Staunton, December 9 – The Munich agreement between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, as some have forgotten, was a compromise between what the Nazi leader wanted and the status quo that the British wanted to protect in order to reduce tensions in Europe and achieve, in Chamberlain’s infamous words, “peace in our time.”
According to Russian historian and commentator Yaroslav Butakov, Vladimir Putin is seeking to organize something similar now, “sacrificing” for the time being some of his grander goals in order to gain Western acceptance of some of the results of the aggression he has already engaged in to reduce tensions and achieve a new era of cooperation.
Everyone knows the consequences of the first Munich, but many seem to think that a new deal with an aggressor could be a “win-win” situation, in which Putin would get something he wanted admittedly at the cost of a small country far away and the West would get peace in our time from someone who has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not keep his word.
In an article on Rufabula.com today, Butakov argues that “from the point of view of the Kremlin, it is obvious” that a Munich-style accord about Ukraine now represents its “main hope for a favorable outcome” in which it would obtain now some of what it wants without losing face or yielding on its broader plans (rufabula.com/articles/2014/12/09/will-the-munich-agreement).
At the same time, he says, Putin is seeking to “destroy the unity of the position of the Western countries on the Ukrainian question” by meetings like the one in Moscow with French President Francois Hollande and its funding of radical right parties in Europe as a means of weakening opposition to him.
But much of Putin’s behavior now recalls that of Hitler before Munich. On the one hand, he has talked about partition of Ukraine as a solution to the current crisis which he himself created. And on the other, he has pursued side agreements with one or another Western leader in the hopes that one or another of them will break ranks and give him a victory.
Earlier, Butakov says, the Kremlin leader focused his attention in this regard on Germany, but because of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s about face in Russian policy, he is now focusing on France and especially on French businessmen, hoping that Paris will prove the weak link in the Western chain.
According to the Moscow analyst, “nothing is in principle impossible” regarding a political agreement between the European Union and Russia on Ukraine. For all the talk of EU solidarity, each country can and will act on its own and thus can at least in theory by cherry picked by Putin.
The Ukrainians should always keep in the front of their minds what happened to Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Poland in 1939, countries which thought they could count on the promises of the West but which were bitterly disappointed, Butakov says. Ukrainians need to recognize that if they do not “struggle to the end for unity and independence … no one will do this for them.”
The Kremlin is convinced it can win out, however, because Western policy for the last 20 years has been about “supporting the unity of the Russian Federation,” a policy that is being challenged by Putin’s own actions but that Western leaders show no sign of changing. On the contrary, many of them want a settlement on Ukraine lest Russia fall apart.
What might a “new Munich” look like? It might involve Western recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and possibly part of the Donbas in exchange for Moscow’s promises not to further destabilize Ukraine or to provide assistance elsewhere, say in the Middle East, and would then lead to the lifting of Western sanctions.
“It is difficult to say,” he continues, “how much the West has considered the lessons of history. The main lesson of Munich 1938 is that ‘peacemaking’ only encourages the aggressor. But that was long ago,” and politicians, analysts and commentators will always find reasons to say that this time is different and that any such lessons do not apply.
What may save the situation, Butakov argues, is that the Kremlin has overestimated its chances by assuming that there is greater division among Western countries than there is, that Western business is more interested in trade with Russia than it is, and that the West has its own reasons for not reaching an agreement with Putin.
Thus another Munich may not happen, however much Putin tries, Butakov says, suggesting that the most probable outcome will be one in which Moscow will do something new to distract attention from the dead end it has run into in Ukraine. But that too contains within itself a real danger.
That is because, he writes, there is little reason to expect that Putin will do anything that would not be “a logical extension of the course” which he set himself, his country and the world on beginning in February 2014.