“Peace for our time” was the claim made by Neville Chamberlain when he returned from meeting Hitler in Munich in 1938 and the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to head off war in Europe. Ever since, this failed policy of appeasement has been used as an example of how not to deal with a militaristic dictator.
It has become axiomatic that anything other than full-blooded Churchillian confrontation is cowardly and ineffectual. Our prime minister and foreign secretary are managing to sound even more belligerent than the Americans, expressing a barely concealed contempt for the perfidious French and the pathetic peacenik who is chancellor of Germany. In fact, the western allies have been remarkably united around a credible response to Putin.
There is of course one big difference from 80 plus years ago. British and American troops will not be involved in defending Ukraine. Even as Putin moves troops into the separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk, it remains unlikely that intervention from western powers will extend beyond economic ones. The British public is at much greater risk of Covid than Russian invasion or bombing. Instead, the prime minister has instead announced a “first barrage” of economic sanctions which, as I discussed last week, will be painful for us as well as the Russians.
I do not doubt that Mr Putin is a thoroughly nasty piece of work: deeply corrupt and violently vindictive towards his critics and enemies. He was almost certainly behind the Salisbury poisonings and other murders on British soil. He has authorised territorial annexations in Georgia and Ukraine and appears to be under the influence of people with a strongly nationalistic ideology. He appears to be sincere in believing that Ukraine is part of Russia.
That said, there are some uncomfortable truths for the western allies. First, talking up the likelihood of war does not help Ukraine, as President Zelensky keeps pointing out. Instead, it engenders panic. Second, however opportunistic Putin’s claims about Nato expansion may be, there are semi-genuine Russian grievances about the way the west took strategic advantage of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Third, the idea that every sovereign nation has a right to choose its military alliances is a stretch. It is difficult to believe Washington would be totally relaxed for Mexico to establish a military alliance with China with bases along the Rio Grande – wasn’t that what the Cuban missile crisis was about? All these points reinforce the case for the French-led initiative to negotiate.
In practice, there are several possible outcomes in the next few weeks and months. One is that the current posturing and war preparations continue. In many ways, this suits Putin perfectly. He is enjoying a lot of respectful attention. The politically weaker western leaders like Biden and Johnson are also being helped to look strong and to distract attention from domestic difficulties, though they risk looking foolish if their warnings of a large-scale Russian invasion are not realised.
A second possibility is that Russian military activity will remain confined to completing this annexation of the Donbass and Luhansk. That step enables Putin to claim that he has achieved something concrete. And it will also be difficult for the west to do more than mobilise sanctions, since the status quo will essentially remain. Putin could then pull back the remaining troops once the so-called “peacekeeping missions” have been completed.
Third, it is possible that a full-blooded invasion could indeed happen, as we are being warned daily. One factor now emerging against it, however, is the coded warnings being sent by Putin’s ally in Beijing. The Chinese have good relations with Ukraine, did not support Russia in 2014, and attach considerable value, for self-interested reasons, to the concepts of “territorial integrity” and “national sovereignty”. The rather lazy assumption in the west that the Chinese see Ukraine as a dry run for an invasion of Taiwan may be badly misplaced.
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But if a full invasion does happen, there will be consequences that are, as yet, barely discussed. There will be large numbers of refugees. There could be continued guerrilla warfare with political pressure on western governments to go beyond economic sanctions and provide direct military help. The Russians may then feel it is necessary to retaliate.
The truly scary scenario is that any conflict does not stop in Ukraine. The Russians may be tempted to link up physically with their enclave in Kaliningrad or to intervene on behalf of Russian minorities, as in Latvia. Any encroachment on Nato territory will raise the stakes greatly. The issue will then arise as to when battlefield nuclear weapons should be used and how escalation will be managed.
The problem with using Munich as a reference point is that it was a reaction to the horrors of trench warfare in 1914-18. We now face dangers that were inconceivable then. We should give time and respect to those Europeans trying to avert them.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015. You can listen to his podcast, Cable Comments, here
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