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Tim Blagg

Blagg: More meow than roar

West doing little to stop Russia in Ukraine

It was 1931, and the League of Nations, formed after World War I to “prevent wars through collective security and disarmament and settle international disputes through negotiation and arbitration,” was just a dozen years old. Since its formation, it had successfully helped resolve a number of territorial disputes and had worked tirelessly to fight the international trade in opium and sexual slavery.

League diplomats had helped refugees created by war, and had introduced the “Nansen passport,” which was an internationally recognized ID card for stateless persons.

But in its larger role, that of preventing war, it was less successful. Its first real test came when the Japanese invaded Manchuria — an area of northern China — and made it a fiefdom of the Japanese Empire. Called “Manchukuo,” the region was ruled by a puppet government led by Pu Yi, a former emperor of China

Only Italy and Nazi Germany recognized the new area and the League, spurred by reports of atrocities against Chinese civilians, protested. But instead of removing its troops from China, Japan withdrew from the League. At that point, according to its Covenant, the League should have responded by enacting harsh economic sanctions or declaring war ... but it did neither.

One sticking point was that the United States, which had never joined the League despite President Woodrow Wilson’s key role in forming it, would have continued to trade with Japan.

And League members — devastated by the Great Depression — were not interested in trying to enforce its rules by force.

The League also failed to prevent an Italian invasion of what is now Ethiopia, and was helpless in the face of rearmament by Germany. It was a tiger with no teeth.

Why this history lesson? Because it is being replayed today in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin, judging rightly that the U.S. and European powers have no stomach for new conflicts in the wake of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has moved against its weak neighbor with impunity. By cloaking his actions behind a thin smokescreen of “pro-Russian militias,” he has been able to seize the naval port in Crimea and bully the Ukrainian government into ceding territory.

Threats of “sanctions” have proved hollow, and President Obama, despite some bombastic threats, has proved unable — or unwilling — to back them with real economic actions.

European powers, busily burning Russian oil and gas, are not interested in angering Putin.

NATO, which has the military power to make a difference, is sitting on its collective hands and the U.N., which has the same mandate as its predecessor to prevent such incursions has done nothing.

And so Ukraine, which might have been a valuable addition to the European Union, is being nibbled to death by Russian steel teeth while the West wrings its hands.

Collective action to prevent and punish invasions can work — that was proved in Korea, in Kosovo and in Kuwait.

But members of a coalition have to put aside their own selfish interests and act in the greater interest of humankind.

I see no prospect of that happening in Ukraine.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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