Courtesy of Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

March 7, 2022

Ukraine: The Modern Munich Moment

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As you all know, until about a week ago, the Russian Federation recognized the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the eastern half of Ukraine as independent. The next day, Russian troops launched a land invasion into Ukraine from the east and south, which started the bloody conflict that rages on as we speak. This war benefits virtually nobody. Not the Ukrainian people, who must now either leave everything they’ve ever had or risk it all to defend their homeland. Not the Russian people, who will lose thousands of their young men to no apparent end, and whose livelihoods will disappear under the crippling weight of sanctions. No, only one man stands to benefit from this conflict: President Vladimir Putin.

Now, you might be asking, “Why would Putin do such a thing?” The answer to this is pretty simple: we let him do it before. In 2008, when Putin invaded and carved up Georgia, the West stood by and did absolutely nothing. In 2014, following the annexation of Crimea, the West delivered sanctions, but they were quite weak and didn’t provide any sort of stern message. We let him get away with turning Belarus into what is effectively a vassal state of Russia. We let him get away with carving a microstate out of Moldova. We let him get away with all of it. Putin’s grand imperial ambitions have gone unchecked for far too long, and he has only been emboldened each time.

We’ve seen this situation play out before, not even a century ago, in the lead up to World War II. The lesson of Munich was understood only after the bloodiest war in human history, which left millions dead and involved some of the worst atrocities ever committed. In 1938, the Allies thought that they could get Hitler to stop by giving him some of what he wanted. Peace in our time, they said. Clearly, judging by the fact that he didn’t stop, that plan failed miserably. We learned that appeasing a rogue dictator never works; once you give them an inch, they will take a mile, and they will never stop until they hit the wall. Negotiating with a rogue leader is futile, doubly so if he leads a world power. Just as Adolf Hitler used the might of the German war machine to intimidate and browbeat the British and French into conceding the Sudetenland, Putin is using the threat of nuclear war to get NATO to relent and let him get his way. To take the route that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain took in 1938 would be to doom the Ukrainian people, as well as the Tatars of Crimea, to a repression of their culture and identity reminiscent of the Stalin era. NATO must put its foot down now, or we may never be able to stop Putin from waging the new most devastating war in human history. We must not let Munich happen again.

The West’s weakness is what enabled Putin to realize his imperial project. His goal is to bring Russia to the so-called “former glory” of the Soviet Union, which he sees only in terms of military power. Putin will keep going until he is stopped; however, force is the only language he is capable of understanding. Sanctions have no effect on a man who refuses to care about  the well being of his own people. He and his kleptocratic cabal all have multiple precautions in place to make sure they can access their money. They have established networks in other ex-USSR countries like Kazakhstan or Armenia, which Putin can bully into serving him. Like Joseph Stalin and the tsars of old, Putin is perfectly content letting millions of his own starve in the streets, for the opinions of the serfs simply do not matter to him in his palace. If we let him take Ukraine without repercussions, he could set his sights on Central Asia next, or maybe even the Baltics. That simply cannot be allowed to happen. It would set the precedent that unprompted invasion and annexation is acceptable. Boy, would that make China and the U.S. blush, as Beijing would be able to seize Taiwan, and the U.S.’s past transgressions would look much more kosher. 

This, right here, right now, is our 21st century Munich. The West has two options in front of it. It can either stick to finger wagging and token sanctions, thus showing Putin that he can invade a country and commit war crimes for free, or it can act quickly and decisively to ensure that Putin realizes that this kind of politics will not be tolerated. I know which option I would choose, but I can only hope that our leaders do the same.

Aidan Uckan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]