Putin and Appeasement’s Bad Track Record

Today, Russia celebrated Victory Day: the anniversary of Germany’s 1945 surrender in World War II. That milestone offers a lesson about the war in Ukraine, but not the one claimed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the past fifteen years, Western nations have ignored one of World War II’s most obvious warnings … possibly until now.

Putin, May 9, 2022 Victory Day

Putin at today’s Victory Day parade in Moscow

Britain and France Appease Hitler

In 1938, Adolf Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia. He’d been supporting a separatist movement in a border area called the Sudetenland, by German-speaking Czechoslovak citizens. And he claimed he had to invade to protect those German-speakers.

Britain and France had already made a habit of appeasing Hitler, including by letting him militarize the Rhineland in violation of treaty. In September of 1938, they agreed that Germany could invade Czechoslovakia and annex the Sudetenland. (The Czechs were not consulted.) In exchange, Hitler promised not to claim more territory in Europe.

the acme of appeasement: Chamberlain's "Peace for our time"
British Prime Minister Chamberlain announces “Peace for our time” … shortly before World War II

World War II began the next year, when Germany invaded Poland. France fell to the Nazis in 1940. And by the end of the war, France and Britain had lost more than a million lives.

Other Great Powers: the U.S. and U.S.S.R.

Where was the world’s strongest nation, the United States? America sat on the sidelines. Americans were mired in isolationism — unconcerned with war in far off Europe and happy to let Britain and France appease Hitler.

Stalin shakes over Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact
Stalin and German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop shake hands over the Nazi/Soviet Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

Where was the Russian empire: the Soviet Union? The Soviets were Hitler’s main target. He planned to conquer the Soviet Union, eliminate its hundreds of millions of people — except those who survived as slaves — and build an Aryan empire in the east. Soviet leader Josef Stalin had heard about this Nazi goal, but he too stayed on the sidelines when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Then he aided the Nazi war effort, providing supplies Germany needed to resist a British/French blockade. The Soviets thought they’d get control over most of eastern Europe in exchange, including part of Poland. And they thought they’d at least delay war with Hitler … far into the future.

In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The war cost 20 million Russian and other Soviet lives. And it ultimately pulled in the U.S. and cost more than 400,000 American lives.

21st Century Russia: Aggression and Appeasement

Putin didn’t mention Soviet aid to the Nazis when he spoke today about Russia’s victory over Germany. Nor did he mention the strongest parallel to World War II.

Putin has followed Hitler’s playbook in Ukraine. Starting around 2014, he helped stir-up and supported a separatist rebellion by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Donbas region — just as Hitler stirred up German-speaking separatists in the Sudetenland. Then in February of this year, Putin claimed he had to invade Ukraine to protect those same Russian-speakers — just as Hitler claimed he must protect Czechoslovakia’s German-speakers in 1938. Ironically, Putin also said he had to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Putin will probably soon try to annex Donbas, just as Hitler annexed the Sudetenland. That wasn’t the original plan — Putin meant to conquer all of Ukraine — but it’ll do.

Georgians demonstrate against Russian aggression, 2008
Georgians demonstrate against the Russian invasion, 2008

The Western powers have spent the past fifteen years appeasing Putin, as The New York Times pointed out today. The West let him seize parts of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. And we let him interfere in our elections, including America’s 2016 presidential vote. We would probably have let Russia conquer all of Ukraine this year, if not for the Ukrainians themselves. Western appeasement ended only when the Ukrainians achieved the impossible and started to win the war. Now we’re finally opposing Russian aggression the way we should have in 2008 and 2014.

Appeasement Misleads the Enemy … and Not in a Good Way

Hitler assumed British and French weakness would continue in 1939. So he was stunned when his invasion of Poland led the two vacillating, appeasing democracies to declare war.

Russian tanks on Berlin streets, 1945
Berlin in 1945: appeasement worked out badly for Germany too

In the same way, Putin assumed Western appeasement would continue when he invaded Ukraine in February. He was not prepared for NATO’s vigorous economic and military response. (The NATO countries surprised themselves.)

In other words, appeasement misled the enemy in both cases, with disastrous results for all concerned.

Beyond WWII

Goths in Athens, failure of appeasement
The Visigoths seize Athens, 395 CE

Appeasement involves meeting threats of unjustified violence with concessions or payoffs — and with little or no armed force. It has a bad track record. The Roman Empire relied on appeasement to deal with the Goths and other barbarians. Look how that worked out. The Western European kingdoms appeased the Vikings. Montezuma and the Aztecs appeased the conquistadors. Some of these regimes had little choice. But appeasement failed just the same. In each case and countless others, appeasement led to more violence.

Have you ever been bullied at school? How well did negotiations work? How well did it work to appeal to the bully’s humanity or to tell the teachers? Or did you try an aggressive response? Did you meet harassment with defiance or punches with self-defense? If you did, I bet that aggressive response ended the bullying far faster than negotiations — even if you had to fight and did not win. (And I bet it made you feel better than telling the teachers.)

Appeasement and Nuclear Saber-Rattling

Appeasement must not continue or return. We should arm Ukraine to the teeth — and keep supporting their war until they’ve taken back all their land, including Crimea. We should not hesitate to give them the best weapons they can use and to continue giving them intelligence and logistical support.

Also, if Russia attacks a NATO member, we should strike back fast: a proportionate response that leaves Putin no doubt about the price of escalation.

Yes, nuclear war is terrifying, and Putin keeps rattling the nuclear saber. But it’s time to say it: we have nuclear weapons too. And as George Friedman recently pointed out, in a nuclear war, the leader very likely dies, along with his family. Putin probably won’t make that sacrifice. And as we learned with Hitler, we don’t reduce the odds of violence by appeasing unjustified aggression.


© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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