Politics & Policy

‘Intermission’ in Ukraine?

Pro-Russian separatists in Lugansk. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Historical analogies are never exact, but this one is too close for comfort.

The Economist’s Kyiv correspondent recently described the current phase of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine and the Russian war against that country — nearly two weeks after a “truce” but with nothing definitively settled — as an “intermission.” The image has ominous historical resonances, but it could also suggest a moment when the West gathers itself to provide strong and effective support to the Ukrainians, who rightly say that they are defending “Western values.”​

First, the ominous part of the image.

Historical analogies are always imprecise, but there is a case to be made that the events of 1938–39 in Central Europe shed light on the events of 2013–14 in Eastern Europe. In March 1938, Nazi Germany completed the Austrian Anschluss, and what had been an independent state was absorbed into the Third Reich. In late September 1938 the Munich agreement conceded the German-speaking Sudetenland to Hitler, and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia began the following month. In March 1939, Germany completed the vivisection of Czechoslovakia by invading the remainder of the Czech lands and setting up the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” while concurrently getting itself a new client state in the pro-fascist Slovak Republic.

The fall of 2014 is looking ominously like the late months of 1938 and the first months of 1939.

In March 2014, Vladimir Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea, hitherto indisputably part of Ukraine, in what amounted to a duplication of the Nazi Anschluss in Austria. In late August 2014, as Ukrainian forces were about to best Russian-sponsored and Russian-armed “separatists” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Russian forces in large numbers were injected into the conflict by Moscow, turning the tide of battle — a rough but serviceable analogue to the German occupation of the Sudetenland. So, pursuing the 1930s analogy one step further, we are now in an “intermission” similar to the period between October 1938 and March 1939.

The Thirties analogy works in other ways. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was preceded by a campaign of outrageous lies that confused far too many Western observers and governments (including, admittedly, weak leaders who were grateful for the confusion, as it gave them an excuse not to face hard and unpleasant facts). Claims that cross-border ethnic solidarity trumped recognized state boundaries and treaty obligations were deployed by Hitler and his Nazis with respect to the Sudetendeutsche; similar claims have been made by Putin and his “Novorossiya” (New Russia) lapdogs in Ukraine, Russia, and elsewhere. The Nazis claimed that Czechoslovakia (a product of the Versailles peace conference) wasn’t a real country; the same claims have been made about Ukraine by Putin and his apologists (one of whom even suggested that the Ukrainians were subhumans who ought to be exterminated). Irregular forces allied to the Nazi Party were deployed in the Sudetenland to gin up agitations that would allow Berlin to claim that it was restoring “order” and protecting its ethnic brethren; exactly the same tactics have been deployed in Ukraine since the Maidan revolution burst into view last November.

And then there has been the Big Lie. Anyone who had forgotten the depths of mendacity to which those trained in the KGB could descend has been reminded of that hard fact of post–Cold War life these past ten months. Yet the lies still work, alas, to the point where some otherwise intelligent Westerners continue to imagine that Ukraine is a “deeply divided country” and that the armed forces that have set up two bogus “Peoples Republics” in eastern Ukraine represent abused parties defending their legitimate interests. The facts are quite different: All the available polling data indicate that the great majority of those living in southern and eastern Ukraine wish to remain part of Ukraine (including a majority of Russian-speakers); as for the “separatists,” they are in actuality (and have been since the beginning) Russian special forces, Russian mercenaries, and local thugs armed by Russia.

Putin & Co. have even continued to insist that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, which is perhaps the biggest lie of all. But the lie continues in part because no major Western political leader has called the Russian bluff publicly, stating that Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, are liars and presenting clear evidence that their prevarications threaten the peace of the world (on the model of Adlai Stevenson demolishing the lies of Soviet U.N. ambassador Valerian Zorin during their memorable confrontation at the U.N. Security Council during the Cuban Missile Crisis).

So there is more than enough reason to think that we are now in a period analogous to late 1938 and early 1939 — a period that seems like a pause, but is in fact a moment of great danger, after which (if the West continues to take insufficient steps, again on the Thirties analogy) something even worse is going to happen — in this case, the true dismemberment of Ukraine by Russian armed force.

#page#As for what might be done in this interim period so that 1938–39 doesn’t repeat itself, several thoughts occur.

(1) It is imperative that Western leaders speak plainly. What has happened in Ukraine is an invasion, and what is continuing there is a war. It may be a war fought by a mix of regular and irregular forces and unconventional means, but it is a war nonetheless, and it should be described as such.

(2) Idiotic slogans like “back to the Cold War” should be carefully avoided. This is not a situation analogous to the Cold War, in which both sides understood the rules of the road and, in the main, behaved accordingly. By his aggression in Ukraine (following his aggression in Georgia and Moldova), Putin has created a Hobbesian world in the borderlands of Eastern Europe, a world in which the rules of the road have been torn up and spat upon.

(3) The West — and especially the leading countries in NATO — must remember that Eastern Europe is, nonetheless, Europe. There are many reasons why Western leaders have taken such a weak stance toward the Russian war in Ukraine: Putin has spent years and billions buying support throughout the Western European elite; incumbent politicians fear the wrath of citizens who might be discomforted by Putin turning off natural-gas and oil exports to Western Europe; and one can never forget the general flaccidity of a Western Europe disinclined to be roused from the comfortable torpor of the social-welfare state. But beneath all of that, there lurks the suspicion that, in the minds of some Western European leaders, the newer members of NATO in Eastern Europe (and perhaps even in Central Europe) aren’t really “ours” — that the real NATO is the old NATO. And that, to return to the Thirties analogy, has the putrid odor of “Die for Danzig?” Moreover, this cravenness is at work despite the fact that the people who died on the Maidan in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, defending their moral revolution and their determination to live according to European ideals of civic decency, died under a European flag, defending what they understood to be a common civilizational enterprise. If this “Die for Danzig?” pusillanimity continues, we can expect a result similar to that which unfolded after March 1939 — things will get much worse. So those responsible for NATO policy must understand that what is at issue in Ukraine is nothing less than the meaning and identity of Europe.

(4) Fantasies that the sanctions already applied to Russia by the E.U. and the United States will produce a short-term modification of Putin’s aggression should be avoided. An even more stringent sanctions regime may, over time (meaning years), begin to suggest to Russians that Putin is reneging on the implicit social compact by which he has held onto power (you stay out of politics; I’ll make sure your lives are better, year by year). But for the moment, Putin’s appeals to Russian patriotism (and worse, to historic Russian delusions of grandeur), as well as his draconian efforts at information control, seem to be keeping what he fears most — a Moscow version of the Kyivan Maidan — in the distant future. Yes, all this aggression may eventually backfire on Russia; but if, by that point, the sphere of Russian influence has been reestablished far to the south and west of Russia’s borders, the cause of freedom will have been dealt a severe blow in the affected areas of Central and Eastern Europe, “Europe” will have proven itself a decadent and hollow shell, and the United States will have forfeited on any claim to global leadership.

(5) Western leaders must also understand that pre-emptive concessions (such as President Obama’s surrender of the option of using military assets as a deterrent, much less an agent of resistance, in Ukraine) play directly into Putin’s hands; as one astute Ukrainian put it to me recently, such pledges mean, to Putin, “OK, we may go further.” What the West needs to do — in addition to making economic and financial sanctions much more stringent while denouncing Russian aggression publicly for what it is — is to provide Ukraine with the defensive equipment it has requested, including air-defense assets. And if the United States can manage to gather itself to get beyond the silly sloganeering embodied in food-fights over “boots on the ground” and ask itself what military assets it might deploy to make it unmistakably clear to Putin that this “intermission” is not going to play out the way the analogous “intermission” in the late 1930s did, then it might occur to those responsible that far more NATO (including U.S.) troops in the Baltics and in eastern Poland would be a useful signal of newfound seriousness. This crisis is as important as the fight against Ebola, to which American troops have been committed; it is essential that the U.S. demonstrate its understanding of what is at stake in Ukraine by its willingness to commit capable American forces, in appropriately significant numbers, to Operation Dissuade Putin. (And while doing so, President Obama should deflate another standard piece of Kremlin propaganda by stating flatly that NATO is, was, and always will be a defensive alliance that poses no threat to a Russia posing no threat to anyone else.)

All of this requires Western leaders to stop thinking of this as a Russian–Ukrainian squabble and see it as an aggression against the West itself. This is not a “local conflict” to which Europeans in the old NATO, or Americans, can remain indifferent. It is nothing less than a test of whether the verdict of 1989 and 1991 in favor of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law is going to be affirmed or reversed.

And that brings us, once again, to the Thirties analogy. Neville Chamberlain and his French counterpart, Édouard Daladier, imagined that, by betraying Czechoslovakia, they were saving the peace and preventing a repetition of the disaster of the Great War. (They were also giving their people the foreign policy that most Britons and Frenchmen likely wanted.) In misreading the nature of their adversary and thus the nature of the conflict he had launched, the appeasers of the late 1930s made a bad situation worse and set in motion events that led to a catastrophe far worse than that of 1914–18. The havoc that followed their failure to understand that the conflict over Czechoslovakia was about them offers a sobering lesson to every leader worthy of the name in the North Atlantic alliance.

Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves gets it. NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen gets it. Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski gets it. Do David Cameron, François Hollande, Angela Merkel, and Barack Obama?

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

George Weigel — George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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