On September 3rd, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave a momentous radio address to the British public. With a sombre but upright cadence, and the air of a man shouldering the responsibility of failing to maintain peace, Chamberlain announced Britain’s declaration of war against Germany for their invasion of Poland.
The Polish border represented an uncrossable line for the British government. After Hitler’s movements in Austria and Czechoslovakia, they would have no further Nazi expansion. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement had not succeeded, and thus followed the most devastating conflict in human history.
Today marks the seventh day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The final approach was carefully orchestrated by Putin to leave a trail of justification behind him. Broadcasts of government officials declaring support revealed a culture of fear amongst Kremlin elites and the subsequent declaration of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states left an aftertaste of irony in Russia’s takeover.
Russia has clearly been jostling for position over the last two decades. From their invasion of Georgia to the annexation of the Crimea and the subordination of the Belarusian government, Putin’s imperialistic ambitions have been visible to the world at least since 2008. He may still be reeling from the fall of the great Soviet era, during which he served in the KGB — his pride is tied to the international clout of Russia, and without Ukraine, there can be no Russian empire.
And yet, the West seems caught on its heels by the escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Biden and Johnson are slowly wheeling out economic sanctions on Russian oligarchs and banks and the EU begrudgingly decided to ‘suspend’ Nord Stream 2. These retaliations are scoldings at best, but worse still, they represent an embarrassing hypocrisy in London’s historical eagerness to wash Russian money and the EU’s openness to place its energy security in Putin’s hands. At least Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT international banking system will restrict its access to its billions in international funds.
The world’s, including NATO’s, response to the Russian invasion is alarming. Slapping the hand of the imperialist dictator will only serve to antagonise, not deter. It is evidence of ineffectuality that Putin will understand as weakness and, in essence, encouragement. His gradual consolidation of power through constitutional reform, enemy-silencing, and election-rigging over the last 15 years are evidence enough that he’s got the political intelligence to understand the consequences of his actions. He knew he’d face sanctions from the West, just as Hitler knew that the Allies would declare war if he invaded Poland — neither was deterred.
Watching Biden and Macron enter into peace talks with Putin has been exasperating, but not for their intentions. The problem represents a snowball, whose size over time will increase — the West sees the snowball as only just beginning to roll down the mountain, yet it is clear from Russia’s preparation for conflict that it’s already too late to stop it. Peace talks are futile because the snowball has accelerated beyond a haltable velocity.
This response is particularly alarming because it seems as if the West has fallen prey to a fallacy of an assumption of a conscience. Chamberlain hoped Hitler would be happy with the Sudetenland, that he would see the catastrophic consequences of war in Europe, and infamously declared that he had secured ‘peace for our time’. Obama’s Secretary of State in 2014 expressed incredulity at Putin’s annexation of Crimea as a ‘stunning choice … to invade another country’; an almightily underwhelming statement made with such literality as if to convey a feeling of offence, and nothing more serious. Both these examples represent a failure to realise that a militaristic dictator cannot be held to moral standards in the way that the public holds democracies accountable at elections.
We can only hold Putin to the standards of his own idealism. That means we can only expect him to act in accordance with his designs and to cede his gains only when backed into a corner, or if it makes strategic sense. To enter into peace negotiations with hope represents a naivety to the determination of pride and greed. And to say he’s overplayed his hand is stupid, or at least overconfident; in this game of poker, the West has already folded.
There remains one hope to which we can cling: revolt. Revolt of Russian soldiers being commanded to carry out orders they don’t believe in, losing faith in Putin. Revolt of the Russian people against their leadership for a war that wasn’t justified to them and which they find unpalatable. Revolt of the non-governmental international community that angles Putin as isolationist, such as what’s happened in football.
All these kinds of revolt have a unique, common theme, as yet unseen in major, modern conflict: the modern age. Internationalisation facilitated by the internet and global travel has enhanced populaces’ proclivities for peace and made it challenging to reach the level of nationalistic brainwashing required for imperialism. Only China right now has that kind of total control.
Whether these revolts will deter Putin enough from his grand designs is unclear, in spite of Western media propaganda claiming the invasion is going poorly. Financial sanctions are possibly less influential than public opinion, as maintaining power has to be Putin’s priority. Power is what motivates Putin, and nobody knows what he might do to keep it.
It is only with hindsight that the obviousness of Putin’s plans is revealed, which makes critique easy and cheap. Easier still is critique without offering an alternative, and nobody wants World War 3. The nuclear inevitability of such a catastrophic development will be avoided like a battle in itself, fought tooth and nail. Yet, criticisms abound. Why has the West not been uncomfortable demilitarising whilst the East (including China, who surely has eyes on Taiwan) has fortified? How can an argument akin to ‘it’s the 21st century, why are we still doing invasions, guys?’, be allowed to fly?
We are presented with a deeply uncomfortable situation. International warfare must be prevented at all costs, lest the consequences end human civilisation. But, if it is unavoidable, then we must prepare (albeit in secret). Failure to do so, on the hope it would end up unnecessary, is desperately irresponsible. But worse still, any media leak revealing preparations would imply a kind of retaliatory posturing. It’s an unenviable decision that must be taken.
Russia’s argument is that it feels threatened by the expansion of NATO, which it presents as a militaristic outfit primed for attack on the old Eastern front. The militarisation, as Putin proposes, of NATO-aligned nations is an existential threat to Russia, and Putin cares not for the consequences of ripping up the Minsk agreement.
We’ve heard this all before: Hitler used the 1935 alliance between France and the Soviets as justification for invading (remilitarising) the Rhineland a month later, ripping up post-WW1 peace treaties. Nobody was prepared, so nobody did anything, and Nazi imperialism was galvanised. We can’t afford to make the same mistake twice.