Professor Ferguson has written an article in the FT on the parallels between the events in Ukraine and those leading to the first world war.
It seems to me that the parallels between Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland and “Anschluss” are even more pertinent: Russia is a nation that is still sore from losing the cold war; it has compatriots on the other side of the border. Its ruthless leader has understood them as a pretext to pick fights, and they give the powers that are have sworn not to countenance the changing of European borders by force the pretext to look away.
Chamberlain called Hitler’s invasion: “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” It sounds very familiar — it could have been Merkel herself speaking. Both leaders actually knew a good bit more, but felt it better to coddle their constituents than alarm them.
Putin may or may not be an evil genius like Hitler, but he is certainly without scruple, and willing to take great risks, at the cost of other people’s lives. This was made clear from the start of his rule by his campaign against the Chechens.
The author advises us not to talk shrilly, so that Putin has room to back down. Perhaps, indeed, we shouldn’t say anything too clearly — especially we shouldn’t say we won’t do anything. Our leaders should repeat the mantra “Europe’s borders will never again be changed by force”. Let Putin guess what it means — we can both figure it out later.
But in the meantime perhaps we should advance 100,000 NATO troops into Poland, perhaps we should put the sixth fleet in the Black Sea, and let the Bundeswehr have a NATO exercise in Turkey. We could say, perhaps, that it is all routine, just like his moves are routine.
Whatever the actions, we must talk to Putin in a language he understands. He should remember his weakness (and that we know it) before he bluffs his way into power, or at least into calamity. “Don’t bluster from the sidelines and paint yourself into a corner” would be a long-winded way to paraphrase the first half of a famous phrase of advice from an American president just before the era about which professor Ferguson writes. We have completely forgotten the second part, about the big stick.
Because if Putin invades the eastern Ukraine, as increasingly seems likely, that won’t be the end of that. Eventually we will have to move to confront Putin — the logic of his actions is clear. Perhaps the best strategy will again be containment, but a small bag — cinched tight before the people of Ukraine are trampled on any more — is better than a big one.
Indeed, there is a deeper danger. I wonder that Merkel doesn’t know it. If institutions fail in Europe, they fail everywhere. Once the peoples of Europe see that the international order is a farce, the strong and the bold, once again, will try to make their own rules, and they will write them in blood.