Minsk, Belarus. Photo courtesy Nigel's Europe & beyond on Flickr
It is temptingly easy to draw a comparison between the so-called truce for Ukraine that was announced last week in Minsk and the 1938 Munich conference with Hitler, after which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously declared that the assembled leaders had achieved “peace in our time.”
I think the better comparisons would be between Minsk on the one hand and the wartime summit meetings at Yalta and Potsdam, at which Western powers tacitly acceded to postwar Soviet hegemony and expansionism in Eastern Europe, on the other.
Either way, the Ukrainians have been sold out by the Western nations to which they looked for support, just as the Czechs were in 1938, when Britain and France allowed Hitler to grab a slice of Czechoslovakia (he took the remainder soon enough), and just as were the inhabitants of most of the nations in Europe that found themselves behind the Soviet front lines when the shooting stopped in May 1945. It took until 1989 for Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the partitioned eastern section of Germany to escape communist rule from Moscow. Within a short time, independence and freedom, or varying facsimiles of freedom, came to the former Soviet republics that claimed their independence when the USSR broke up. The three Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - have fully redeemed that promise. Ukraine and Georgia, the two former Soviet territories that post-Soviet Russia has invaded and sundered, otherwise came closest. Belarus, of which Minsk is the capital, currently occupies the Soviet mold even more than does Putin’s Russia and is generally persona non grata in the rest of Europe.
Minsk’s favor with Putin, however, made it a suitable venue for the surrender of Ukraine. With Britain and the United States nowhere to be found, the leaders of Germany and France essentially bowed to Putin’s demand that Ukraine accept what amounts to its own partition, though it is labeled as mere “autonomy” for the rebel-governed eastern territories. Because that territory would nominally remain part of Ukraine, it serves as an obstacle to Kiev’s closer integration with western democracies, particularly through future membership in NATO and the European Union.
Recall that it was Ukrainians’ desire to draw closer to Europe that started the revolt against its former government in late 2013. Putin responded by sending a plainclothes army to seize Crimea for Russia, and he has repeated the performance by arming and reinforcing the separatist rebels who are carving up eastern Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande essentially told Putin he could keep what he has already grabbed, in exchange for the alleged cease-fire.
Peace in our time.
“Our time” lasted approximately three days. By Tuesday, the same Russian-backed rebel units that were supposed to cease their fire claimed to have seized the surrounded Ukrainian garrison in the strategic railroad crossroads of Debaltseve.
In a sense, the Munich analogy is valid because the United States was not present at either that high-water mark of appeasement or last week’s embarrassment in Minsk. President Obama was back in Washington, taking selfies for his BuzzFeed video and deliberating endlessly on whether to provide Ukraine with anti-tank missiles and other weapons to defend itself from the heavy Russian firepower that Putin continues to insist he has not sent.
The United States was very much a player at Yalta and Potsdam. But with war against Japan ongoing and nearly all of Europe already devastated by World War II, U.S. leaders could not have credibly threatened to push Soviet troops back to their borders, nor to direct armed erstwhile enemies in Germany and elsewhere to do so. Today, it is within our power to do much more to help Ukraine defend itself and to demonstrate to Putin that aggression will not merely come at a price, as Obama likes to say, but that someone will actually resist it.
Putin’s likely motivations for securing a large sphere of influence on his western border are similar to Stalin’s at the end of World War II. Russia had been in two 20th century wars against Germany. Its strategic priority, then as now, was to make sure any further fighting would be on someone else’s territory.
Merkel and Hollande are unwilling to confront Putin. In the case of Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, living in fear of Soviet wrath and Russian guns is a habit inculcated in childhood. Britain’s government is already confronting deep skepticism over the country’s commitments to European economic unity. By this point in the Obama presidency, even our NATO allies have lost faith that America is prepared to back up tough words with firm action to counter aggression against anyone other than itself.
So the poor Ukrainians, who stood against Russia in hopes of forging a future with Germany and its western European partners, have been abandoned by the very countries they sought to join. It’s a pity. Given his winnings in Minsk, there is no reason to expect Putin to pocket his Ukrainian gains and walk away from the table.