History is a good teacher, but unfortunately it has indolent and inept pupils: us, Westerners.
That’s why I only have a glimmer of a hope that, this once, the Chamberlain lesson will be heeded. He taught it on 27 September, 1938, in a radio broadcast on Hitler’s plans to annex the Sudetenland.
Describing the impending aggression as “a quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing”, Chamberlain sent a go-ahead signal to Hitler. We know what happened next.
Read the Ukraine for Czechoslovakia, Putin for Hitler, current Western leaders for Chamberlain, Daladier et al., and here endeth the lesson. Are we paying attention? Or are we playing truant? Have we finally learned that aggression against far-away countries about which we know nothing can trigger a worldwide cataclysm?
The Russians are amassing on Ukrainian borders a formidable force of several divisions (up to 85,000 men by some reports) armed with tanks, missile launchers and long-range artillery. The official explanation is some sort of exercise, but no one takes that seriously.
Some sort of military action against the Ukraine must be in the works, and there are many signs of that. For example, hospitals and morgues are being mobilised in various parts of Russia, suggesting that Putin doesn’t expect a bloodless cakewalk, similar to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Also, a planeload of Russian war correspondents has landed in the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Lugansk provinces of the Ukraine. The hacks went into action immediately, concocting stories of little boys crucified by the dastardly Ukies and a genocide of all Russian-speakers being planned by Zelensky’s ‘fascist’ government.
Such genocide would have to have an element of suicide to it, since Zelensky himself is a native Russian-speaker, as are most members of his government. But such petty details are unlikely to douse the hacks’ fervour.
All the signs point at an imminent outbreak of hostilities, making commentators wonder what it is that Putin wants. His desires are doubtless two-fold, involving both strategic and tactical objectives.
The strategy is crystal-clear: if Ivan III went down in history as “the gatherer of the Russian lands”, Putin wants to be known as the re-gatherer. He has never concealed his aspiration to bring the whole post-Soviet space back into Russia’s fold, and the Ukraine was the jewel in the Soviet crown.
Putin’s long-term strategy is to reassemble the Soviet Union, thereby correcting what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. That is the demise of an ogre that had devoured at least 60 million of its own children.
Hence Russia doesn’t recognise the independence of her former colonies and satellites, especially the Ukraine. Statements to the effect of Ukrainians and Russians being the same people are bulging the papers, most of them controlled by the Kremlin. This touching sentiment is strictly unilateral since Ukrainians jealously asserted their national identity even when they did belong to the Soviet Union, never mind now.
The immediate tactical objectives are harder to surmise. Putin may want to enlarge the occupied territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. He may also wish to have those enclaves of terrorism and banditry reincorporated into the Ukraine proper, thereby putting paid to Ukrainian independence.
Another possible plan may be to expand the occupied territory southwards to incorporate the Black Sea areas of Odessa and Mariupol. This may include the capture of the Northern Crimean Canal through which the Ukraine used to supply the Crimea. Now that lifeline has been blocked, the population of the occupied Crimea is fleeing in droves, to escape the growing shortages of basic necessities, including water.
Whatever such tactical objectives may be, they’ll always only be stepping stones on the way to conquering all of the Ukraine and stamping out her independence. How will the Ukraine react? How will the West?
The Ukraine will fight to the last man, the way Ukrainian partisans continued to fight the Soviets for at least 10 years after the war. That was a heroically hopeless struggle of several thousand barely armed men against the formidable might of the Soviet Union.
Ukrainians are no longer barely armed – thanks to Western supplies, they’ve been steadily increasing their battle-worthiness. Their army is approaching modern standards of armaments and, though it may not be able to defeat Russia, it’s certainly capable of inflicting the kind of casualties the Russians haven’t suffered since Afghanistan.
Somehow I’m not sure that the warmongering hysteria whipped up by the Russian media will survive tens (hundreds?) of thousands of death notices reaching their towns and villages. It’s doubtful that Putin’s regime itself will survive.
But suppose Russia does have a go. How will the West respond? How should it respond?
According to the press release issued by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III, he “spoke by phone today with Ukrainian Minister of Defence Andrii Taran to discuss the regional security situation. Secretary Austin reaffirmed unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. He condemned recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine and offered condolences to Minister Taran on the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers on March 26.”
Unwavering US support means unwavering Nato support, and Britain is its second-ranking member. But what does that statement mean?
The West responded to Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine in 2014 with token sanctions and expressions of concern. Will we this time ratchet our response up to expressing grave concern and tightening up the sanctions?
It’s reasonably clear what the West will not do: send troops to fight in the Ukraine. The US Navy has moved two frigates into the Black Sea, but this is merely a symbolic gesture.
And here’s what the West can’t afford to do: nothing. Should Russian armour roll, neither statements of grave concern nor mere token sanctions will do.
We must continue to supply the Ukrainians with everything they need to fight for their freedom and inflict the heaviest possible casualties on the Russians. At the same time, Russia’s status must be downgraded from somewhat naughty to a pariah.
The West has the means to collapse Russia’s economy, and this is what must be done. Russia should be cut off from the international trading system SWIFT, with an embargo imposed on both Russians imports and exports. Let them eat their gas and drink their oil.
At the same time, the ‘Russian trillions’, the ill-gotten assets Russian gangsters keep in Western banks and other financial institutions, must be impounded or, better still, confiscated. That will deliver a blow where it hurts: the ostentatious luxury in which the kleptofascist junta lives.
Vetting such assets to decide which are ill-gotten and which aren’t is like shooting fish in a barrel: you can’t miss. All Russian holdings numbering in many millions are proceeds of crime – such wealth can’t be acquired there by any other means.
Putin’s junta can’t be allowed to get away with a full-blown offensive against the Ukraine. If it is, the whole system of European security, including Nato, will collapse.
If we go back to those history classes, bold aggressors always stagger their forays by gradual escalation. Thus the Rhineland came first, then Austria, then Czechoslovakia, then the Benelux, then France and then those bombs rained on London.
If the West displays limp-wristed impotence again, Putin’s next targets will be the Baltics, which are Nato members. Having allowed today’s answer to Hitler to swallow up the Ukraine, it would be illogical for us to resist the occupation of, say, Estonia.
And then we may be reminded of the etymology of the word ‘escalation’: it’s a cognate of the Latin for stairs. We’ll climb up one step at a time, and a nuclear holocaust may well await on the top floor.
Sorry about coming across as a doomsayer, but someone has to be. The situation is dire, and it can quickly become cataclysmic.