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14 Feb, 2022 16:55

No, 2022 isn’t 1938

Europe may well be on the brink of war but diplomacy is the answer, not the problem
No, 2022 isn’t 1938

Neville Chamberlain, the pre-World War II British leader commonly accused of failing to size up Nazism correctly, is back in the news. He’s been the subject of a Netflix movie and, while that film takes an unusually benign view of the much-maligned prime minister, his name is also being used to smear the current President of France Emmanuel Macron. Some commentators are frank enough to – inconsistently – combine both the current events and the Netflix show, telling us more than is good for them about how they learn their 'history’.

Somehow, Macron’s attempt to negotiate a balanced way out of the current war scare between the West and Russia over Ukraine is supposed to resemble Chamberlain’s “appeasement” of Nazi Germany. That accusation implies both moral and political failure because the consensus on the historical appeasement of Nazi Germany by, mostly, Great Britain is that it was a crime as well as a mistake. Selling out interwar Czechoslovakia to the Nazis was not only evil, but also worse than useless. Instead of ending Germany’s drive to war, the sacrifice only emboldened and helped the Nazis.

No wonder that such a fiasco looks like an attractive cudgel to deploy against leaders whose policies you don’t like, at all. Yet there is a problem: the current crisis between Russia and the West does not resemble the last years before World War II and Macron is not remotely an appeaser.

Whatever strident commentators like Tim Snyder, Francis Fukuyama, and Anne Applebaum may have been telling us, Russia is not, actually, in pursuit of either a new or re-constituted empire (neo-Soviet or otherwise), it is not hell-bent on “revenge” for losing the Cold War, and it has no grand plan to destroy or cripple the European Union or the West in general.

Make no mistake, there is no doubt that Russia is challenging the West. Yet it is crucial to finally let go of misleading analogies that play well to audiences steeped in movies about Nazis, and understand the actual nature of that challenge.

What Russia wants is to stop endless NATO expansion and, in particular, neutralize Ukraine. The upshot of Moscow’s strategy is, in one word, a sphere of security interest. As spheres go, its projected size is, actually, quite modest: Moscow does not aim at getting the Warsaw Pact, its former military alliance in Eastern Europe back. It also does not try to regain domination over all former Soviet republics west of Russia. What it does insist on is that, as a minimum, neither Belarus nor Ukraine join the West, either formally or informally.

You may disagree with these aims for any number of reasons. But you may not misrepresent them, explicitly or implicitly, as the analogy of Hitler’s aims: building a racist empire on massive conquest, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Nothing here matches remotely. And by using that false analogy for rhetorical effect, you disrespect the victims of Nazism, intentionally or not.

But back to Macron. Here is a Western politician who has been clear about his demands on Moscow and France’s solidarity with the West in general and NATO in general. He has not given the slightest evidence of wanting to sell out the security of the West or, in fact, Ukraine.

What he has done is two things: First, he has insisted on the simple fact that the interests of the European NATO members do not always align with those of the USA and that therefore Europe needs its own dialogue with Moscow. Banal really, yet somehow heresy for all to many. Second, he has had the temerity to also make demands, mostly tacitly, of the Ukrainian leadership. And that, his second sin, is what has triggered the most bizarre attacks on him.

To understand why, just look at the latest meeting of Russian and Ukrainian representatives in the Normandy Format sponsored by France and Germany, this time in Berlin. It was a failure. After nine hours of talks, there have been no results promising any change to the deadlocked status quo. 

That’s no wonder really: once you carefully follow not only Ukrainian policies but also open statements from politicians on talk shows and by the general commentariat, you know that there is no real intention to ever implement the Minsk agreements. Instead, by now Ukrainians say clearly and repeatedly that they consider the agreements disadvantageous and a result of Russian pressure so that they have a de facto right to block them by any means. Kiev’s strategy is not only obvious in its actions now but quite explicit – to take as much Western support as Ukraine can mobilize while stalling on Minsk.

From Kiev’s point of view, you could understand this policy of openly declared bad faith as motivated by both populist politics and national interest, even if misconceived and short-sighted. But even if you cut the Ukrainian elites some slack here, there can be no doubt that this approach should be a massive problem for their Western partners and supporters. In essence, Ukraine refuses to implement the only existing plan to end the crisis that began in 2013/2014, while the West pays for this strategy of obstruction by ongoing and growing massive economic and military aid, and, last but not least, by taking irresponsible risks with its own security. And if you are German, you also get Ukrainian insults and Nazi comparisons into the bargain, just to sweeten the deal, it seems.

Yet at this point, there is only one significant player in the West who shows any capacity and will to challenge this perverse situation: France under Macron. This challenge is at the core of his recent initiatives, from a key speech before the EU parliament to his recent flurry of high-level meetings. Though by no means “soft” on Moscow, Macron is also no fool with regard to Ukraine. He is open about his expectation that to strike a compromise, Kiev as well must make real concessions and cannot get everything it wants. And that is the true reason for his vilification as an appeaser. What we are really seeing here is not a rerun of 1938, but an abuse of the memory of Nazism to slander a reasonable and fair initiative.

If you call Macron “Chamberlain,” if you can’t let go of shouting “Munich” every time anyone dare speak with Russia’s leadership, you demonstrate one of two things: ignorance or demagoguery.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.