Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed takeover of the Crimean Peninsula and Russian military maneuvers on the eastern frontier of Ukraine have reminded many Western observers of the German takeover of Austria in 1936 and of German behavior in 1938 over the Sudeten Germans in what is now the Czech Republic. The Western response has been condemned by some as feeble and tantamount to the “appeasement” that foreshadowed World War II.
Putin has shown himself to be a ruthless autocrat. He wants to reassert Russian power and form a federation similar to the Soviet Union. He is intolerant of opposition and pursues those who criticize him, but he is not a clone of either Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, and the situation does not yet amount to a revival of the Cold War. It lacks the ideological element and the communist ethos that ensnared ideological traitors.
There is no justification for complacency. If the West does not respond with determination, Putin may think that he can proceed not only against eastern Ukraine but also against other targets such as Moldova or even the Baltic states where there are significant Russian-speaking populations.
There is a deep reluctance in Western Europe and North America to engage in further military operations outside Western Europe. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the casualties, military and civilian that they caused, have led to widespread popular distrust of the use of force to settle disputes.
The failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war, despite the use of chemical weapons, the horrendous casualties and two million refugees, reflected the changed public mood. The United States and Western Europe are only now emerging from the recession caused by the financial crisis. Governments and public opinion are focusing on the recovery and on improving living standards.
The feeble sanctions so far agreed by Group of Seven countries to deter Putin and his regime from taking further action in Europe have to be seen against this background. But Russian saber-rattling and threats by Putin, especially if followed by acts of provocation, could force a change in the public mood and engender a tougher response from governments. Putin is just as liable to miscalculate as Hitler did in 1939 and Japanese leaders did in December 1941.
We need to be ready to sacrifice some of our national interests for the higher cause of preserving peace and the world order. Russian money has brought many profitable deals to the City of London and City firms have been lobbying hard to protect their interests when sanctions against Russian firms and individuals are discussed internationally, but the City, especially the banks and hedge funds, are unpopular and do not have public opinion on their side.
Military action has so far been ruled out. There is no support for mobilizing NATO forces and sending combat units to assist Ukraine in dealing with possible Russian incursions or infiltration. But if Russia were to threaten a NATO member state such as one or more of the Baltic states, which were incorporated in the Soviet Union by Stalin, NATO would have to respond militarily. If it did not, that would be the end of NATO and of peace and order in Europe.
NATO countries have been reducing defense expenditures and taking what has been termed “a peace dividend.” This means that it is increasingly difficult to bring together meaningful and effective military forces to combat possible Russian aggression. But while “boots on the ground” are still going to be needed in future conflicts, NATO countries have a large armory of sophisticated weapons that can be deployed, not least in the air.
As part of NATO’s response to Putin’s threats, aircraft from other NATO countries have been publicly deployed to the Baltic states and air patrols stepped up. The development and use of drones by U.S. forces in places such as Afghanistan and the Yemen is well known. They too could be deployed in Europe if necessary. The U.S. in particular is known to have effective cyber warfare experts.
No doubt the Russians have developed counter measures to deal with drones and cyber attacks, but while it would be unwise to underestimate Russian scientists and technology, the edge remains with the West.
The military has often been criticized for preparing to fight the last war over again and for failing to adapt their strategy and tactics to meet new types of threats. There may now be a danger that politicians, involved in defense planning and the allocation of the limited resources available for defense, focus too much on new technology and neglect the need for adequate ground forces. Some British generals have publicly deplored the government’s plans to reduce the size of the British Army and replace some of the regiments being made redundant by reservists.
Putin’s threatening behavior should lead to a thorough review not only of European reliance on supplies of Russian gas but also of NATO’s readiness to meet Russian threats. NATO countries individually should look again at their defense budgets and the strength and abilities of their forces. Even more effort needs to be put into joint defense exercises and effective joint staff operations.
It isn’t easy to run any kind of joint operations, even when only two nationalities such as the U.S. and the U.K. are involved and have long experience of working together. A NATO joint operation involves many countries, languages, ways of thought and practices. We all want peace and stability, but this will not be achieved by appeasement.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.