In a blog I wrote towards the end of the first year of his presidency (November, 2009), I asked the question, “Is Barak Obama destined to be the Neville Chamberlain of the Twenty-first century?” It is now clear that the answer to this question is, “Yes!” And Ukraine is his Czechoslovakia.
On present trends and despite the huffing and puffing about ‘consequences’ and ‘lines being crossed’, it looks as if the world will acquiesce in Russia’s military occupation and annexation of Crimea. I say ‘the world’ because Russia mustered precisely no votes in the Security Council debate on this matter beyond its own veto.
But the major responsibility falls on the major European powers and on the United States because they are the parties that could do something and have the most interest in something being done. They are also the parties that formally guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine in 1994 in return for that state’s renunciation of its substantial nuclear weapon stockpile. This has implications for the much-tarnished reputation of the United Nations as a collective security organisation, as well as for any future potential for nuclear disarmament based on the same proposition.
This brings us back to President Obama because, if anything substantial is to be done, there is an absolute need for American leadership. The United States is also better placed to supply the most plausible means for taking effective action. It may be that Crimea is irrecoverable but there are wider issues at stake here and this is where the Munich analogy is so apt. Hitler followed up his occupation of Sudeten provinces of Czechoslovakia with the occupation and dismemberment of that state. He then further developed his wider eastern objectives with the attack on Poland in 1939 and on into Ukraine (broadly, the project as outlined in Mein Kampf).
From the way President Putin has spoken and the way he has begun to act (Georgia, 2008, and now Crimea) it is evident that he has in mind to restore the former ‘greatness’ of the Soviet Empire in a new Russian empire, and, as in the German case, this is very popular at home. For Eastern Europe, and all those who value democracy and the territorial integrity of states, this is an enormous threat, and it affects not only Ukraine but also Poland and other states liberated by the collapse of the USSR. It is particularly a threat for the Baltic States, who all have substantial Russian populations and potentially nascent yearnings to be re-united with the ‘motherland’ (or ‘fatherland’).
This parallels the situation in 1938. Speaking in a Parliamentary debate in October of that year (on the motion that ‘This house approves the policies by which war was averted….’), Churchill said of the Munich settlement – ‘we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat’. Presciently, he went on:
Do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip of a bitter cup that will be proffered to us year by year …
That is the prospect that faces Europe and the world in 2014, unless decisive action is taken. The key actor is the United States. Indeed, it is arguable that the world is in this situation precisely because of the feeble responses of the Obama administration to a series of foreign policy challenges over the last five years. It has come to the point where nobody expects anything from President Obama, except vacillation and speeches. Particularly, it is very evident that, despite the so-called ‘reset’ policy with Russia, President Putin holds Obama in absolute contempt.
But there is a difference between President Obama and Prime Minister Chamberlain. For President Obama, it still isn’t too late. Even now the United States could do things (and encourage its partners to do things) that could put up a very substantial price for any further Russian expansionism and without committing military forces. These would have to go well beyond the rather timid diplomatic measures, which have so far invited mockery. They would need to entail a determined assault on the Russian economy, which is still substantially dependent on the export of oil and gas. This, of course, is the Achilles-heel of the major European powers, who are heavily dependent on exactly these commodities; a situation made worse by governments like the German Government, pandering to ignorant green sentiment in the matter of power generation. By contrast, the United States has rapidly increasing oil and gas production, which it could easily increase further. On the basis of this it could provide an alternative supply to European states. At the very least, this would have an impact on oil and gas prices generally, as well as enabling a strengthened resolve on the part of the European states most affected.
There are other measures of a diplomatic character which might be taken. These include the exclusion of Russia from international meetings concerning trade and security (for example strategic arms limitation talks) and cultural activities. These things need to be done if we do not wish to see the free peoples of Europe disappear into a gigantic autocracy. It is up to you, President Obama. I know you would rather play golf and make speeches about carbon-free utopias. But it is up to you.