Historians, political scientists, military strategists and others have postulated numerous parallels with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, most notably Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland and later the whole of Czechoslovakia in 1938-39.
Putin has been compared to any number of other autocrats. But there is another disarming parallel of a paranoid bully using military might to overturn a democratically elected government in what it saw as its sphere of influence on the basis of trumped-up evidence.
I say “disarming” because the paranoid government was that of the United States and the democratically elected government was that of Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 in Guatemala, and that that action, with others, has in effect disarmed the moral authority of the US to lead world action against dictators and autocrats to uphold liberty and the rule of law.
The newly elected Arbenz had proposed to nationalise (with compensation) uncultivated land held by the US-owned United Fruit Company and hand it over to landless peasants. The land was uncultivated to constrict food supply to ensure high prices and perpetual poverty and cheap labour.
Arbenz offered full value for the land – the value that the fruit company had put on it for tax purposes. The fruit company said it was worth 16 times as much, way over what the Arbenz Government could pay, ignoring what the company itself had earlier stated the land was worth.
That was the excuse for the US – under the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower – to send in “advisers”, a bit like the Russian green men without insignias going into Ukraine over the past decade. Goodbye Democratic Government. Goodbye thousands of Guatemalan lives. Admittedly, Eisenhower later expressed his regret at having been duped by what he called the military-industrial complex.
Were any lessons learned? No. In a similar parallel to Putin’s Ukraine invasion, under President Richard Nixon, the US military-industrial complex overthrew the democratically elected Chilean Government of Salvador Allende in 1974 because he was a “socialist” and inimical to US commercial interests in Chile.
In 1980, the CIA under President Ronald Reagan formed and funded the Contras to overthrow the democratically elected Sandinista Government in Nicaragua because the Sandinistas were seen to be contrary to US interests in the US’s backyard – like an independent Ukraine is seen by Putin to be contrary to Russian interests in Russia’s backyard.
And, of course, George W Bush overthrew Saddam Hussein (admittedly not exactly a democrat) on trumped up evidence that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and so the US was acting in self-defence. A bit like Russia citing self-defence against Ukraine.
The trouble is that all of the two-term Republican presidents since World War II have been guilty of waging aggressive wars in breach of international law.
In the Bush-Iraq case, some have suggested that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, too, were complicit in the waging of an aggressive war.
That said the US case were nowhere near a egregious as what Russia is doing,
Nonetheless, waging an aggressive war has been a crime (not of nations but of individuals) since the 1946 Nuremburg trials of the Nazis and the Tokyo war crimes trials.
It was the high point of US moral authority in international law. Churchill wanted to just do a victor’s execution of the Nazis without a trial. But US insistence on the rule of law prevailed.
The eloquent opening statement at the Japanese trials by former US Assistant Attorney Joseph Keenan explained the purpose: “Our broad aim is to contribute all we can towards the prevention of the scourge of aggressive war. This is no ordinary trial, for here we are waging a part of the determined battle of civilisation to preserve the entire world from destruction. This threat comes not from the forces of nature, but from the deliberate planned efforts of individuals. A very few [of them] throughout the world decided to force their individual will upon mankind. They declared war upon civilization.”
He directly aimed at individuals and their criminality – not whole nations and whole peoples. He was not seeking justice against the Japanese people or the German people, but against specific named individuals who engaged in the crime of waging an aggressive war and the concomitant crimes of murder and genocide and crimes against humanity (targeting civilians).
This was very much unlike the wash-up of World War I when the Allies made the whole German nation and people take the blame and pay the price for their leaders’ folly. That had the disastrous consequences of economic collapse in Germany and the rise of Hitler.
After World War II the massive aid effort into Japan and Germany under the Marshall Plan proved the Allies were not blaming whole nations, but rather individuals who were indicted, tried and if found guilty punished. Just as now a huge number of Russians are appalled by what Putin and the individuals around him have done, though only a few dare to say it.
Alas, the bringing to account under criminal law is no longer an option for western democracies. Notice all the talk now is of economic sanctions against the Russian nation and economic sanctions against its key players. There is no mention of criminal indictments.
Putin has waged an aggressive war. That comparison with Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Tojo and several thousand of their henchmen is correct.
So why then was not Putin and all of his enablers not indicted as a war criminals when they invaded Georgia in 2008, or Crimea in 2014, or now when they have invaded Ukraine?
Why haven’t they been made not just economic pariahs, but criminal pariahs subject to arrest and trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague facing life imprisonment if they dare step outside Russia or if their Government is ultimately toppled?
Well, perhaps it is because the leaders of western democracies do not like the idea of being indicted for waging an aggressive war. Significantly, the US is not a signatory to the treaty that set up the International Criminal Court.
It is almost as if there is a tacit understanding among international leaders that says: “We will not go after each other personally; we will just muck about with a few economic sanctions.”
Putin visited France in June 2014, after the invasion of Crimea. He should have been arrested then and put on trial for waging an aggressive war. And the Ukrainian invasion avoided. Instead, he was feted during the 70 th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Within nations, individual criminal accountability keeps the peace (by and large); it is also a means to help keep the peace between nations.
But it has to be universal. Human rights are universal. You cannot excuse Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua and come out with your hands wringing about Ukraine. A bit of truth and reconciliation over the former three would be a good start.
And then it would be helpful to have a vigorous pursuit under international criminal law to put Putin and his enablers behind bars (not just confiscating their yachts and other ill-gotten gains). That would be better than shilly-shallying over the details of sanctions because they might hurt a few precious economic interests of elites in the west.
This article first appeared iin The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 1 March 2022.