‘We’re in 1938 now’: Putin’s war in Ukraine and lessons from history – The Guardian

Some analysts believe Kyiv is buying the west time on the precipice of a world war. Is it being used wisely?
When big history is self-evidently being written, and leaders face momentous choices, the urge to find inspiration in instructive historical parallels is overwhelming and natural. “The only clue to what man can do is what man has done,” the Oxford historian RG Collingwood once wrote.
One of the contemporary politicians most influenced by the past is the Estonian prime minister, Kaja Kallas, and not just because of her country’s occupation by Russia or her personal family history of exile.
She lugs books on Nato-Russian relations, such as Not One Inch, with her on beach holidays. And in her hi-tech office at the top of the old town in Tallinn, she argued this was a 1938 moment – a moment when a wider war was imminent but the west had not yet joined the dots.
She said the same mistake was made in 1938 when tensions in Abyssinia, Japan and Germany were treated as isolated events. The proximate causes of the current conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, the South China Sea and even Armenia might be different, but the bigger picture showed an interconnected battlefield in which post-cold war certainties had given way to “great-power competition” in which authoritarian leaders were testing the boundaries of their empires. The lesson – and necessity – was to resist and rearm. “The lesson from 1938 and 1939 is that if aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere,” Kallas said.
Her favourite historian, Prof Tim Snyder, adds a twist by reimagining 1938 as a year in which Czechoslovakia, like Ukraine in 2022, had chosen to fight: “So you had in Czechoslovakia, like Ukraine, an imperfect democracy. It’s the farthest democracy in eastern Europe. It has various problems, but when threatened by a larger neighbour, it chooses to resist. In that world, where Czechoslovakia resists, there’s no second world war.”
Snyder said such an outcome had been possible. “They could have held the Germans back. It was largely a bluff on the German side. If the Czechs resisted, and the French and the British and maybe the Americans eventually started to help, there would have been a conflict, but there wouldn’t have been a second world war.
“Instead, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, it was invading Poland with the Czech armaments industry, which was the best in the world. It was invading with Slovak soldiers. It was invading from a geographical position that it only gained because it had destroyed Czechoslovakia.”
Snyder drove home his lesson from history: “If Ukrainians give up, or if we give up on Ukraine, then it’s different. It’s Russia making war in the future. It’s Russia making war with Ukrainian technology, Ukrainian soldiers from a different geographical position. At that point, we’re in 1939. We’re in 1938 now. In effect, what Ukrainians are letting us do is extend 1938.”
As Christopher Hitchens once wrote, much American foolishness abroad, from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq, has been launched on the back of Munich syndrome, the belief that those who appease bullies, as the then British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, sought to do with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938, are either dupes or cowards. Such leaders are eventually forced to put their soldiers into battle, often unprepared and ill-equipped – men against machines, as vividly described in Guilty Men, written by Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard after the Dunkirk fiasco. In France, the insult Munichois – synonymous with cowardice – sums it up.
But Snyder made his remarks in Tallinn last month at the Lennart Meri conference, which was largely dedicated to Ukraine and held under the slogan “Let us not despair, but act”. It was held against the backdrop of Russia and China hailing a new authoritarian world order in a joint 6,000-word statement that intended to create an axis to undo the settlement of the past two world wars.
Many at the conference wrestled with how much had gone wrong in Ukraine, and why, and whether the west would shed its self-imposed constraints on helping Kyiv. In a sense, everyone wanted an answer to the question posed by the Polish foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski: “Ukraine has bought us time. Will we put it to good use?”
In 1934-35, what Winston Churchill termed the “locust years”, and again after the Munich agreement, Britain did not put the time to good use, instead allowing Germany to race ahead in rearmament.
Johann Wadephul, the deputy chair of the German Christian Democratic Union’s defence policy committee, fears the answer to Sikorski’s question is in the negative. “If the war goes on like it is, it’s clear Ukraine will lose. It cannot withstand Russian power with its well-organised support from Iran, China and North Korea and countries like India looking only at its self-interest.”
Europe had simply not reorganised itself for war, he said. Listing the consequences for the continent in terms of lost human rights, access to resources and confidence in the west, he said simply: “If Ukraine loses it will be a catastrophe.”
Samir Saran, the head of the Indian thinktank the Observer Research Foundation, who described himself as an atheist in a room full of believers, nevertheless agreed that something bigger than Europe was at stake as he almost mocked the inability of the west’s $40tn economy to organise a battlefield defeat of Russia’s $2tn economy.
He argued: “There is one actor that has reorganised its strategic engagement to fight a war and the other has not. One side is not participating in the battle. You have hosted conferences supporting Ukraine and then do nothing more. But when it comes to action, Russia 2.0 is grinding forward.
“It tells countries like us that if something like this were to happen in the Indo-Pacific, you have no chance against China. If you cannot defeat a $2tn nation, don’t think you are deterring China. China is taking hope from your abysmal and dismal performance against a much smaller adversary.”
Yet it is paradoxical. Nato is bigger and stronger than ever. The transatlantic alliance is functioning far better than the US, France and Britain did in the 1930s – and, after five months of hesitation, some of the extra $60bn in US arms may reach the frontline within weeks.
But from Kyiv’s perspective, everything remains too slow and circumscribed, except for the apportionment of blame across Europe. Germany’s Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the Free Democratic party’s top candidate for the European elections, takes one side, urging France to hasten weapons deliveries to Ukraine. She said: “We have the problem that, while Poland is doing a lot as a neighbouring country, while Germany is doing a lot, France is doing relatively little.”
Others say the culprit remains Berlin, and that, despite recognising what a threat Vladimir Putin represents, it cannot accept the consequences in terms of the nuclear risks of going all in for a Russian defeat. Benjamin Tallis, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said: “For all of this talk of political will, what we actually face is political won’t. We won’t define victory as a goal.”
Without naming Germany, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, reinvented over the past year as a scourge of Russian imperialism, said: “Europe clearly faces a moment when it will be necessary not to be cowards.”
Ben Wallace, the former UK defence secretary, had less compunction about naming names. “[Olaf] Scholz’s behaviour has shown that, as far as the security of Europe goes, he is the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time,” he said of the German chancellor.
Eliot Cohen, a neocon never-Trumper, finds a wider institutional and moral malaise that needs addressing through a theory of victory and a specific practical plan to secure that victory, something akin to Churchill’s call for a ministry of supply that turned the UK into a giant armaments factory.
Cohen said: “It’s not about what people say, it’s about numbers. Are you willing to lift the restrictions on arms factories to run them 24 hours a day? Are you willing to give them Atacms [missiles] and hit targets in Russia, and get Germany to give them Taurus missiles?
“My chief concern is that war is so remote from our societies that we have trouble grappling with what success requires.”
Sabine Fischer, a political scientist at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says behind these disputes is the pivot around which every judgment turns: whether Europe believes a Ukrainian defeat can be contained. In other words, what are the consequences for Europe, if any, if Ukraine collapses or a Russian-dictated peace leads to its retention of land gained by military conquest?
Would a victorious Putin husband his resources, turn off the war machine and say the recapture of Kievan Rus had been a self-standing Moscow objective and Russia’s imperial ambitions were now sated? After all, not every state that makes demands has unlimited ambitions.
The Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán, for instance, said: “I do not consider it logical that Russia, which cannot even defeat Ukraine, would all of a sudden come and swallow the western world whole. The chances of this are extremely slim.” An attack on an existing Nato state would be “crazy” since the Nato alliance would have to respond.
But Russia’s foreign policy concept issued in 2023 focuses on a global confrontation with the US and building the alliances to defeat the west. Given Putin’s unrivalled record of broken promises, a Russian peace guarantee might end up as reassuring as Chamberlain’s advice to the British people to have a quiet night’s sleep after he returned from Munich. The US president, Joe Biden, interviewed in Time magazine this week, appeared to regard the consequences as vast. “If we ever let Ukraine go down, mark my words: you’ll see Poland go, and you’ll see all those nations along the actual border of Russia, from the Balkans and Belarus, all those, they’re going to make their own accommodations.”
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Others say the Polish response will be less conciliatory. One former Nato commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said eastern states would not wait to find out Putin’s next move. “If Ukraine fails, I am certain that our Polish allies are not going to sit behind the Vistula [River] and wait for them to keep coming. I think the Romanian allies are not going to sit behind the Prut River and wait for Russia to go into Moldova. So the best way to prevent Nato from being involved directly in a conflict is to help Ukraine defeat Russia in Ukraine.”
Fischer believes the consequences of a Russian-dictated peace will not be containable. “Ukraine will experience a new wave of refugees fleeing to the west. The terror regime of the Russian occupation will expand and hundreds of thousands will suffer as a result. The economic, political and security situation will change drastically throughout Ukraine. Partisan warfare could erupt, fuelled by the militarisation of Ukrainian society,” she said.
“The threat situation for the states bordering Ukraine would worsen massively. This is true for Moldova, which would again be in the spotlight, as it was in 2022, especially if Moscow were to take over the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. The cohesive power of the western alliance would be shaken to its core. Russia would continue to weaken Europe from within by building alliances with rightwing, chauvinist populist parties.”
Ukrainians, from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy down, have for more than a year tried to frame the consequences of defeat in lurid terms, in an attempt to shake European torpor and galvanise the west.
Olena Halushenka, the co-founder of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, urged Europe to think about the bombardment of Kharkiv. “Imagine a city the size of Munich is likely to be without electricity this winter. The cost in terms of millions of migrants will overwhelm Europe.”
Wadephul fears even such framing has not worked. “If you ask the average German on the street: ‘Do you really recognise what is at stake? That we have to spend money not for health but for defence?’ the answers show there is still a lot of persuasion to do. Europeans think they can have this war without thinking they are themselves at war.”
He thinks the guilty men are the leaders who pander to voters who dismiss the Russian threat. That takes the debate back to Germany’s, and specifically the Social Democratic party’s, ambivalence about a Russian defeat. It is not a coincidence that the election slogan of Scholz’s SPD was “a secure peace”.
Scholz himself, for instance, refuses to set Russia’s defeat as an objective, and, after Ukraine’s failed offensive, peace advocates within his party have had a resurgence. The party believes its vote is being squeezed by two parties, one left and the other right, both saying the war is unwinnable. In a sign of the times, Michael Roth, the SPD chair of the Bundestag foreign affairs committee and a supporter of arming Ukraine, is quitting politics, saying he found it was like stepping into a refrigerator to hold the views he did inside his own party.
Five 20th-century historians, including the Weimar Republic expert Heinrich August Winkler, complained in an open letter that Scholz was not willing to learn the lessons of history or recognise that Russia was bent on the destruction of Ukraine. “The chancellor and the SPD leadership, by drawing red lines, not for Russia but for German politics, weaken Germany’s security policy and benefit Russia.” The government had to come up with a strategy for victory, they argued.
There is even a suspicion that anti-war politicians with access to intelligence reports are leaking pessimistic accounts of German intelligence assessments, reinforcing the impression that Ukraine’s position is hopeless. Ralf Stenger, an SPD member of the Bundestag’s intelligence committee, said Ukraine’s failed offensive last year showed “we can and must prevent Ukraine from losing, but we cannot ensure that it wins”. Anyone who “keeps demanding that weapon A must be delivered more quickly and weapon B in even greater quantities” was chasing illusions, he added. Always increasing the dose when the medicine was not working was “not convincing”.
Critics say this fatalistic narrative – dovetailing with Russia’s main objective, which is to convince the US that further aid is futile – also makes little attempt to identify the lessons of the past two years about the failure to organise a war economy in Europe. Macron coined the phrase “war economy” at the Eurosatory military technology conference outside Paris in June 2022, but there is little sign the promise of such a fundamental reorganisation of Europe’s armaments industry has taken place, or even that anyone was appointed to bring it about.
Liberal market economies are inherently likely to be slower to adapt to war than their authoritarian counterparts, but one of the lessons of the 1930s, and those locust years, is that organising for rearmament entails planning and not just false reassurances, which were the stock in trade of Chamberlain and his predecessor Stanley Baldwin.
The reality was that Britain, overstretched and in debt, fell behind, and calls for a ministry of supply to coordinate the flow of arms were spurned. Nevertheless, Chamberlain complacently predicted that “the terrifying power Britain was building” by boosting its defences “would have a sobering effect on Hitler”.
Something similar happened with regard to ammunition supplies for Ukraine in Europe. In 2023, leaders said they would have 1m shells ready for Ukraine by March 2024, only to admit they could reach only half that number. They promised to reach 2m a year in 2025.
One prominent Ukrainian military adviser said the reality was that the Russian arms industry could now churn out 4.5m shells a year, each costing about only $1,000 to manufacture. Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, a total of 1.3m shells were being produced at an average cost of approximately $4,000. That means Nato is 10 times less efficient, and struggling to locate explosives.
He said: “We need a central plan like in the first or second world war. If governments have an existential demand, a company should not have the ability to make as much profit as they want. It should be regulated. Industrial warfare requires national institutions and a Nato-level industrial warfare committee, which would regulate prices.
“Right now, we have dozens of really high-level, super-important targets each day. And we have only one missile we can use a week, and this is actually insane.”
Some say the picture is improving, but the stark fact, according to Sikorski, is that 40% of the Russian government’s budget is devoted to defence. It is Russia, not Europe, that has built a war economy.
The Ukrainian adviser predicts the west may have caught up in two to three years in drones and munitions, but that means the next few years are the most dangerous the region would face.
In the short term, it is the absence of Patriot batteries, a surface-to-air guided missile, and US-supplied F-16s, agreed in August 2023, that leaves Ukraine so exposed. Only six EU member states – Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Spain – operate Patriot systems. Germany has offered a third battery, and the Dutch part of theirs, but Greece and Spain say they have nothing spare. The date for F-16 deliveries depends on the speed at which pilots can be trained.
But Michael Bohnert, an engineer at the Rand Corporation, sees no sign of a public coordinated military plan to raise the firepower needed, let alone new munitions factories. Incredibly, the adviser to the Polish chief of staff, Krzysztof Król, admitted to a conference last month that after two years “we have not yet created proper conditions for a Ukrainian victory with our plans because political leaders had not yet told them the objective”. If that objective was conveyed, he added, “the military leaders could easily decide what is required. As it is, we give enough only for Ukraine to survive.”
To the extent any European leader has grasped this lacuna, it is Macron, with his emergency meeting in Paris on 26 February to look at ammunition shortfalls and repeated speeches on the existential threat to Europe from the alliance between the far right and Putin.
It will take two meetings, one involving the G7 leaders in Italy next week and then the 75th anniversary Nato summit in Washington in July, to reveal whether the west wishes not to contain Putin, but to defeat him – with all the risk that carries, including for China.
Macron will know many in Europe see the external threat as coming from migration, not Putin, and above all as a French politician, he knows the popular lure of an easy peace. Flowers, not tomatoes, greeted the French prime minister Édouard Daladier, to his surprise, when he returned from Munich in 1938. Knowing full well the threat posed by Hitler, and that he and Chamberlain had betrayed Czechoslovakia, the only democratic country in central eastern Europe, he turned to his counsellor and said of the cheering crowds: “Bunch of fools.”

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