russia.

Within hours mass protests in favor of the EU started. Most protests took place in the North and West of the nation. In the Russian populated South and East, the protests were smaller. Initially, protests were peaceful but on the 1st authorities cracked down violently. Protestors began rioting.

The situation spiraled out of control. Riots on Feb. 18th, 19th, and 20th resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries. The headquarters for the protest movement was burned and the region of Lviv in the far west of Ukraine declared autonomy from Yanukovich.

On the 22nd, the government expelled Yanukovich from power, calling for a general election. Yanukovich fled the country and appealed to Putin for help. Ethnic Russians occupied government buildings throughout the South and East. Many of these buildings would be reclaimed by the government within a week, but in the Crimea Russian troops rolled across the border on the 28th of February. The Crimean government called for annexation, and on the 21st Russia annexed Crimea.

Encouraged, Russian separatists in Ukraine took up arms. Heavy fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk have led to an estimated 3,000 deaths so far. Russian troops are widely believed to be active in the breakaway regions, though Russia has denied this.

The response from the international community has been criticized. While Western nations have criticized Russian actions, so far direct action has been limited to the impositions of sanctions on Russia. NATO troops have entered Ukraine, but for training only.

Recent events may signal the end of the current crisis. In Minsk both sides have agreed to a 12 point peace plan. A ceasefire has thus far been holding reasonably well although fighting has continued over control of the Donetsk airport. Donetsk and Luhansk remain within the borders of Ukraine, but maintain greater autonomy.

So is the Ukraine Crisis the 21st Century Sudetenland?

On the surface it seems like an easy comparison. Both events have seen a powerful nation seize territory from a weaker neighbor. Both incidents included ethnic strife along new borders. Both times the powerful neighbor was led by a forceful figure. In both cases the West was accused of lackluster efforts to end the crisis. Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, and John Baird have all made the connection in statements. Further, in the most recent events, the Western Nations are strengthening military ties in the wake of the crisis, just as Britain and France found themselves doing pre-WWII.

(image courtesy of@ Sobiratel.Net on Twitter.)

However, the comparison is not perfect. Czechoslovakia’s territory was peacefully annexed after political negotiations. The Ukrainian crisis has spilled the blood of thousands. Russia’s actions in Ukraine remain murky and covert. Germany made no pretenses, using the Sudetenland Crisis as a statement of German resurgence. Further, in the Sudetenland Crisis, England and France seemed highly reluctant to confront Germany. They engaged in a period of meek negotiations in which no stick had been held. In the Ukrainian Crisis Russia was hit with sanctions that are damaging the Russian economy. Most crucially the Minsk agreement has not led to a decision that peace has been won and no further diplomatic engagement is needed.

Are these differences sufficient to prevent the Ukraine Crisis from being the 21st century Sudetenland? It is too soon to be certain. Though the stakes are no less significant and the causes no different than they had been in 1938; the response so far has been far more vigorous. Negotiations have not been conducted with hopeful optimism, but rather with realistic assessments of the dangers of the situation and the available tools for response. It will likely take years to determine the final outcome of this different approach to the diplomacy of the situation. Only our children will be able to answer the question of whether the Ukrainian Crisis is a modern Sudetenland, or the lesson learned from it.