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How Neville Chamberlain’s words haunt the Crimean crisis

The former British PM described Nazi Germany's annexation of the area of German-speaking Czechoslovakia in 1938 as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of which we know nothing”. Modern politicians need to learn from his folly

A year or two ago I was offered the chance to visit Crimea to write a feature for a travel magazine. I found it to be a sad yet beguiling place, stuffed full of historical and geographical wonders.

Decades of Soviet domination may have left this southern corner of Ukraine looking a bit beaten up around the edges, but my overriding feeling was that this was a place that was waking from a long, deep sleep.

The port of Sebastopol had an air of wistfulness that only places with a rich and brutal history can manage, while a visit to the defunct subterranean Russian submarine base in nearby Balaclava bay was made even more attractive by the low cost of admission and the fact that the only other visitors to the attraction were a couple from Slough.

Similarly memorable were afternoons spent at the Tsar’s Livadia Palace on the shores of the Black Sea, and Checkov’s dacha, a beautiful sunlit villa high in the hills above Yalta, in which he wrote his incomparable play The Cherry Orchard. Crimea, clearly, was the next great European tourist destination. I could only bless my luck that I’d got in before it was all sanitised for the package holiday industry that would inevitably follow with Ukraine’s sublimation into European politics and culture.

But that was then. With dizzying speed the region has been occupied, liberated or annexed (according to your view) by Russian troops and, with the EU and America still fumbling for a response, the Crimean government has called a referendum, due to be conducted today, to ask its inhabitants whether it should rejoin the Russian Federation.

Most tellingly, the wording of the ballot paper offers no choice for preserving the current status quo. There are only two questions on it: do you wish to join the Russian Federation now, or choose to become independent?

From the Kremlin’s point of view, the overthrow of the democratically elected government in Kiev last month was nothing less than a western-inspired plot, one that has left the millions of Russian-speaking inhabitants in Crimea and eastern Ukraine isolated and vulnerable. To those on the other side of the political divide, Russia’s occupation is a barefaced land grab.

What is undeniable is that Vladimir Putin’s bold strategy has wrong-footed the West. His opponents are threatening to impose sanctions, but who would they really hurt? With the world’s economies so inextricably entwined, there’s scarcely a country in Europe whose own balance of payments wouldn’t be disrupted by a trade embargo. And yet the only other option, military intervention to prop up the teetering Ukrainian government, is unthinkable.

In London on Friday John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, held last-ditch talks in an attempt to diffuse the situation before today’s deadline. But with the referendum so close at hand, the talks were never likely to prosper. Six hours spent in private consultation brought no major breakthrough. After the collapse of the talks Mr Kerry warned Russia of “very serious steps” if it annexes Crimea.

Strong words of course, and yet it all seems too little, too late. Indeed, a full two days before the ballot, the Russian flag was already flying above the entrance to the Crimean Parliament in the provincial capital, Simferopol, while street signs were being methodically altered from the Ukrainian language into Russian. Somebody somewhere already knows the outcome.

And with civil unrest already igniting in cities such as Donetsk, and Russian troops conducting military manoeuvres on Ukraine’s eastern border, the fear is that annexing Crimea may well prove the curtain raiser to a far more turbulent future for central Europe. The prospect of this beautiful and doleful country being torn apart once more by forces beyond its control is too dreadful to contemplate; yet it now seems a genuine possibility.

When Nazi Germany annexed the area of German-speaking Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland in spring 1938, the response from the now discredited British prime minister Neville Chamberlain summed up the parochial view of many to events in central Europe at the time. He described the incident as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of which we know nothing”. Modern politicians would do well to learn from Mr Chamberlain’s folly.

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

Updated: March 15, 2014 04:00 AM