Alphen, Netherlands. 13 February. “Peace in our time”. Those hollow words came to define British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the wake of the signing of the Munich Pact on 29 September, 1939. A day after the signing of yet another Minsk agreement it looks on the face of it as if the illiberal Realpolitik have once again trumped liberal naivety in an effort to bring ‘peace’ to Ukraine. Indeed, several commentators have alluded to the similarities between the Munich Pact and the Minsk Agreement. So, are there similarities and differences between Munich and Minsk?
First, I must issue a disclaimer. I am an Oxford historian who has studied the causes of World War Two in great depth. In spite of Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine I am still not prepared to equate modern Russia with Nazi Germany or President Putin with Adolf Hitler. This blog as ever is about hard analysis not gratuitous offence. Given the heroic struggle of the Russian people during The Great Patriotic War and indeed my respect for them I am simply not prepared to cross that all-too-easy line simply to make a point. However, there are some political similarities between Munich and Minsk that cannot be ignored:
1. Munich and Minsk both resulted from aggression against a third state by rapidly rearming, illiberal great powers dissatisfied by their place in the European order facing liberal powers weakened by economic crisis. In Germany’s case it was the rejection of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and in Russia’s case it is rejection of the post-Cold War European order.
2. Munich and Minsk both rewarded aggression by in effect confirming the ‘principle’ that might is right. Russia in effect now controls much of Eastern Ukraine just as 1938 Germany gained control over the Sudeten territory of a then Czechoslovakia that it was going to occupy in any case. Neither conflict would have existed but for great power aggression.
3. Munich and Minsk both established a de facto principle linking ‘sovereignty’ to ethnicity. Indeed, by confirming the ceasefire line as in effect the extent of respective ethnicity-based sovereignty Russia may well have re-established a dangerous precedent for interference in any state where sizeable Russian minorities exist. Prior to the September 1939 invasion of Poland that is exactly the principle 1938 Germany used to justify expansionism.
4. Munich and Minsk both revealed the weakness and division of the liberal powers and who then strove to mask that weakness by wrapping the respective agreements in a veil of empty legalism, such as international commissions and meaningless plebiscites. By so doing the liberal powers conferred some sense of legitimacy upon naked power.
5. Munich and Minsk both ignored previous breaches of international law in the hope that a line in the sand could be drawn and that no further expansion would be sought. Munich ignored both Germany’s 1936 occupation of the Saarland and the 1938 occupation of Austria. Minsk ignored Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea and thus confirmed it.
6. Munich and Minsk both reflected a culture of appeasement in that the liberal negotiating powers Germany and France rejected out-of-hand any military ‘solution’. No-one sensible is suggesting a force-on-force conflict between Russian and Western forces over Ukraine, but to reject a role for military force when such force is central to the strategy of the adversary smacks all-too-readily of Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. There may be no military ‘solution’ per se but that must no mean that the credible ability to apply force if needs be and in some form has no utility in the process towards a secure solution. It is that point which most clearly divides the US from Germany and France.
However, there are also very profound differences between Munich and Minsk:
1. Munich and Minsk both involved a weak France. However, in 1938 Germany was the aggressor, revisionist power whereas in 2015 Germany is the status quo lead power. Britain was in the ‘lead’ in 1938, whereas in 2015 Britain is a foreign policy irrelevance, a small power, domestically-divided with small leaders stuck at the edge of influence.
2. Munich did not involve either the European Union which did not then exist, or the United States, which was then an isolationist power. The involvement of both means the liberal powers now have many more coercive tools at their disposal short of war to persuade Russia to honour agreements. No such tools existed for Britain and France in 1938.
3. Munich also took place in a Europe in which there was no NATO, no ultimate and credible guarantee against further aggression.
Therefore, on balance one should be careful about glibly citing historical comparisons because the Europe of 2015 is very different from the Europe of 1938. Equally, one should be equally aware of the consequences of failure. In March 1939 German forces occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and thus made World War Two inevitable. Were Russia to move on the rest of Ukraine Europe would be but one step from war and any historian knows what that could mean.
Seventy years ago today some 722 Royal Air Force Lancaster bomber crews were being briefed. Several hours later they took off from bases across Eastern England in two enormous “bomber streams”. Over the next two days the German city of Dresden was systematically-reduced to rubble and twenty-five thousand of its citizens lay dead. The true appeasement is to lack the imagination to realise the implications of what is happening in Ukraine.