Ukraine and the Dangerous Munich Analogy

Photograph Source: Øyvind Nondal – CC BY 2.0

The crisis over Ukraine, which may be facing an imminent Russian invasion, is an excellent example of the need for greater and more careful analysis of the history, issues, individuals, and institutions that are contributing to the problem—and not the solution—of the current turbulence.  Unfortunately, decision-makers typically and unwittingly use the “lessons” of history to draw conclusions regarding crisis management.  Today’s leaders (and the mainstream media that typically copy the assumptions and conclusions of those leaders) are misusing history by applying the so-called lessons of the Munich Conference in 1938 to Russia’s aggressive stance on Ukraine.

Historical analogies play a major role in the actions of our leaders.  Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson acted in Vietnam because of their erroneous ideas about relations between the Soviet Union and China as well as their goals.  President Harry S. Truman’s memoirs reveal that his decision to fight in Korea in 1950 was honed by key events in the 1930s, such as Japan’s seizure of Manchuria in 1931; Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; and Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938.  Truman didn’t mention the Munich crisis of 1938, but several of his advisors pointed to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s decision to “appease” Hitler by yielding the Sudetenland to Germany.  The very word “appeasement” is now considered to be an act of dangerous surrender that virtually guarantees future confrontation.

Previous U.S. administrations successfully resorted to diplomacy to defuse the Cold War crises over Berlin, Cuba, Taiwan, and various Third World situations in the Middle East and Africa.  The Biden administration seems to be engaged in group think regarding Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and has no one who can think outside the box regarding a diplomatic solution.  Biden has stated that it’s a “world war when Americans and Russians start shooting at one another,” yet doesn’t understand the necessity of keeping Ukraine out of NATO and removing sophisticated U.S. weaponry from East Europe.

Instead, Biden’s national security team and the echo chamber of the mainstream media seem to be analogizing Putin to Josef Stalin and perhaps Adolf Hitler with regard to Ukraine.  We are told on a regular basis that Putin is positioned to occupy the entire country or to install a puppet government in Kyiv or to create the preconditions for a false-flag operation to justify an invasion.  These U.S. and British assumptions are possibly examples of information warfare, which are not intimidating Putin but clearly have antagonized Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky who must deal with the social and economic consequences of a Western propaganda campaign.

Putin himself is seen by U.S. opinion leaders as ten-feet tall with the New York Times describing him as a supreme geopolitical tactician.  Nevertheless, Putin thus far has disdained  risk and long-term struggle.  Putin’s use of force demonstrates a tendency toward limiting risk and avoiding long-term commitments.  The war with Georgia in 2008 lasted five-days and was precipitated by U.S. involvement in Georgian politics.  U.S. involvement in Ukraine can be linked to the takeover of Crimea in 2014, which involved no military risk whatsoever.  Russian involvement in Syria in 2015 followed U.S. and British statements of disinterest regarding the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The Biden administration and the mainstream media also categorically oppose the status of neutrality for Ukraine, referring to the danger of “Finlandization.”  During the Cold War,  Finlandization involved the influence of a powerful Soviet Union over the foreign policy of its weak neighbor Finland.   Historically, Finland had represented a threat to the Soviet Union.  It lined up with Germany in both World War I and II; participated in the Russian civil war against the Bolsheviks; and allied with Poland against the Soviet Union in the 1920s.  Finland as well as Switzerland and Austria could be cited as examples in making a case for Ukraine’s neutrality between East and West.

In any event, the United States has not seriously broached the issues that Putin wants to address regarding future membership for Ukraine in NATO and the deployment of sophisticated weaponry in East Europe.  Instead, the Biden administration has routinely referred to limited and reciprocal measures on arms control and military exercises, which is insufficient for starting a serious diplomatic dialogue.  

It is reasonable for Putin to insist on dealing directly with Biden on these issues, which represent a vital national interest to Russia, and not to the United States.  As far as Moscow is concerned, the United States is NATO and vice-versa.  Last week’s dialogue with French President Emmanuel Macron was an opportunity for the Kremlin to keep the issue alive, not to get down to serious basics.

Putin may not genuinely expect the United States to put its compromises or guarantees in writing, but the Russian leader is taking advantage of the opportunity to remind the global community that Washington unilaterally repudiated its verbal guarantees from the last days of the Soviet Union.  President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker did commit to not “leapfrog” over Germany in exchange for a complete Soviet withdrawal from East Germany in 1990.  The Soviets kept their part of the agreement; we did not.

If Biden genuinely believes that a world war could be the result of any clash between Russian and American forces, he shouldn’t keep the door open to what would be the fifth NATO country on Russia’s borders.  Several easy steps would put the conflict on the backburner and provide an opportunity for diplomacy.  A moratorium on NATO expansion is essential, and Putin’s demands are not unreasonable in that regard.  Significant limits on NATO military deployments and operations on the Russian border (e.g., Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) are also essential, and could be traded against similar restrictions on Russian forces.  The resurrection of the INF Treaty and the updating of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty are essential.

These steps could be negotiated in a direct Russian-American exchange.  Progress on these fronts would allow an updating of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which started the process of East-West detente nearly 50 years ago.  The return to the Helsinki process would involve substantive discussion of other European conflicts such as the divided island of Cyprus, the standing of Kosovo, and the status of eastern Ukraine.  As Winston Churchill warned, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”

The international community is fighting Covid and climate challenges that demand a globalized diplomatic approach.  Instead, we’re witnessing two nations, which face international decline in view of the emergence of China, resorting to the tactics of the Cold War.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for