For years, Russia, bordering on bankruptcy and in social chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, had been ignored in international affairs. Its former allies in Eastern Europe such as Poland and the Baltic States had not only become part of the European Union but also joined the former enemy military pact – NATO. Russia protested and was side-lined. A far cry from when the world quaked at the prospect of Soviet displeasure.
The new President, Vladimir Putin, had set about restoring Russian pride. He had won his reputation by organising the brutal military destruction of the independence movement in Chechnya. He was determined to roll back the influence of the West in the former Soviet sphere of influence. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Ukraine.
The European Union had been negotiating a trade deal with Ukraine for months. Days before this was due to be signed in November 2013, the Ukrainian government had a sudden change of heart. The deal was off. The influence of the Kremlin on this volte face was obvious. Ukraine was in the pocket of Russia and it was going to stay that way. The Ukranian President, Viktor Yanukovych, signed a treaty with Russian instead.
What followed was completely unexpected. It was as much a shock in Russia as it was in the West. The Ukranian people rose up in revolt in February 2014. The government fought back. At least 77 were killed. Yanukovych was overthrown and a pro-western Ukranian provisional government took control. Putin had lost a key ally on his doorstep in humiliating circumstances. He was not going to let it stand.
Within days, Putin mobilised the Russian armed forces garrisoned in the Ukranian region of Crimea. Russia occupied the whole of the Crimea. Crimea was predominantly Russian and had only become part of Ukraine in 1954 when Krushchev had gifted it to Ukraine. Putin organised a referendum in the Crimea on annexation to Russia. The result was overwhelming – 97% voted in favour on an 83% turnout.
The Ukranian government and the UN condemned the referendum as invalid and refused to recognise the annexation. This resolve was not matched by action. Many in the West were reconciled to the realpolitik of Russian annexation – wasn’t it Russian, after all? Chastened by Syria, the West responded with economic sanctions. They were pitiful.
In the Bubble, any suggestion of military action was barely discussed and, if suggested, immediately dismissed.
The original justification was that Putin was simply responding to the spontaneous outpouring of nationalist sentiment by Crimean citizens. Putin has now admitted what everyone suspected – he organised and planned the annexation of the Crimea.
A large, aggressive power had militarily occupied territory belonging to a weaker foreign power. Using the nationalist feeling concentrated in a small area, a democratic charade was followed to legitimise the theft.
In 1938, Hitler demanded that the German-speaking majority in the strip of land along the border of Czechoslovakia, known as the Sudetenland, be annexed to the Third Reich. At least in 1938, the Sudeten Germans, clearly encouraged by the Nazis, had agitated for their self-determination for months.
Britain and France were prepared to defend Czech sovereignty from the threat of German aggression. Deep down, the British and French were not yet ready for another war. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, made three famous trips to see Hitler and seek a negotiated settlement. So desperate were the Allies to find an alternative to war, in Chamberlain’s famous phrase “in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”, that, when a conference was suggested at Munich, they jumped at the chance. Czechoslovakia was not invited. Russia was not invited.
The infamous Munich agreement sold out Czechoslovakia. They had to surrender the Sudetenland to Germany. Hitler promised to have no further territorial ambitions in Europe. This was in writing –Chamberlain had his note. It was inconceivable that the leader of a major European power would disown his own written pledge. Perhaps speaking with hope against expectation, Chamberlain declared “peace for our time”.
He was wrong. Chamberlain did not have the benefit of hindsight. It was only with Hitler’s occupation of what was left of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 that the world realised the true nature of this dictator and that war was now inevitable. The Munich agreement was overwhelmingly popular. Only an isolated, out-of-date politician, Winston Churchill, condemned it.
Munich was probably a risk worth taking. In 1935, Mussolini had stopped Hitler in his tracks with the creation of the anti-Nazi Stresa Front. Italy, then considered a strong military power, had only become pro-Hitler when the West condemned Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia later in that year. Munich was an opportunity to bring Italy back into the fold. Chamberlain had gambled on trusting Hitler, he had lost. This was appeasement when it was understandable. In a Europe that well remembered the extraordinary horror of the First World War, appeasement made sense as long as it did not threaten the fundamentals of peace in Europe. Sacrificing the Sudentenland was one thing, the very existence of Czechoslovakia quite another.
Blair was constantly referring back to Chamberlain’s error. He was fastidious in not repeating the mistakes of the past and giving in to brutal dictators (Saddam); only to make the mistakes of the present and go to war without unequivocal cause.
The West has spent the last seventy years condemning Chamberlain, only now to copy him.
A peaceful secession requires the consent of the existing state. Ukraine did not consent to the occupation and ultimate annexation of Crimea. Until Ukraine has consented, the change of status of Crimea is invalid.
Putin read the West’s response as weakness. It was, in effect, a green light for his next step.