Adolf Hitler didn’t take all of Czechoslovakia, and Josef Stalin didn’t give all of it back — and that’s created an opportunity right now for Vladimir Putin.
The two-part dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was a multinational feeding frenzy. The Munich Agreement was infamous for giving the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany, but Poland took the opportunity to snip off the Zaolzie area for itself, and Hungary took the southern bits of Slovakia. What was left was called the “Czech-Slovak Republic.”
A few months later, Germany and Hungary finished off the Czech-Slovak Republic. Germany made a protectorate out of the ethnically-Czech rump of Bohemia and Moravia, rump Slovakia was granted “independence” under Nazi domination, and Hungary grabbed the tail end of the country, known as Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Actually, it has a lot of names: Carpathian Ruthenia, Transcarpathian Ruthenia, Transcarpathian Ukraine, Transcarpathia, Rusinko, Subcarpathian Rus′ or Subcarpathia — according to Wikipedia and a bunch of 19th and 20th century atlases I’ve collected over the years.
But whatever big mouthful of a name you want to call the tiny region, it’s what concerns us today.
When Stalin restored Czechoslovakia in 1945, he did them a favor and cleared the so-called Sudetenland of ethnic Germans, thus removing a sticking point between Germany and Czechoslovakia. It’s history’s dirty little secret that ethnic cleansing, while just about the worst thing one people can do to another, works. That, I must say again, is an observation and not an endorsement.
But Stalin also did himself a favor and tacked Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia onto the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — one of the few places where the post-WWII Soviet border actually improved upon the pre-WWI Imperial Russia border. (The Soviets lost Poland, Finland, and a big chunk of Armenia between the wars, but gained eastern Poland — including Ruthenia — a couple slices of Finland, Tanu Tuva way out next to Mongolia, southern Karafuto/Sakhalin and the Kurils, after WWII.)
So what is Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia? It’s a mess, a hodgepodge, an ethno-geologic fault line between all the neighborhood players. The “indigenous” locals, and I use scare quotes because the place has changed hands so often it’s impossible to know who’s indigenous, who’s an invader, and who’s just been around a while…
…anyway, the indigenous locals are the Rusyns, who speak an eastern Slavic language which really isn’t Russian and isn’t quite Ukrainian. And even they’re divided into three subgroups, including the delightfully named Pannonians. For a short time after WWI, they even got their very own country, the Lemko-Rusyn Republic. Actually, two countries if you include the Komancza Republic, which we really ought to do, out of a ridiculous and long-winded sense of completeness. And in that spirit I should also mention that at some point both republics were subsumed under the West Ukrainian People’s Republic which was mostly dominated by the Hungarian Democratic Republic, which was before its independence as Carpatho-Ukraine for a few hours in 1939. And don’t even get me started on Galicia, the larger and just-as-fractured region of which Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia is a sub-region.
Did you get all that? There will be a quiz at the end of the column.
So the Rusyns have been ruled over by Austrians and Hungarians and Poles and Czechoslovaks and Russians and Ukrainians and Lithuanians. I’d have to consult at least two historical atlases to be 100% certain, but I don’t think the Romanians (Moldavians, really) or Turks ever got their hands on the area. But they both probably tried.
What you have then is a small region inhabited by a few people with a long history of being fought over by all the more numerous peoples around them.
And… wait for it… here we go again:
In its efforts to promote secessionist ideas among the half-million-strong Rusin community along Ukraine’s Western border, Moscow is simultaneously pursuing three goals. First, it is forcing Kyiv to divert its attention from Russian aggression in the east to another theater, thus limiting the ability of Ukrainian forces to counter what Moscow is doing in Crimea and Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region encompassing the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk). Second, it is cementing an ever closer relationship between Vladimir Putin and the increasingly pro-Moscow Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, a government that presents itself as a defender of the Rusins against Ukrainians. And third, Moscow is suggesting that if Kyiv continues to resist, Russian forces could dismember Ukraine to the point that it would be a landlocked republic with no direct access either to the Black Sea or to the countries of Central Eastern Europe.
Yet, apparently unwittingly, some Rusins—or Carpatho-Rusins as many style themselves—in the West are helping the Kremlin in this effort. To give but one instance: last week, the Carpatho-Rusin Consortium of North America launched an appeal denouncing Ukraine for its failure to recognize the Rusins as a nationality, a step all the other countries in the region have already taken.
Short version: Putin is stirring up ethnic crap in western Ukraine to distract from the ethnic crap he’s stirring up in the eastern Ukraine, and he’s being aided in his efforts by pro-Moscow forces in Budapest and by ethnic Rusyns overseas. Put into an even broader context, we now have two ostensible NATO allies — Hungary and Turkey — working at cross purposes to western interests.
Putin doesn’t have to blow up NATO to get what he wants; the edges of the alliance are fraying all on their own. NATO is turning into a giant new Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia — it just doesn’t know it yet.