Although the last 77 years have not been free of conflict and the horrors of war and genocide, those of us who have grown up in a western democracy have become used to a privileged lifestyle, to living in peace, benefiting from the steady advance of global trade, innovation and technology in the main.
I am not diminishing the horrors and injustices of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, genocide in the Baltics, Africa and Asia or the Vietnamese and Korean wars etc. but even during the 1950s and 1960s, even with the Cold War and the constant underlying threat of nuclear attack, most of us in western democracies were never put in physical or economic jeopardy.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed all that and brought the threat and impact of war close to everyone.
I look for times in the past to draw lessons and worryingly, the best parallel appears to be the outbreak of World War II with what looks like an unstable, isolated Putin playing an unhinged Hitler, ironically using ‘DeNazification’ as one of his reasons to invade Ukraine.
We have seen aggression in many shapes and forms – for example, invasions spurred by religion like the Crusades, land grabs to extend the power base like Edward I’s invasions of France, Wales and Scotland, the domination and attempted integration of other lands and peoples to build wealth and protect against potential foreign threats like the Roman and Mongol Empires, colonisation of less technically-advanced societies from the European powers, most notably Britain and Spain.
Hitler, however, waged war for different reasons. He wanted to build the next Reich; a ‘thousand year Reich’ to recover the lost glories of a once powerful nation state that had lost WW1, had to pay reparations, struggled to regain its pride. He also waged war using the manufactured threat of the Jewish race as a rallying call. He built up his military capacity while lying about his intentions. He used incremental steps to disarm other powerful nation states, annexing Saarland, Austria, the Sudetenland, creating the client Slovak state, protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and forcing Lithuania to cede the Memel territory.
With Putin we have a very similar picture. He heads up a totalitarian state that flickered as a fledgling democracy under Yeltsin and Gorbachev but is now under autocratic, dictatorial control. Like Hitler, he yearns to bring back past ‘glories’, to reconstitute the Soviet Union. He has steadily built up his military capability while lying about his real intentions. He has incrementally expanded his sphere of influence and power – read Georgia, Donbas, Crimea and the puppets, Lukasheko in Belarus and Assad in Syria. He uses manufactured threats to justify his actions such as the need to ‘deNazify’ Ukraine even though their heroic Jewish leader, Vladimir Zelenskyy, has a grandfather who fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazis and saw other family members die in the Holocaust (although I admit that there is an unsavoury thread of Trump-like white supremacist, anti-semitism in the Ukrainian population).
And like Chamberlain, western leaders have gone down the route of appeasement to avoid war at all costs, standing by with ineffectual tokens in the face of invasions of Georgia, Donbas, Crimea and the support of genocide in Syria. Admittedly, no-one before has had to deal with an unhinged leader in control of an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
The lessons of WWII are however crystal clear. Appeasement is simply putting off an ultimate conflict and giving the aggressor the means to tilt the playing field in their favour. With NATO’s mutual defence structure and Putin’s inevitable attempt to annex part or all of NATO states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of course but also Germany, Hungary, Poland and the Czech republic were in the old Soviet Union’s orbit), how long before NATO is forced into taking up arms?
The non-military action is unprecedented – and long overdue – and I’m sure that it will have a significant impact on Russian life – punitive interest rates, possibly runaway inflation, lack of choice in the shops, no spare parts in both consumer and defence industries, companies going bankrupt, travel restrictions and a pariah status in international sport. All this will isolate Russia and create a sense of unrest. But this may simply strengthen Putin’s resolve. It’s worth noting that according to the political scientists Geddes, Wright, and Frantz, between 1945 and 2012, leaders of non-democracies were more than twice as likely to be replaced by an elite coup as by a popular revolt. What’s the chances in Putin’s puppet show?
In the interim, history tells us that we would be better facing up to Putin now, especially with the bedrock of Ukrainian courage and resources available to build upon than waiting for the next shoe to drop. A no-fly zone would be a credible first step. Rapid deployment of defensive weapons including fighter jets, intelligence support, troops stationed in Lviv and other western regions to free up Ukrainian fighters in the east – there are many options, but the worst decision would be to simply stand by and watch and wait for economic sanctions to, well, do what?
Zelenskyy is a hero for today. Where is the western leader or leaders to stand with him? Cometh the hour, cometh the man or more likely in this day and age, the woman??