"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. However much we may sympathise with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbour, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight, it must be on larger issues than that." --Neville Chamberlain, 1938
In the 1930s, Germany sought to undo the unequal peace treaty imposed upon it at Versailles. The new German chancellor sought to reunify the German people and reconstitute the Reich by incorporating the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudeten, Danzig and the Polish Corridor. He did not want war; he only wanted the reunification of the German people. Since the basis for the redrawing of the European map after the war had been the principle of self-determination, it seemed reasonable to apply this principle to the German people as well. Should they not be allowed to live together in peace, and wasn’t peace more important than some recently-drawn borders? After all, no one wanted another war. As long as the Allies made the concessions demanded by Germany, peace was maintained. Some regions were remilitarized, some borders were erased or redrawn, some populations were expelled or liquidated, but that was a small price to pay for world peace. No one wanted another war.
The messiness of the newly-drawn borders made them seem negotiable, especially since millions of Europeans had been left on the wrong sides in many cases. The mapmakers in Paris had done their best, but the ethnic complexity of Central Europe required shortcuts and omissions.
Making a few border corrections to suit Germany seemed to be the pragmatic thing to do, especially given the unfairness of the Versailles treaty. No one wanted to go to war over regions they had never heard of which had been buried for centuries deep within the German and Austrian empires. There was one thing everyone knew: border adjustments were preferable to another war. In the end, when it was revealed that Germany’s appetite for lebensraum went beyond its old borders, the Allies were forced to draw the line, and they got the war they should have prevented.
The situation in Europe today is analogous to that of the 1930s. Once again, a major Continental power asks to be allowed to make “corrections” in the map of Europe in order to draw borders more in keeping with the aspirations of the populations affected. Russia had been unduly deprived of a region which had always been an integral part of its empire. Ukraine was temporarily detached by the breakup of the Soviet empire in 1991, but this was an historical mistake. Ukraine had always been and would always be part of Russia.
As in the Thirties, the Western response has been to begin with the premises that no one wants a resumption of the Cold War, borders are negotiable, and that things can be worked out if Western leaders keep calm and do not overreact. Some argue that this is a purely European problem to be solved by Europe, ignoring NATO and America's treaty obligations.
It would appear that the West does not intend to punish Russia for invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, seeking to overthrow the Ukraine government, and breaking a number of treaties. This is a serious mistake. Permitting the absorption of Ukraine to be a fait accompli jeopardizes the independence of all of the former Soviet republics, particularly the Baltics, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It reopens the map of Europe for further revision, and may ultimately permit Putin to reconstitute the Russian empire through military or other means.
Because Poland and the Baltics are members of NATO, and Georgia is a candidate member, Russia’s policy threatens a direct military confrontation with NATO. Deterring Putin now is safer than waiting for his next demand. NATO must resume the Cold War in order to prevent something worse. This will require a return to Cold War thinking (circa 1980) about such things as trade policy, weapons systems, arms control, missile defense and both strategic and conventional force deployment. Of course this is very distasteful, but appeasement carries significant future risks. Is NATO really prepared to allow one or more of the Baltics to suffer Ukraine's fate? Exactly where do we draw the line?
The advocates of Russian appeasement argue that Ukraine is an "integral part" of Russia, but by that logic so is Poland. And isn't East Prussia an "integral part" of Germany? None of these historical considerations should be relevant when speaking about the sanctity of internationally agreed borders. Under the rules of the postwar world, forcible annexation has been disallowed. Otherwise, 1920s-style irredentism will resume across Central Europe. Every Central European country has a school-room map showing its “Lost Territories”. Let's not start that game again--the map of Europe is not a menu, for Putin or anyone else.
A Note On US Foreign And Defense Policy
A discussion of US foreign policy cannot be reduced to one of isolationism versus “global responsibility”. It is one thing to advocate a continuation of the 60-year old policy of European collective security, and quite another to advocate endless interventions in Arab civil wars. It is possible to reconcile the desire for economy in defense spending while also maintaining strategic superiority. The best way for the US to contain its defense spending is to avoid unnecessary, prolonged and unwinnable counter-insurgencies. Strategic superiority is a bargain when compared with the cost of our pointless wars in Arabia.
A Note On European Energy Policy
Europe’s dependence on Russian gas limits the policy options available to NATO. Europe is dependent on Russian gas because it has dismantled its own energy industry. Europe’s policy is no nuclear, no fracking, no coal, no drilling and no oil. Natural gas production in Europe is bad for the environment, but natural gas production in Russia is acceptable. While China pollutes the planet by burning soft coal, Germany is decommissioning its nuclear power stations. If Europe chooses to remain dependent upon Russian gas, it may prove unable to deter future Russian adventurism.