“The settlement of the Ukrainian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the Russian President, Mr Putin, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: " ... We regard the agreement signed last night and the Western-brokered Russo-Ukrainian Peace Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our peoples never to go to war with one another again”.
What Neville Chamberlain might say about a possible Russo-Ukrainian ‘peace’ agreement
November 28th. Is this Ukraine’s Munich moment? It certainly looks that way. News that the Americans and Germans (ironically) are pressuring the Ukrainians to negotiate with the Russians looks to any historian of any worth like a prelude to a very European ‘peace’ deal in which the aggressor gets rewarded and the victim compensated. The flurry of visits to Kyiv last week by US Secretary of State Tony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austen, not to mention the German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius were for a reason. Naturally, the visits were given political top cover by announcements of increased support for Ukraine’s hard pressed armed forces but that was not the real aim. Word is that President Biden does not want the war hanging over him during the US presidential election campaign or the NATO 75 summit in Washington in July. The mercantilist Germans simply feel very uncomfortable being at loggerheads with the Russians, which explains why so many of the European companies who have set up in Turkey and other places to get around EU sanctions on Russia are German. For once, at least the appeasers are not British.
In 1938, as part of the settlement of the “Czechoslovak problem” Chamberlain negotiated away 20% of the then Czechoslovakia. Any such deal would doubtless require Ukraine to hand over 20% of its territory to the Russians who would get to keep much of the Donbas and Crimea it has taken illegally by force, as well as Mariupol, a major Ukrainian grain port on the Black Sea. I do not want to say I told you so, but I told you so. Back in August I wrote, “…it will also become apparent that the Allies have already given 90% of what they are going to give Ukraine, whether it is delivered as promised or not.” I also wrote that in May that the 28 Western-trained and equipped Ukrainian brigades lacked the military weight to break through the Russian defensive lines in the south and east of Ukraine. This was partly because the Russian General Staff had learned some painful lessons, but also because the West took so long to deliver the relatively limited supplies of arms it had promised. Artillery is the defining feature of this very Russian war and it now transpires that the EU will fail to deliver the promised 1 million artillery shells by next March mainly due to an inability to upscale rapidly European arms production. Meanwhile, Russia has received over 1 million artillery shells since early August from North Korea, and clearly with Chinese backing. In other words, Russia is winning the artillery war.
Why is this demarche happening now? Keeping Ukraine alive IS a vital Western interest, restoring Ukraine’s 2014 borders, let alone its 1991 borders, is not. There are several other factors, the most salient of which is the lack of a coherent Western strategy since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The West has got into a habit of giving Ukraine just enough weapons to prevent Russia from conquering the whole country, but never signed up to Ukraine’s war aim of recapturing all the territory the Russians had taken. Frankly, the risk of a wider war with the Russians over the Donbas and Crimea has self-deterred the West, which several European countries see as Ukraine having only borrowed from Russia, whilst for many Americans Ukraine is a large country faraway about which they know little. Hard but true.
How would the West justify such a retreat (and it would be)? First, should there be negotiations (there are already extensive contacts with the Russians) the Americans and the Germans would play up the ‘victory’ of a rump Ukraine. Second, Berlin and Washington, and no doubt Brussels and Paris (not to mention in time London) would say that by simply surviving as an independent country the sacrifice of so many brave Ukrainians was worth it. Third, they would hint how much cheaper it would be for the West, with Europeans to the fore, to rebuild Ukraine if they do not have to pay for the war-torn Donbas and occupied Crimea. Fourth, they would have secured an end to the killing by sacrificing some Ukrainian territory in support of Ukrainian sovereignty.
How would Moscow and Beijing see such a Russian victory for that is how Putin would present it? They would doubtless point again to the lack of Western resolve and the wide gap between Western rhetoric about values at the beginning of the war and the West’s interests during it. They would also point again to the West’s lack of collective strategic patience evident in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria and may well be shaping the response to Gaza’s 7/10 attack on Israel and Tel Aviv’s response. They would cite further proof that the West, Western Europeans in particular, are profoundly risk averse to the point of appeasement and all Moscow and Beijing must do is to out-wait them. They would also highlight the seemingly eternal lack of Western cohesion and any really meaningful relationship between the ends the West claims to believe in, and the ways, means and risks the West is willing to invest to realise them - action without strategy. Above all, Moscow and Beijing would suggest that if the Americans and Germans acquiesced in such a ‘peace’ it would be little different from that imposed on Afghanistan, although its consequence for NATO and Europeans would be far more immediate and more dangerous.
Putin would see his vision of a Novorossiya and the rebuilding of a Russian Empire vindicated and doubtless believe he had successfully completed phases one and two. Phase one was the seizing of Crimea. Phase two, the successful if costly occupation of Donbas and Mariupol. Phase 3? After he had rebuilt Russian forces, say 2030, he would move to seize Odessa and cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. He would also seize all of Ukraine east of the River Dnieper, including the bread-basket. Phase 4 would take a tad longer, the timing of which would depend on the extent to which the Americans were preoccupied with the Indo-Pacific and the extent to which Putin could lure the Germans back into strategic somnolence and energy dependency. The target? Well, that is fairly obvious. The Baltic States.
In other words, the Americans and Germans had better understand the longer-term geopolitical consequences of any fix they impose on Ukraine for short-term political relief. If they fail to learn the real lesson from the Russo-Ukraine War that Putin really is a militarist and an adventurer and if Europeans again fail to properly rearm then all Europe would have gained is a strategic pause. It is also hard to believe Kyiv could possibly accept such a deal unless what is left of Ukraine is offered NATO membership the moment any such agreement comes into force. That begs a further question: would all NATO members sign up to Ukrainian membership?
The Munich Agreement is a warning. In March 1939, Hitler broke the agreement and occupied Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia made defenceless by Munich. The irony was that Neville Chamberlain did understand the consequences and I should know. I wrote my Oxford thesis on British rearmament in the 1930s. Britain brought time to further repair its defences by selling Czech sovereignty. Are ‘we’ about to do the same thing to Ukraine?