Putin isn’t Hitler, and this isn't WWII. But as Europe is threatened, it’s worth asking: What would Churchill do — and what do the people who invoke him get wrong?
Europe’s peaceable kingdom is disturbed by the screams of sheep being devoured by lions. The war in Ukraine’s east is limited, but increasingly lethal.
Last summer, the world watched the barbarity of the downing of Malaysia Airline Flight 17 and the brutal lack of respect shown to the dead by Russian-backed rebel authorities. The unseen horrors have been much greater. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that from the beginning of the Russian-backed conflict up through February 2015, at least 5,793 people (including 63 children) have been killed and at least 14,595 (including 169 children) wounded in the contest over Ukraine’s east. More than one million people have been displaced.
For the first time in 75 years, Western leaders are forced to devise a strategy in the face of a major power conflict over European territory. In this task, strategic thinkers are naturally turning back to the darkest lessons of the twentieth century for guidance. But which lessons? Some proceed cautiously in this centennial year of the Second Battle of Ypres, mindful of how escalation and national pride can lead to unexpected consequences and tragedy.
“If we don’t manage to find not just a compromise, but a lasting peace agreement, we know perfectly well what the scenario will be,” French President François Hollande said earlier this year. “It has a name, it’s called ‘war.’”
Others look to the lessons of the appeasement of Nazi Germany that led to the Second World War. At the 2015 Munich Security Conference, in the very city where the leaders of Britain and France made their craven deal with Adolf Hitler over Czechoslovakia in 1938, international conferees recently came together to discuss the Ukraine crisis. Senator John McCain, who in February said that he was “ashamed” of Washington’s response to the crisis, drew the most explicit comparison to British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s acceptance of Hitler’s demands. “History shows us that dictators will always take more if you let them,” McCain said. “They will not be dissuaded from their brutal behavior when you fly to meet them to Moscow – just as leaders once flew to this city.” Senator Lindsey Graham made an ironic echo of one the most famous Churchillian wartime phrases, telling delegates: “When you turn down a reasonable request to help defend one’s self … it’s not our finest hour.”
Late last year, British prime minister David Cameron warned his fellow European leaders about the dangers of appeasement: “We run the risk of repeating the mistakes made in Munich in ’38 … This time we cannot meet Putin's demands. He has already taken Crimea, and we cannot allow him to take the whole country.” Former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council, recently tweeted that “Once again, appeasement encourages the aggressor to greater acts of violence.” In a television interview from Munich, Senator Ted Cruz went further, saying that the United States has “a treaty obligation to stand with” the Ukrainians, “and right now, unfortunately, the Obama Administration is not honoring that obligation. We need to come together and provide defensive arms so they can stand up against the Russian aggression.”
Cruz was referring to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which promised that Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom would uphold Ukrainian sovereignty and borders. In the event of a breach, however, the agreement merely promises that the three powers “will consult.” Above all, with apologies to Senator Cruz, the Budapest Memorandum is not a treaty binding the United States to militarily defend Ukraine, as we would have to do with a NATO ally. It is a diplomatic agreement — it is not binding, but does convey moral obligation. In 1994, Ukraine relinquished what was then the third-largest nuclear force in the world in exchange for what it considered the consecration of its sovereignty and borders. While refugees pour into Kiev and the sounds of guns grow louder in the east, Ukraine has every reason to expect assistance from the United States and Britain. But what are the best ways these two countries can help?
As leaders rummage through the crises of the past to inform their thinking, more attention is being turned back to Winston Churchill, the most fertile strategic mind of modern times, the man who defined for all time the price of appeasement. In opposition to the government of his own party, Churchill famously told Neville Chamberlain, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
Is that our choice today? Or to put it another way, is Vladimir Putin another Adolf Hitler, and should we respond to him as the democracies should have responded to Hitler from the start?
Churchill derided Chamberlain: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.” Is that our choice today?
Channeling Churchill, Seeing Hitler
Policy should not be made on the basis of facile historical comparisons. There are, however, insights to be gleaned from asking if Putin represents a threat similar to that posed by Hitler. The case for this comparison is far from superficial. No less a figure than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Putin’s strategy in Ukraine to Hitler’s strategy in Czechoslovakia.
Certainly, further similarities between Putin and Hitler are easily made. Like Hitler, Putin cultivates a cult of personality — though one imagines that even Hitler would have been embarrassed to stage the bare-chested heroics that Putin regularly performs for Russian television viewers. Like Hitler, Putin presents a steely affect that barely masks seething resentments over imagined conspiracies and slights against his homeland. Putin’s recent state of the union address identifies a malevolent and scheming “America” in the place of Hitler’s international Jewish conspiracy: “they are always influencing Russia’s relations with its neighbors, either openly or behind the scenes.” Although Putin lacks Hitler’s operatic comportment, his more monotone language is by turns hysterical, self-pitying, and militant.
Both Hitler and Putin rose to power through democratic politics to rule by fiat. Hitler discarded the trappings of democracy to become the Führer; Putin has chosen to steadily hollow out Russian democracy by persecuting and imprisoning potential competitors, rewriting the Russian constitution to lengthen his hold on power, and transforming the media into his state-run propaganda mouthpiece. Still, democratic decoration matters to Putin. He cares about his poll results, and feels the need to be elected.
Suppose, for argument’s sake, that Putin shares personal characteristics with Hitler. Does that mean the West must rush to resist him militarily? Would anything less meet Churchill’s definition of appeasement?
Many sophisticated Russia watchers give a calmer appraisal of Putin — that he is just an autocrat playing for popularity and gain, a cool customer using one engineered crisis at home to justify his power to his people while bluffing the West to achieve incremental victories in his domination of Russia’s “Near Abroad.” Putin’s blend of Russian Orthodox nationalism and authoritarianism is no doubt a heady brew, one whose principal goal is to reassemble Russia’s lost empire. Putin’s revanchism lacks the moral insanity and Alexandrian ambition that was at the core of Nazi ideology. Invading France is hardly on Putin’s timetable. But in terms of personal characteristics alone, suppose for argument’s sake that Vladimir Putin is indeed “another Hitler.” Would it follow that the West should rush to resist him militarily, even if through proxies? Would anything less than that meet Churchill’s definition of appeasement?
One Undeniable Difference
Those who draw inspiration from Churchill’s defiance of Hitler to advocate limited military assistance to Ukraine must factor in one undeniable difference between Hitler and Putin: Hitler never possessed nuclear weapons.
Russia today has invested continuously in updating and modernizing its strategic nuclear weapons, packing multiple warheads on new generations of mobile missiles. Russia’s arsenal also includes an estimated two thousand tactical nuclear weapons, some with yields approaching that of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
Moreover, Russian military doctrine forthrightly advocates the use of tactical nuclear weapons to stave off a conventional defeat. Through wargames, the Russian military has worked out its concept of operations and possesses the muscle memory to execute it. Putin is now believed to be fielding an unknown number of tactical nuclear weapons on the Crimean peninsula for just this purpose. If Russia were to invade Poland or the Baltic states, it might well follow through on its threats to use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO in battle. If so, Russia runs the risk of underestimating NATO and the serious risk of escalation from the tactical to the strategic.
Those, like Senator McCain, who believe that limited military support of Ukraine would stop Putin in his tracks often cast themselves as following Churchill’s assertion that a united and early show of force by the Allies against Germany would have stopped Hitler’s adventures. Those who want NATO to militarily back Ukraine today, however, must answer the following question: If nuclear weapons had existed in the 1930s, would Winston Churchill have supported such a preventative war? Would Churchill have supported a motion to declare war with Nazi Germany over the conquest of Poland?
Those who want NATO to militarily back Ukraine today must answer the following question: If nuclear weapons had existed in the 1930s, would Winston Churchill have supported such a preventative war?
In short, would Churchill have been all out in favor of a physical response if Hitler had possessed an arsenal capable of annihilating the cities of France, Britain, and the United States within a single hour? And if not, what lesser measures might Churchill have sought to counter German aggression?
We do not have to entertain such a hypothetical world to understand Churchill’s approach to resisting an encroaching power in the nuclear age. As the current British prime minister and U.S. senators “channel” Churchill and his indomitable spirit, great care should be taken to appreciate the subtleties of Churchill’s thinking across the breadth of his career. A closer look at Churchill’s speeches, writings and utterances to his Conservative colleagues as leader of the opposition (1945–1951) and during his second premiership (1951–1955) suggests that Churchill would advocate a firm but cautious approach in response to Putin’s Russia.
Churchill, Russia and the Bomb
In 1945, Winston Churchill had just marshaled the most improbable turnaround victory since the Second Persian War. To his ever-lasting shock, the British voters rewarded the prime minister with an eviction notice from 10 Downing Street, accompanied, he said, by “a sharp stab of almost physical pain” and the realization that the “knowledge and experience I had gathered, the authority and goodwill I had gained in so many countries, would vanish.”
Churchill could have absorbed the sting of defeat and rested content, knowing that his place in history would finally be secure. He could have retired honorably to his beloved Chartwell to paint and write and dabble. Few who knew him were surprised that Churchill chose to soldier on, as he always had. He served as leader of the opposition, dealing with the contentious issues of a new age — defining the nascent Cold War at Fulton, Missouri, with his rhetorical flourish about an “Iron Curtain”; coining the idea of a “summit” between leaders; and speaking out in favor of a “United States of Europe.” Always prophetic, often an explicit futurist, Churchill was one of the first thinkers to grasp the potential of nuclear deterrence and delineate a doctrine for it.
Churchill did all this while working on his ongoing masterwork, The Second World War, in prodigious fits and starts, in late evening hours and often while on “painting holidays” in Marrakech and the High Atlas, Lake Como, the south of France, Madeira, and Venice. After being returned as prime minister in the 1951 general election, Churchill’s work was interrupted by arterial spasms, moments when “everything went misty,” and outright strokes that left him spent and bedridden, forcing him to spend days practicing his signature. Then Churchill would throw himself back into his regimen — back to writing in bed, the bath, in his medieval study, with rivers of ink and Scotch to sweep him along.
How the Great Democracies Triumphed, And So Were Able to Resume The Follies Which Had So Nearly Cost Them Their Life.
In the early years of the Cold War, Churchill worried that the great democracies were once again tempting fate with an inadequate response to a threat from the East. During the blockade of Berlin in 1948 and 1949, when the United States and Britain were beginning to organize the airlift to supply the beleaguered city, Churchill wrote, “I trust we are not approaching another ‘Munich.’”
Those worries intensified after the Soviet Union negated the U.S. unilateral nuclear advantage by detonating its own bomb in August 1949. On the conventional side, Europe had an imbalance of power. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, NATO was a paper vision with little manpower and hardware. Ninety percent of the almost three million U.S. soldiers and 300,000 airmen in Europe had returned home. By 1950, the Soviets fielded at least 175 divisions, 25 or more of which were armored, against a dozen American and Western European divisions, only two of which were armored. To make matters worse, the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 turned America’s attention to the Far East, prompting Churchill to worry that Britain’s ally and protector would be too distracted to defend Europe. By the late 1940s, Russia loomed almost as large in Churchill’s mind as Nazi Germany had a decade before. He privately worried that the West Germans were too intimidated by the Soviet Union to rearm and that even France might become a Soviet satellite.
As leader of the opposition, Churchill told Parliament that Soviet strength had steadily emerged “as a rock shows more and more above an ebbing tide.” Russians “in one form or another” controlled half of Europe and China, but showed “no signs of being in any way satiated or satisfied.” For the first time in a decade, there were whispered fears in Parliament and Whitehall that Britain could once again face the prospect of an invasion from the East.
Seeing the Future
In the midst of the Soviet menace, Churchill offered advice to his colleagues that would be ridiculed as sophomoric if made by a U.S. politician today: he suggested that his colleagues try to see the world as the Russians saw it. The point was not to infer fairness in Soviet policies, but to understand the nature of the threat. “There is no doubt that trying to put oneself in the position of the other party to see how things look to him is one way, and perhaps the best way, of being able to feel and peer dimly into the unknowable future,” Churchill said.
The Soviet Union then, like Putin today, wanted to divide Europe and keep it divided. Churchill vocally campaigned for a “United States of Europe,” a conceptual precursor to the European Union. “I am not attracted to a Western bloc as a final solution,” he wrote in 1946. “The ideal should be EUROPE.” He would have embraced the Western doctrine set out by President George H. W. Bush of a “Europe whole and free,” with the addendum — recently underscored by General Phillip M. Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander — “and at peace.”
Despite his emergence in the Victorian era, Churchill understood that the concept of “spheres of influence” belong to a bygone era. Although that paradigm has long been discredited in the West, today, it is very much alive in Moscow. Churchill would understand that fear is behind Russia’s aggressiveness in seeking to establish a sphere of docile states around its perimeter. A fear of NATO may be irrational — attaching nineteenth-century worries about “encirclement” to a twenty-first-century institution of joint defense between democracies that would rather focus on social welfare spending — but to Putin and his coterie, that fear is palpable. We need to understand this, Churchill might tell us, not to empathize with the Putin regime, but to understand why the regime appears so volatile and dangerous.
Churchill would see today’s Russia as a weak nation with a strong bite.
What would Churchill have made of Vladimir Putin himself? Undoubtedly, he would have well understood Putin’s paranoid brew of resentments and fears, just as he had an instinctive understanding of Hitler’s dark psyche. He might also conclude that Putin is probably steeped in the propaganda of his own media, which sees anti-Russian “fascists” in the orange-wearing democrats of Kiev and regularly posts horror stories about Ukrainian atrocities that never occurred.
The same Churchill who was very deliberate in how he countered the Soviets would no doubt see reason for caution in approaching the paranoid Putin regime. Churchill was in power when Joseph Stalin had made his disastrous gamble on Hitler’s trustworthiness. During the late Cold War and Boris Yeltsin years, the Soviet Union and its Russian successor came close to launching a first strike on the United States because of sensors spooked by a flare of sunlight and a Norwegian weather rocket. Russia’s apparent decision to allow rebel forces in Ukraine to handle surface-to-air missiles in corridors where passenger jets routinely operate is the most recent example of Russian recklessness; Churchill would undoubtedly take into account Russia’s ongoing record of extraordinary belligerence, callousness, and strategic miscalculation.
“Appeasement Has Its Place”
Churchill was outspoken about his darkest fears about nuclear weapons, calling them “that awful agency of destruction.”
“What ought we to do?” Churchill asked Parliament in 1955, during his last great speech. “Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world? It does not matter so much to old people; they are going soon anyway; but I find it poignant to look at youth in all its activity and ardour and, most of all, to watch little children playing their merry games, and wonder what would lie before them if God wearied of mankind.”
But there was a catch. At some point of nuclear development, Churchill recognized, “the worst things get the better,” because “safety will be the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation.”
Long before Ronald Reagan, Churchill adopted the Roman emperor Hadrian’s maxim — “peace through strength” — as his policy. Churchill set out the means to strengthen the West in the face of the Soviet challenge, which included transforming NATO from a paper institution into a real military force and devising a British nuclear deterrent.
But in 1950, at the height of the Cold War, Churchill also added some nuance to his view on appeasement:
“Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.
“When nations or individuals get strong they are often truculent and bullying, but when they are weak they become better mannered. But this is the reverse of what is healthy and wise. I have always been astonished, having seen the end of these two wars, how difficult it is to make people understand the Roman wisdom, ‘Spare the conquered and confront the proud.’ … The modern practice has too often been ‘punish the defeated and grovel to the strong.’”
Churchill would see today’s Russia as a weak nation with a strong bite. It has a brittle economy, but maintains the ability to wage a devastating war in eastern Europe — and a reckless willingness to test the will of NATO with tactical nuclear weapons. What would Churchill do?
One essential component of appeasement is the deliberate degradation of military capability in an effort to convince an enemy of one’s good intentions. By these lights, Churchill would see the Obama administration’s public interest in unilaterally reducing the U.S. strategic arsenal by one-third below the plateau reached with Russia in the New START agreement as appeasement.
Churchill would certainly urge the United States, Britain, and France to modernize and maintain their nuclear deterrent. He would also urge Western leaders to bolster NATO’s conventional forces, and to devise an effective counter to Russia’s tactical nuclear threat. He would applaud recent measures to reinforce NATO’s defense of the Baltic republics and Poland, and urge the removal of any uncertainty from the commitment to treaty allies. He might take his pen to paper and doodle useful ideas on how to use crowd-control techniques or technology to stop Putin’s “little green men” if they emerge on Baltic soil. He might caution Putin that deeper moves toward Kiev could well result in lethal aid.
At this stage, arming the Ukrainians could be a profoundly un-Churchillian misapplication of Churchill’s thinking.
Churchill would urge us not to legitimize Ukraine’s forcibly changed borders. Just as he welcomed governments-in-exile to operate in London during the Second World War, so too would he likely advise the United States and European Union today to welcome Ukrainian luminaries and highlight the suffering of Ukrainian refugees.
From the First World War to the Cold War, one constant of Churchill’s strategic thinking was to identify an enemy’s hidden pressure points or his “soft underbelly,” whether in the Dardanelles, Italy, or the Balkans. In World War II, Churchill was eager to arm partisans and to find ways to disrupt the enemy from the rear or within his own lines. The lessons from the Churchill of the first and second world wars would argue for sending at least limited military aide to the Ukrainians.
A different lesson, however, could be taken from Cold War Churchill. In that contest, Churchill was much more cautious – not because he had grown soft with age, but because of his carefulness in dealing with a nuclear-armed state. Churchill, no matter how deep his sympathy for the besieged Ukrainians, might not be so eager to jump into the fray as his self-professed admirers like senators McCain, Cruz, or Graham (or, for that matter, his current successor David Cameron).
Winston Churchill no doubt would have dismissed President Hollande’s assertion that “a lasting peace agreement” is possible, just as he dismissed Chamberlain’s promise of “peace in our time.” Putin is all but certain to continue to test Western resolve for as long as he is in power. But Churchill might have rejected the contention that any agreement guaranteeing Ukrainian neutrality would amount to appeasement. He would have understood that to actively get into the conflict – even in the proxy form of providing “defensive” military aid to Ukraine – would be to get into the business of killing Russians. At this stage, arming the Ukrainians could be a profoundly un-Churchillian misapplication of Churchill’s thinking.
Engaging the Russian People
During the Cold War, Churchill preached a stoic optimism equal to the long task of countering and containing Moscow’s designs. He said of the Russian people that the “machinery of propaganda may pack their minds with falsehood and deny them truth for many generations of time. But the soul of man thus held in trance, or frozen in a long night, can be awakened by a spark coming from God knows where, and in a moment the whole structure of lies and oppression is on trial for its life.”
The power of social media is the true “soft underbelly” of this regime. Putin himself revealed his fear of Facebook and Twitter when he signed new laws requiring social networks to store data on Russian users in Russia, subjecting them to censorship. The public murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemstov has opened the minds of young Russia, giving the West an opportunity to make the most of cracks and crevices in Putin’s firewalls. For the West, the best strategy is a policy of patience, firmness, and determination to undermine the Putin regime and frustrate its forays — for decades, if need be — until the day when the whole structure of its lies and oppression are put on trial by young Russians.
And we should remember Winston Churchill’s final bit of advice as he prepared to leave office: “Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”
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Mark W. Davis is the director of Uptown Creative Strategies Group, a corporate communications firm. As a White House speechwriter, he drafted START arms-control addresses and the “Europe Whole and Free” speech in Mainz, then West Germany, for President George H. W. Bush in 1989.
Cover illustration by Zack Stanton Photos courtesy of Reuters and National Archives