The world fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is about to invade Ukraine, an act of naked aggression. Many Westerners are rendered even more afraid by recognition that there is pathetically little they can do to stop him. No sane person believes that US President Joe Biden — the only credible leader the Western democracies have — can or should threaten general war in response to such a Kremlin action.
We therefore face the repugnant prospect that Putin can succeed in his likely objective, overrunning a sufficient chunk of Ukraine to doom the rest of that country to become a failed state, subject to Moscow’s will.
Some commentators, most of them conservatives, respond by evoking the specter of the 1938 Munich agreement, whereby Britain and France acquiesced in Adolf Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, a state then less than 20 years old (it was born out of the wreck of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I). That was a shorter history than Ukraine claims today, having secured independence from Russia in 1991.
In almost every international crisis since the 1930s, the prospect of diplomatic compromise has been denounced by critics as “appeasement.” In 1956, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt seized the Suez Canal from its British and French owners, UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden was fearful that if he acquiesced in Nasser’s action, he would be denounced as a new Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who signed the 1938 deal. Thus, the British and French invaded Egypt, until forced to withdraw by Washington’s wrath.
In October 1962, when President John F. Kennedy determined to blockade Cuba in response to the Soviet deployment of ballistic missiles on the island, General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, had the effrontery to tell the president in the White House cabinet room: “This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich … We’re just going to gradually drift into a war under conditions that are at great disadvantage to us.” LeMay was demanding an immediate bomber assault on Cuba, followed by US invasion.
In the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, some of those who argued against an invasion of Iraq were accused of appeasement toward Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush’s administration evoked the memories of both Hitler and Winston Churchill.
Yet the great liberal commentator Walter Lippmann wrote at the height of the Cold War: “You can’t decide these questions of life and death for the world by epithets like appeasement. I don’t agree with the people who think we have to go out and shed a little blood to prove we’re virile men.”
Lippmann also wrote, in September 1961: “This being the nuclear age, it is the paramount rule of international politics that a great nuclear power should not put another great nuclear power in a position where it must choose between suicide and surrender.”
Throughout history, political and diplomatic realities have often demanded passivity in the face of outrageous conduct. Japan massacred millions of Chinese in the 1930s. That slaughter ended only when the US and its allies were provoked into war by the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and four years later evicted Tokyo’s forces from China and Manchuria.
The West was obliged to watch in impotent horror as the Russians crushed the anticommunist Poles in 1945, then the Hungarian rebels in 1956, then the Czechs of the 1968 “Prague Spring.” There was also the 1959 Chinese seizure of Tibet. The list is a long one.
The message is not that we should expect to bow to every misdeed or atrocity. It is that the “good guys” — granted the impossibility that we can ever reach global consensus about who these are — cannot and should not intervene militarily whenever they see bad stuff happen.
I am just completing a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis. One of its most important lessons is that while Kennedy played a masterly diplomatic hand, it is most unlikely that America’s will could have prevailed — the Soviet nuclear weapons withdrawn from Cuba — without the underpinning threat of American force.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and even his most hawkish generals knew that America possessed an overwhelming superiority, both of conventional weapons in the Caribbean region and nuclear missiles capable of destroying the Soviet Union. US superiority of the latter was on the order of 17 to 1. And thanks to the intelligence officer Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who slipped his nation’s secrets to the West, the Americans knew that the Soviets recognized their own weakness.
Moreover, the will and solidarity of the US and its allies to confront the Soviets remained strong in the Cold War. American presidents often found themselves having to restrain the eagerness not only of the military brass, but also of some ordinary citizens, to go head to head with “the Russkies.”
Today we live in an entirely different strategic environment. The bipolar Cold War planet has been replaced by a multipolar one, in which a tenuous American superiority persists, but is no longer unchallengeable. A well-briefed military friend of mine believes that the Chinese are not yet quite ready for a showdown over Taiwan, but he thinks they will seek one within a few years, confident of a local victory.
Putin presides over a tottering society with many social and economic problems, but his military is revitalized. He knows that Europe is divided and weak, wholly unwilling to respond militarily to anything he does, perhaps including a grab at the Baltic States. The head of the German navy, Admiral Kay-Achim Schoenbach, was obliged to resign last week after claiming that the Russian threat to Ukraine is a fantasy; that Putin seeks only “some respect.”
Britain will support military gestures by the US in the face of Russian aggression, but the queen’s armed forces are now very small. There is no possibility British soldiers would fight for Ukraine, even in the unlikely event that US troops do so. Rhetorical posturing, even some saber-rattling, by the British government reflects its own vacuity rather than serious intent.
Biden deserves more sympathy than he is currently receiving for his vacillation on Ukraine. The old, moth-eaten allegation of appeasement is being levelled by his foes both at home and abroad. Yet the US cannot be expected to face down Putin alone, far less to go to war with him.
Most of America’s European “allies” — the quotation marks are emphatic — are too fearful that the Kremlin will cut off their gas supplies to provide Washington with meaningful backing. Europe’s attitude to serious foreign policy and security issues is frankly decadent.
Thus, the likelihood is that if Putin attacks Ukraine, he can secure the territory he wants without suffering serious military consequences, beyond whatever losses the courageous Ukrainians can inflict on Russian forces.
Biden may be ill-advised to propose a summit with Putin: Such a meeting would assume a willingness to make concessions to the Russians, of an unjustifiable kind. In 1962, for exactly that reason, Kennedy resolutely and rightly opposed such a meeting, which was urged by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
The real challenge for the West is to summon the will to punish Putin and his friends in the language they understand best — that of money. Economic sanctions against Russia as a country are right, but not remotely sufficient. The only meaningful weapon is an assault upon the fortunes and lifestyles of the Kremlin’s gangster clique, held and invested around the world.
Western intelligence agencies know precisely who Putin’s friends and associates are; and almost certainly also a good deal about where his own vast fortune is garaged. Rich Russians travel constantly to the West to spend their money, because there is much less fun to be had back home. Many own veritable palaces in London, New York and other playgrounds. It is shameful how often Russians are identified as political donors or cultural philanthropists in both Britain and America: They are seeking to buy a veneer of respectability.
They should be denied this. Nobody in modern Russia gets to be big or rich — or certainly not to stay that way — without the support of the Kremlin, which takes its cut. Most of the wealth is, in effect, stolen from the Russian people. While the West cannot credibly threaten war, it can promise to punish those responsible for an attack on Ukraine by excluding them and their families from our countries; conceivably also by impounding their wealth and properties.
Unfortunately, the democracies, and explicitly Britain, may well lack the stomach for such action. British banks and financial institutions host many tens of billions of Russian money. The prizes the City of London reaps from the oligarchs are deemed too large to drive away. For all the bellicose rhetoric from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government, expect nothing substantial to follow a Russian attack on Ukraine, beyond another barrage of words.
As for the US, the only party to the confrontation that matters, it seems absolutely right to do everything possible to deter Putin, and to punish him if he goes ahead with his cold-blooded plan to kill thousands of people, to score a victory that shores up his unpopular domestic polity. But one should not resort to threats, nor offer promises to the Ukrainians, that there is no intention of fulfilling.
If you think this represents appeasement, watch the new Netflix movie “Munich: The Edge of War,” which stars Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain. The film, based on a thriller by my friend Robert Harris, seeks to rehabilitate the British prime minister, arguing that by cutting his 1938 deal with Hitler, he bought vital time for Britain to re-arm before the war that he recognized was coming. Harris makes a good additional point, that Hitler thought himself cheated out of a military assault on Czechoslovakia that he wanted, and expected to get. In other words, appeasement was clever.
As a historian, I do not go all the way with Harris about this. He seems right that Britain could not realistically have fought in 1938. Beyond the debility of the armed forces, many British people, together with those of imperial dominions such as Canada and Australia, were not yet in the mood to fight; they had not given up on the Nazis.
I still think that Chamberlain was a weak, foolish old man who shrank from unwelcome realities. His worst contribution to history is that Munich gave appeasement — which some of us would call a recognition of realities — a bad name. My hero among historical and strategic gurus, the Oxford professor Michael Howard, often said, “If you are dealing with foreign leaders less monstrous than was Hitler, appeasement can be a very sensible policy.”
We must reluctantly acknowledge that both Russia’s Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping can commit acts of aggression in their own backyards that we are unable to prevent, and which are not worth a general war. The least the West can do, however, unless it has altogether forfeited will and principle, is to ensure that the Kremlin’s gangsters and their clans can no longer celebrate their triumphs in New York or London nightclubs, on French ski slopes.
We are often reminded that tax evasion fixed Al Capone. Putin and his friends are unlikely to go to jail. We can at least, however, seek retribution for their crimes through their Western bank accounts.