In advance of this week’s landmark NATO summit, which begins today in Wales, David Cameron has reportedly drawn parallels between the actions of Russia in Ukraine and those of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The Prime Minister apparently believes that the West is in danger of “appeasing Putin as we did Hitler” and that “Putin has already taken Crimea and we cannot allow him to take the whole” of Ukraine.
Cameron’s intervention follows allegations of new Russian troop incursions into Ukraine and reported claims by EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso about Putin. According to media reports, Putin allegedly told Barroso that Russian forces, if ordered to do so, could conquer Kiev in a fortnight, and also said that some 1,000 Russian troops are currently in Ukraine in what has been widely condemned as a violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty.
In seeking to frame Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Cameron is not alone is utilising historical analogies. The use of such analogies by leading politicians, including recently by Hillary Clinton, in international crises is commonplace.
The turmoil in Ukraine is one of the biggest crises to face Europe since the end of the Cold War. And in the complexity and uncertainty of fast moving day-to-day events, policymakers often seek to draw what they perceive as key lessons of the past in seeking to guide and provide rationales for their actions.
For much of the period since the 1970s, for instance, many US officials were fearful of ‘another Vietnam’ referring to the disastrous US intervention in that Asian country. This tended to reduce willingness to deploy US military force internationally unless any action (such as the 1991 Gulf War) had clear, attainable objectives that could swiftly be achieved with a minimum of casualties.
The Vietnam debacle also became a key frame of reference when the US-led intervention in Iraq faltered after 2003. This was despite the fact that the two experiences (Iraq and Vietnam) were dissimilar in many respects, including the nature of the insurgencies, and US objectives in each country.
However, the most widely used historical analogy is that of Munich and Nazi Germany, as Cameron invoked this week. The widely seen implication for foreign affairs of the ill-fated 1938 agreement with Adolf Hitler is that appeasement with aggressors doesn’t work.
Numerous politicians claim to have been influenced by Munich from George W. Bush during the ‘war-on-terror’, Margaret Thatcher over the Falklands conflict, Lyndon Johnson concerning Vietnam, Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet during the Suez crisis, and Harry Truman over Korea. Moreover, the analogy’s continuing salience is also illustrated by the fact that, some Asian politicians, including Philippine President Benigno Aquino have compared what they claim is China’s recent belligerent behaviour with Nazi Germany’s expansionism by openly questioning “at what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
While some see very strong similarities between Russia’s actions and Nazi Germany’s expansionism, the fact remains that use of analogies can be fraught with difficulty for policy makers. On a fundamental level, for instance, not all military actions end up like Vietnam, while not all diplomatic agreements turn out like Munich.
As history shows, there is a danger that politicians misinterpret past crises just as frequently as they learn the right lessons. For instance, Suez and Vietnam underscore how Munich was used to guide or justify major foreign policy blunders by the United States, the United Kingdom and France in the 1950s and 1960s.
Another example is John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis who was influenced by Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” book which argued that the First World War started as a result of miscalculation and mistake from all sides. Kennedy believed the events of October 1962 were reminiscent of the lead-up to that conflict and, wisely, sought to deploy a range of diplomatic options with the Soviets, overruling advice of military advisers for a quick military strike on Cuba.
However, an increasingly number of academics now believes that Germany actively sought war, and that Tuchman’s thesis is wrong. In this sense, it has been argued that Kennedy’s actions (which were highly prudent in the context of Cuba, and may have saved the world from nuclear war) were based on a misreading of First World War history.
In the case of Ukraine, Munich is by no means the only historical lens through which to interpret what is happening in the country. And, even if it were, there are clear differences between the 1930s and today, including in the interdependence of the global economy, wider dissimilarities in the global balance of power, and the fact that Russia has an extensive stockpile of nuclear weapons which has led a majority of politicians in the West to look for non-military responses to the crisis, including sanctions.
In the unpredictability and tension of the current moment, calm, clear and careful decision-making is now needed by Western politicians as they think through the array of options they still have at their disposal, including wider sanctions. History can provide an especially useful framework in addressing similar or identical policy challenges, but to avoid potentially major misjudgement attention also needs to be devoted by politicians to any significant differences between past and present conditions.
Andrew Hammond is Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a former UK Government Special AdviserReuse content