The west knows the cost of appeasement. We can’t rule out any option for stopping Putin

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
22 February 2022

The Russian leader has shown he cares enough about Ukraine to shed blood over it. He needs to know the gain won’t be worth the pain.

Vladimir Putin’s recognition of two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, along with his subsequent deployment of troops and tanks to the regions, has moved Europe closer to the brink of war.

Despite many differences, there are echoes of 1938 in current developments. Putin may not be Hitler; Ukraine in 2022 isn’t Czechoslovakia in 1938; and French president Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, and their western colleagues aren’t some sort of collective Chamberlain. But 1938 does carry important lessons: the most important being that deterrence may seem more expensive and risky than accommodation today, but it is essential for Europe’s long-term security.

Putin, though a brutal authoritarian leader, is not a charismatic madman like Hitler. He has used targeted repression and assassinations to control the Russian opposition, rather than concentration camps. His ideology is flexible: for all his anti-western rhetoric, he and his associates have often kept their money and their families in the west.

What Putin has in common with Hitler, however, is a mystical belief in a nation stretching beyond his country’s current borders. Putin sees Ukraine as the key to this “Russian world”. In his speech on Monday announcing the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, Putin spoke of Ukraine as an “integral part of our own history, culture and spiritual space” and described the creation of a Ukrainian Soviet republic by Lenin as “the tearing away from Russia of a part of its own historical territories”. Last year he wrote that there was no historical basis for a Ukrainian people separate from Russians.

Ukrainians disagree. Despite the lazy cliche that Ukraine is divided into a Russian-speaking, pro-Russian east and a Ukrainian-speaking, nationalist west, in 1991 every region of Ukraine, even Crimea, voted in favour of Ukrainian independence. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is more comfortable speaking Russian than Ukrainian, yet won almost three-quarters of the vote in the 2019 presidential election, and was the leading candidate even in most parts of the supposedly nationalist west. Many of the Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline are Russian-speakers and also Ukrainian patriots.

Ukraine in 2022 is more important strategically and economically than Czechoslovakia was in 1938. It is Europe’s largest country after Russia. Many of its population of more than 44 million would become refugees if war broke out. Globally, it is a crucial exporter of maize and seventh for wheat, and a key supplier of agricultural produce to the EU. World food prices would rocket if Ukraine’s fields were full of tanks rather than tractors. And Ukraine is an important transit route for Europe’s energy.

Western leaders now grappling with Russia’s escalating aggression have one advantage over Neville Chamberlain in 1938: they know that appeasement can have disastrous consequences. They can see, too, thanks to Russia’s December proposals on European security, that Putin’s ambitions aren’t limited to controlling Ukraine: he wants to reverse changes in Europe’s post-cold war security arrangements. If Joe Biden, Macron, Scholz and Boris Johnson want to prevent a horrendous war – on a much larger scale than the Balkan wars of the 1990s – they need to focus on deterring Putin, not accommodating him.

Deterrence will be impossible, however, if leaders keep telling Putin what they are not prepared to do, or if they turn up the pressure on him so slowly that he can always adapt. Biden has said that he won’t send US forces to fight in Ukraine; the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, has publicly expressed doubts about cutting Russia off from the global payments system Swift; the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, has said that sanctions should not hit gas imports from Russia; and the EU, US and UK have already indicated that the recognition of the “people’s republics” looks unlikely to trigger full-scale economic sanctions at this stage, despite Putin’s deployment of troops.

The western desire not to escalate is understandable. Putin is doing his best to show that Ukraine matters enough to him to shed blood over it, and he has past form: in the war he launched in Chechnya thousands of Russian troops were killed, according to Russian human rights organisations.

But if Putin goes on to attack the rest of Ukraine, as his posture of force suggests he will, the costs of the resultant war for the west will be much higher than those of wide-ranging sanctions or providing military support to Ukraine, and Europe will be destabilised for decades. On 21 February, Putin advanced, but not far. If he is to be deterred from going further, even at this late stage, the west needs to make him uncertain that the gain will be worth the pain. Everything must be on the table.

Ian Bond is the director of foreign policy at the independent think-tank, the Centre for European Reform, and a former British diplomat.