After Britain and France approved Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in the Munich Agreement of 1938, it became a symbol of appeasement that still reverberates. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s telephone call to Barack Obama on March 28, offering a resumption of diplomatic discussions, raised the question of whether he may be seeking a 21st century version of the Munich Agreement. Russia’s incursion into Crimea, on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians, reminded many observers of Hitler’s purported grounds for annexing the Sudetenland. A few weeks ago, Hillary Clinton observed:
“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s,” she said. “All the Germans that were … the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”
Clinton’s comments drew rebuttals from some who argued that “Whatever Putin is, he wasn’t like Hitler. He didn’t massacre thousands of non-Russians in Georgia or anything like that.” It may be noted, however, that when the Munich Agreement was signed, Hitler’s massacres lay in the future. Nevertheless, it may be admitted that there is no evidence that Putin has anything comparable to the Holocaust in mind. But that is hardly the point. It is more important to recognize how conveniently an alleged concern for ethnic minorities may serve as a mask for aggressive expansion. Putin, of course, has disclaimed any such aspirations, but so did Hitler in 1938. An illuminating essay by Victor Davis Hanson, in National Review, demonstrated how little Hitler’s assurances of 1938 would have to be re-written to fit Putin’s of 2014. An excerpt:
I am thankful to Mr. Chamberlain Mr. Obama for all his trouble and I assured him that the German Russian people wants nothing but peace, but I also declared that I cannot go beyond the limits of our patience.
I further assured him and I repeat here that if this problem is solved, there will be no further territorial problems in Europe for Germany Russia.
And I further assured him that at the moment that Czechoslovakia Ukraine has solved her other problems, that is, when the Czechs Ukrainians have reconciled themselves with their other minorities, the Czech Ukrainian State no longer interests me and that, if you please, I give him the guarantee: We do not want any Czechs Ukrainians.
Events subsequent to the Crimean annexation have not been reassuring. Russia has now amassed combat ready troops on the Ukrainian border estimated to total 50,00 or more. Putin has reportedly told Angela Merkel that some troops would be withdrawn, but indications are that only a small number, perhaps a single battalion, would be withdrawn. Such a maneuver would be purely cosmetic and would leave the underlying threat undiminished.
In light of Russia’s military posture, any diplomatic overtures from that quarter must be viewed with heightened skepticism. After Putin telephoned President Obama to discuss “the crisis in Ukraine,” White House officials were said to be “deeply suspicious” of Putin’s motives. The New York Times reported the concern of outside analysts that Putin “may be seeking some sort of de facto acceptance of [the Crimean] status quo in exchange for not sending troops massed on the border into eastern Ukraine.”
According to the official Russian summary of the conversation between the two Presidents, Putin “drew Barack Obama’s attention to continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation towards peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies in various regions and in Kiev with impunity.” The Russian statement also indicated that Putin had referred to Ukraine’s blockade of Transnistria (Transnistria has not loomed high in American consciousness, and probably still doesn’t, but it is an autonomous region of Moldova abutting Ukraine’s southern border and, unlike the rest of Moldova, is predominantly pro-Russian. Although it is tempting to think of Transnistria as another Grand Fenwick (the duchy in The Mouse That Roared), it could be another potential flashpoint.
For its part, the White House statement concerning the telephone conversation made no reference Putin’s concerns but tried to put the focus on a proposal previously made by Secretary Kerry. It stressed that “[t]he United States continues to support a diplomatic path in close consultation with the Government of Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian people with the aim of de-escalation of the crisis. President Obama made clear that this remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
We do not know just what the Kerry proposal was, let alone what objections Lavrov (or Putin) had to it. According to the Times, the proposal could have included “guaranteeing more autonomy for certain regions, disarming the militias that have emerged and defining Ukraine’s relationship to international alliances like NATO.” On their rather vague face, such elements seem designed to assuage Russia’s concerns over the presence of a hostile government in Kiev. What Ukraine and the West would get in return is even less clear. Presumably, there would be a pull back of Russian troops and (yet another) assurance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But such actions and promises may be short-lived—as were Hitler’s after Munich.
According to the Russian statement, Putin “suggested examining possible steps the global community can take to stabilize the situation.” What those steps are remains to be seen. If any agreement emerges, it will presumably include expressions of a mutual determination to resolve differences peaceably through negotiation and consultation. And so it was at Munich. The Munich Agreement was accompanied by an Anglo-German Declaration, the document Neville Chamberlain waved in proclaiming “peace in our time” to a cheering crowd. It recited that “We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference, and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.”
Despite whatever misgiving the White House may have entertained, Kerry met with Lavrov on Sunday, March 30, but the two apparently agreed to no more than the need for further discussions. An article in The New York Times suggests that Russia’s goals in the diplomatic negotiations may be twofold. In the short run, the mere fact of negotiating gives “the appearance of flexibility [that] could aid their effort to stop the West from imposing tougher sanctions and to discourage NATO’s interest in taking more resolute steps in the wake of the Crimean invasion.” In the longer term, if an agreement is reached, it might “establish largely autonomous regions, that would be under the influence of Moscow and that would hold a veto over national matters like those involving foreign policy.” The second goal is the more worrisome, and particularly so in light of the fact that, while the United States claims to be acting in close consultation with the Ukraine government, the latter is not a part of the discussions. One of the more odious aspects of the Munich Agreement, of course, was the exclusion of Czechoslovakia from its negotiation. As The Washington Post observed in a tough editorial today:
THE OBAMA administration insists that it won’t negotiate the future of Ukraine with Russia over the heads of the Ukrainians. But something very much like that has appeared to be happening since Vladimir Putin telephoned President Obama on Friday.
The Post continued by observing that Ukraine has rejected Russian proposals with very good reason:
Moscow is demanding that Ukraine be turned into a federation in which regions of the country close to Russia would have a veto over national policy. The Kremlin says that Russian must be made an official language equal to Ukrainian and that elections scheduled for May must be postponed.
The proposals would strip Ukraine of its sovereignty and render it ungovernable, which is exactly Mr. Putin’s intention.
The Post editorial concluded by urging the Administration to “insist that Ukraine’s representatives be present in all meetings and that Crimea be put back on the agenda.” If, as we suspect, neither occurs, it will heighten the suspicion, and perhaps disdain, with which any agreement is viewed in the United States and Ukraine’s neighbors.
From the standpoint of the United States, President Obama cannot be faulted for seeking to avoid, or at the very least delay, a military conflict in Ukraine. The outcome of such a conflict would almost certainly be an unhappy one for Ukraine, for Europe and for the United States. Senators McCain and Graham and others have not challenged Obama’s position that the United States would not participate in combat in Ukraine, but have called for the furnishing of military equipment to Ukraine. It has, however, become increasingly apparent that such assistance would be of little help. Ukraine today has about 140,000 military personnel, but Ukraine’s defense minister told parliament in March that only 6,000 of the country’s 41,000 land troops were ready for combat. While the Russian Army is far less formidable than the Soviet Army once was, there is no reason to believe that the Ukrainian Army, even if enhanced by NATO or American equipment and training, could provide credible resistance.
It is obviously premature to judge what, if any, agreement emerges from the negotiations between Kerry and Lavrov. If an agreement does emerge, any comparison with Munich will be, as all analogies are, at best imprecise and at worst misleading. Nevertheless, the history of Munich will inevitably hang over any such agreement. Perhaps the most important point is that no agreement with Russia can be taken as any kind of permanent solution. It would take the passage of a considerable period of time with neither aggressive action nor threatening rhetoric to demonstrate that Putin has abandoned his ambitions to recreate some form of the Soviet empire he plainly continues to cherish.
In The Washington Post on March 27, two highly respected veterans of foreign policy and defense issues, George Schulz and Sam Nunn, urged the need for a long-term strategy. No agreement with Russia in the near future is likely to obviate the need for such a strategy. While their essay is worth reading in its entirety, one of the most important elements of the strategy they outlined is that “The United States and our European allies must ensure that our military capacity is strengthened and and enhanced and our commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty is unquestioned. It is essential that European allies get serious about their defense capabilities.”
President Obama has announced some steps intended to reassure NATO allies, such as providing additional fighter jets and scheduling additional training exercises, but they appear more symbolic than substantive. And while he has reiterated our commitment to Article 5, our capacity to respond is not so clear. As argued in Blog 32, we believe that Congress should immediately undertake a comprehensive review of the military capabilities of both NATO and the United States. In the meantime, it is not useful to try, as President Obama recently did, to dismiss Russia as merely a “regional power.” As Eugene Robinson, a consistent supporter of the President, put it in The Washington Post:
I believe that if a country has thousands of nuclear weapons, along with the intercontinental ballistic missiles needed to deliver them to any point on the globe, then by definition it qualifies as more than a regional power. Russia’s military hardware may be based on aging technology, but there’s still quite a lot of it.
When U.S. astronauts need to get to and from the international space station, they have to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft. Russia is still a major force to be reckoned with in the world — beyond Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas— and pretending otherwise doesn’t help the situation in Ukraine.
In fact, I think, it may hurt. Putin’s approval rating at home has soared to 80 percent, and I believe one reason is that he skillfully stokes feelings of resentment at the way Russia has been treated since the end of the Cold War.
Nor is it helpful for the President to downplay the threat of Russian aggression in Europe by asserting that he is “much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” Unfortunately, as President, he has to be concerned about both.