Who would have thought that the most interesting portrayal of Neville Chamberlain today would not be that of Jeremy Irons in Munich but by a very different troop of performers including Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and the Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel? These two, who come from the far right and far left of American politics, are united in pressing for the United States to throw Ukraine to the wolves – or more exactly Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In this they are joined by a host of international relations thinkers, who like to call themselves “realists”, and who, much like Chamberlain, argue that they are simply being hard-headed in analysing the power structure in the region.
The key issue that they all agree on is that Ukraine is not an area of important US or NATO interest and that the US should make major concessions to Russia over the fate of Ukraine. After all, Ukraine, they argue, is a far away country, has never been an ally, and its fate makes no difference to the security of the western alliance. On the other hand, they suggest that Ukraine is very much in Russia’s security interest for both historic and contemporary reasons. Having been part of imperial Russia and then the USSR, Russia understandably wants to make sure Ukraine is not a threat, and in many ways has been unnecessarily provoked by the USA and NATO who have provided the Ukrainians with hope that they will eventually be admitted to the western alliance. Far better, they argue, that any idea of Ukraine joining NATO should be ruled out permanently, that Ukraine should receive little, if any support in general and that building and that improving relations with Russia (at the expense of Ukraine) should be a higher priority.
Quite why Russia is considered so powerful today is perplexing.
Yet, far from being the tough realists that they portray themselves as, these modern appeasers make Neville Chamberlain look positively Churchillian. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, which reached its highpoint in 1938 at the Munich Conference during which he agreed to the amputation of democratic Czechoslovakia (which has interesting parallels in some of the arguments by today’s appeasers saying parts of Ukraine should be handed to Russia), has been defended on the grounds that Hitler’s Germany was strong economically and militarily, whilst Britain desperately needed more time to rearm. While personally I’m not as persuaded by this argument as some others, it is at least a position based on the reality that British rearmament started years after Germany and did benefit by having an extra year to catch up.
However, when it comes to Ukraine and Russia today these new appeasers both significantly overestimate Russian strength, underestimate NATO’s ability to deter Russia (even without directly supporting Ukraine militarily), and show a grotesque willingness to sacrifice a growing democracy to an authoritarian nation that wishes to dominate it. What’s more, their approach is more likely to lead to a war being unleashed than prevent one.
The most obvious difference between Germany in 1938 and Russia in 2022 is that the latter is economically much weaker, with a declining population and low life expectancy. Quite why Russia is considered so powerful today is perplexing. Yes it remains nuclear-armed (though the idea that they would use them over Ukraine is preposterous—when someone asks you that, ask them back what exactly Russia would target). And yes, Russia has some well-designed pieces of military equipment—but that is very different than having resilient military systems.
What Russia is not, however, is economically powerful and it lacks the ability to mount sustained military operations and deploy a wide range of military forces at the same time. Russia in global terms has approximately the 10th largest economy in the world; larger than Spain but smaller than Canada. Moreover, it is largely a resource-extraction economy, and has not shown the ability to produce high technology products long-term and at scale. How many high quality Russian technology based products have you purchased lately?
Russians more and more romanticize the horrible brutality of the USSR
If we have relearned any lesson over the last two decades is that military operations are expensive, usually counterproductive, and with the constant possibility of going disastrously wrong for the richest and most advanced economies—let alone weak ones. Certainly Russian military deployments over the last 20 years, from Georgia to Syria, have revealed significant shortcomings. If Russia were actually stupid enough to attack Ukraine, it would tax their military in a way not seen since the Cold War ended. They would be starting a large-scale war, using a conscript army, at a time when the Russian population is showing significant resistance to its own government. We don’t know the state of Russian public opinion because the country is not free—but clearly there is real unease in Russian society about the autocratic and oppressive nature of the regime.
Moreover, they would be starting a war with an enemy who, because of Russia’s early threatening behaviour, has shown itself even more committed to resist than even the Czechs in 1938. One of the most distressing things about some of the appeasers’ arguments is that they discuss Ukraine as if it’s a deeply divided society or a country that can easily be dismissed. Ukraine did have a very sizable percentage of its population that favoured close relations with Russia—more than a decade ago. However, Russian aggression and the oppressive nature of Russian rule has helped create a growing, democratic and pro-European Ukrainian identity.
Over the last few years, while Russians more and more romanticize the horrible brutality of the USSR and their oppressive rule imposed on Eastern Europe under the military domination of the Warsaw Pact, Ukrainian opinion and identity has headed in the opposite direction. Now Ukrainians are not nearly so divided, and large majorities clearly support Ukraine having the closest possible relationship with NATO and the European Union. It is worth asking ourselves—is western security actually improved by abandoning one of the largest nations in Europe, with a new democracy and a population that wants to be democratic and basically saying it is in the security zone of an oppressive authoritarian regime.
If the appeasers win, I dread to think what it means about the future of Europe
And the change in Ukrainian identity over the previous years is one of the reasons that it would be disastrous for NATO (and for that matter the EU) to agree to any arrangement that would permanently keep Ukraine from their ranks. It would call into question the status of countries that are already in NATO that are equally as important to Russian security, particularly the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which Russia is also agitating against.
Thankfully, the Biden administration has thus far not been listening to the new appeasers, and has been taking the line most likely to deter Russian aggression and prevent a war. They are talking with Russia while taking a clear position that Ukrainian NATO membership can never be permanently ruled out, and at the same time preparing indirect but powerful responses if Russia were rash enough to attack. And this brings up the last point—that conflict has changed.
NATO, or at least the United States, does have the ability to retaliate selectively and effectively against an economy as weak as Russia’s without sending troops into Ukraine, through economic sanctions but also mostly hidden cyber resources (at which the UK also excels). If there is one thing that is most perplexing about all the analysis about a possible Russia-Ukraine war, it is the way many appeasers fawn like teenage boys over different elements of Russian kinetic equipment such as hypersonic missiles and the like. It’s almost as if they think warfare is stuck in some Cold War time loop, based on confrontations of large numbers of heavy forces.
So let’s hope the Biden Administration and other NATO supporters keep to their present line that is both most likely to prevent war and not potentially cast a democracy back into the arms of an oppressor. If the appeasers win, I dread to think what it means about the future of Europe.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe