The Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia (at the time) borders Germany, and had both German and Czech speakers, although Germans were the majority. A relative of mine who lived there at the time said that schoolmasters would bribe his father to send him to a German school one year, and the headmaster of the Czech school did the same the next year, so that he literally went back-and-forth for several cycles. Although he does remember that the pleas to his father seemed rather intense, he does not recall any mistreatment regardless of which school he was attending in a particular year.
Hitler claimed that German speakers in the Sudetenland were being badly mistreated and that Germany had to defend them. His persistent saber-rattling over this trumped up injustice led eventually to the Munich pact, handing the Sudetenland to Hitler in exchange for Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time."
Vladimir Putin's claims that "Russian speakers" are being mistreated are ridiculous. Nearly everyone in the Ukraine not only speaks Russian, but uses it as the main language in their daily lives.
Da...even in Kiev.
Children grow up bilingual, using mostly Russian and take Ukrainian in schools. At home, they speak Ukrainian to their babushkas, but Russian with their parents and friends. At least among the people I know, including those with the most obvious Ukrainian names, there is no burning "language question" dividing the country.
Friends from different parts of the Ukraine report on circumstances somewhat differently depending on their location and predisposition toward Yanukovych. Those in the eastern part, Yanukovych's base, have told me about "hoodlums from Kiev" coming into government offices and disrupting their work, and even claiming the snipers in Kiev were sent by President Obama.
But, even they say that there is no danger to them personally, and they went about their jobs when the intruders left. They do not even know what the intruders were trying to achieve -- my guess, perhaps evidence of Yanukovych's corruption.
Moreover, even in the eastern sector, there is considerable support for the new government. These "Russian speakers," at least those I know, do not feel put upon at all. None of them even mention language as an issue.
One must wonder if Putin invaded because the typical Yanukovych supporters were not rallying against the new government in large numbers, and thus he was losing Russia's historical grip on its neighbor.
Moreover, Putin must be scaring the bejesus out of all the the adjoining countries who have significant Russian populations. Russian-speakers have had a much worse reception in newly liberated states, where Stalin had resettled.
True, Putin could cut off Ukraine's energy supplies. He may. But, that would have only alienated everyone further. Trumping up a phony language crisis, and posing as the protector of Russian-speakers that no Russian-speakers need or want, provides Putin the opportunity of trying to claim the moral high ground. (The American right-wing, that practices the politics of phony victim-hood, would get Putin's moves instinctively.)
Ukrainians are clearly afraid of what will happen to their lives as this crisis continues.
What should the United States and NATO do?
History is not promising. In 1953, in response to President Eisenhower's support for the captive peoples of eastern Europe, there were attempted uprisings. Neither Eisenhower nor NATO did anything. In 1956 the Hungarians revolted, were similarly encouraged, and similarly crushed by the Soviet Union, without outside assistance.
In 1968, Alexander Dubcek transformed Czechoslovakia without a revolution, providing press freedoms and loosening the government's grip on the economy. He called it, "socialism with a human face." It was dubbed, "the Prague Spring." Dubcek pledged allegiance to the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet puppet regimes' military alliance). Soviet tanks crushed the revolt, ousted Dubcek, and installed a new puppet regime. NATO did nothing.
After the first Gulf War, George HW Bush encouraged the oppressed peoples in Iraq, such as the southern Shia, to revolt. When they did, he stood by as Saddam Hussein's gunships mowed them down.
All of the European examples of encouraging uprisings against oppressors and doing nothing when they occurred was governed by a single Cold War principle: engaging in direct, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations between the world's two nuclear superpowers was always to be avoided. Any suggestion that we should not worry so much about that was, or should have been, put to bed with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
So, before the neocons get on their high horses (that very few ever ride into battle, that dirty work is for the rest of us) extolling the power and decisiveness of Putin, and trashing President Obama for being "weak," let us be aware of what our military capabilities are with the Russian army and navy located on site.
The president, any president, deserves to be criticized, but only if the critics propose a realistic alternative. Today, it is this: If the president had just bombed Syria over chemical weapons, Putin would not have moved into the Ukraine. Oh, sure. Putin would have just let Ukraine drift away from Russia's sphere of influence without a whimper if the US had just lobbed 80 cruise missiles into Syria seeking to kill the chemical weapons' forces.
We should also note that Putin has permanently and irrevocably compromised himself in world diplomacy. As mentioned by diplomats at the UN Security Council Saturday, Russia has previously proclaimed itself to be holier-than-thou on the principle of non-intervention, and used that as its sole rationale for vetoing UN actions against a long list of very bad actors from Milosevic in Serbia to Assad in Syria.
Russia may not be more cooperative in the future, indeed it may well be less cooperative, but its rhetoric is now a worldwide joke. Putin's protection of mass murderers will no longer enjoy "non-intervention" as a fig leaf.
Now Putin claims that Yanukovych asked him to send in his troops. If that is not treason -- asking an other country to attack and occupy your own -- what is? Ask the Norwegians about Quisling. The Russian UN Ambassador also claimed that the current Ukraine government violated an agreement -- true, perhaps, but Russia never signed it.
Putin's claims that the motherland has to protect "Russian-speakers" in the Ukraine seem to have been deliberately calculated to mimic Hitler's allegations about Sudetenland German-speakers to signal what he wants as the quid pro quo should he retreat from the brink.
As the crisis continues, one expects Putin to observe that Soviet dictator Khrushchev, who transferred the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when Ukraine was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was himself Ukrainian (he was), trying to delegitimize Ukraine's claim on Crimea.
That will be a sign that he is ready to defuse the crisis.
The West should both impose sanctions and supply the Ukraine. When the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, President Truman airlifted supplies to the people of Berlin and the Soviet Union stood down. Ukraine can be massively suppled from its Western border.
The Crimea should not be dealt as was the Sudetenland.