The Thermonuclear Melian Debate Over Ukraine
It is true that Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy (1938) held off WWII for a year — for Poland (1 September 1939) — and maybe a bit more for Norway, Denmark, and the Low Countries, and then France (May-June 1940); and then maybe up to two years for Britain directly if you count in the Phony War (1939 to before May 1940), and then close to three years for Russia/USSR when Hitler tore up the Molotov-Ribbentrop alliance (22 June 1941) that had initiated the joint German-Russian invasions of Poland in 1939.
Each of those time gaps allowed the countries enjoying them, before being swallowed up into military hostilities, to safely arm or rearm as they could in anticipation of the worst, which soon came to all of them. So it is easy to see some short-term tactical advantage to an appeasement policy prior to experiencing a military invasion.
This was certainly Hitler’s and Stalin’s view when each chose to enter into their Molotov-Ribbentrop alliance to carve up Poland (seen by both Hitler and Stalin then as Putin sees Ukraine today), and to keep from warring against each other (in the inevitable Fascist-Communist 1940s superpower war), and in Stalin’s case to appease Hitler’s eastward expansion without the USSR having been able to gain any Western European allies against Hitler/fascism and Japanese militarism.
The essence of the various interrelated appeasement policies of Chamberlain, Stalin and Hitler (the MB Pact being in part Hitler’s appeasement to USSR westward expansion) all shared one fundamental principle: the independence of or submission (even to the point of nonexistence) by smaller weaker countries was for the major powers to dispose of as they saw fit, and as served their plans for protecting their own political domains (empires) and for imposing their geopolitical/territorial schemes (colonization) beyond their existing borders. So, Czechoslovakia and Poland got “tossed under the bus” in 1938-1939 so the British Empire, the Third Reich, and the USSR could continue to have their pieces of the European and World pies. This reality of international relations is doubtless as old as humanity itself:
“…the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel, and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.”
— [Thucydides, 416 BC].
This was how Thucydides wrote about it, in his account of the “Melian Debate” between the Athenian Empire and the leaders of the small Aegean island of Melos that Athens (the Delian League) wanted to occupy as a forward naval base against any invading Spartan (and Persian sponsored) fleet during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Ultimately, the Athenians assaulted Melos, defeating it, killing the men and enslaving the women and their children. The lands between Berlin and Moscow suffered similar fates between 1933 and 1945.
The idea of appeasing Putin’s imperialistic ambitions, as regards Ukraine, arises naturally when he threatens to resort to nuclear weapons if thwarted in his expansionist military operations. By the same logic it seems reasonable for public safety in the United States, the European Union, Russia, and even beyond as far as China, if the 194 recognized countries of the world would accept the power principle articulated by Thucydides and let the nuclear superpowers to dispose of everyone’s national independence or dependence, submission or nonexistence, as those superpowers — empires all — saw most convenient for themselves: better that the people in the smaller weaker and poorer countries suffer and die by imperial conquest than that the people in the larger stronger richer and “safer” countries expose themselves to hazards — from the inconveniences of slowed supply chains, up to the terrors of thermonuclear face-offs — by coming to the defense of the invaded “weaklings.”
This dilemma was addressed in 1945 with the formation of the United Nations (and a subsequent variety of treaties) — a far from perfect organization but a positive step to address the problem — and the formation of NATO, also far from perfect but even so a membership in which has been avidly sought by every country occupied by Nazi Germany and/or the USSR between 1939 and 1991.
The whole point of these organizations is to prevent a reoccurrence of the political-military escalations that unleashed WWII (and similarly for WWI, earlier). By that logic the UN ‘world alliance,’ the EU economic-military alliance, and the NATO military alliance exist to resolve outbreaks of destabilizing world disorder like the Russian war in Ukraine, without sacrificing the population under assault, because by sacrificing them (again; as in 1935, and 1936-1939) the glue of trust needed to maintain such structures of mutual security dissolves and they fall apart, and we are back to Melian Sacrifices before all subsequent superpower expansions: unchecked imperialism.
“The fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression. If it fails in turn, the effect on all global and regional powers will be one of powerful deterrence. If it succeeds, that is if Russia manages to ‘pacify’ Ukraine under Russian boots, the effect will be a major slide of the global situation toward unrestrained law of the jungle, emboldening US imperialism itself and its allies to resume their own aggressive stances.”
— [Gilbert Achcar, “A memorandum on the radical anti-imperialist position regarding the war in Ukraine,” Sunday 27 February 2022, http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article61309]
So, in February 2022, it is time for our many political, government, parliamentary, diplomatic, military and economic leaders and officials to earn their pay by coordinating their actions to reign in the aggression into Ukraine by the Putin government of Russia, without being so clumsy as to set off a nuclear war. From their reported and escalating actions this week (21-28 February 2022) it seems quite clear that they are well aware of what is required, and even such rigidly neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland have joined in that effort: an economic throttling of Russia’s money flows coupled with increasing amounts of sophisticated weaponry delivered to Ukrainians so they become more effective in fighting their defensive hot war against the invading Russian military (and maybe if Lukashenko is stupid, an invading Belarusian military as well).
Recall that in the multipolar nuclear weapons era (>1949) that both the USSR and China dampened US war-making campaigns in Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1965-1975) by supplying North Korea and North Vietnam with advanced weapons (small arms like AK47 rifles and ammunition, artillery, fighter jets, anti-aircraft missile and radar systems), and by merely existing as nuclear weapons ’superpowers’ allied with the Communist forces in Korea and Vietnam. The US had wanted to use nuclear weapons (MacArthur in Korea, Westmoreland and LeMay in Vietnam), but Korea and Vietnam were politically and territorially too close to China and the USSR for the U.S. to take that kind of risk. So despite the awesome military might and malice of the United States, the Koreans and the Vietnamese bled profusely to fight through their anti-US wars but they managed to survive them as three independent states (a unified Vietnam and two Koreas).
Given the ongoing antiwar protests in Russia and even Belarus, where such protests are heavily penalized by their laws (no 1st Amendment there, 20 years in jail threatened), rather than the Russian and Belarusian people expressing obvious commitments to all fight and die for their leaders’s Ukrainian war aims, it seems reasonable to anticipate that the Putin and Lukashenko governments could be brought down by popular revolts (and military mutinies) if enough of those people became sufficiently distraught at the losses of their boys in the snows, mud and streets of Ukraine, and terrified at the possibility of themselves being subjected to American, British and French nuclear bombardment in retaliation to Putin’s most extreme possible action.
At present, I think it most likely that Putin (and Lukashenko) will be reigned in without any nuclear weapons having been used, and his ultimate military defeat will cause, or be caused by, the fall of his regime. What is to be wished is that that happen as soon as possible so as to minimize the pain, suffering, death and destruction in Ukraine. And it is important to remember that the Russian and Belarusian people are not the enemies, but the Putin (plus loyal oligarchs, and Lukashenko client regime) are.
So I do not favor an appeasement policy with regards to Putin (and too bad he was not stopped sooner as with Syria in 2014), and I also realize that the management of an internationally coordinated counter-Putin-aggression economic-military policy is a delicate matter in our nuclear superpower era of the ‘World Order.’
I think the hazy idea of a “lasting peace” in world affairs is an ‘unobtainium’ at our current level of human and societal development (unchanged for millennia, as the late -5th century Melians would no doubt say if they could see us now), and that we should see the management of “peace” as a never-ending and always imperfect effort of pragmatic political improvisations; and that we should pick as our leaders people who are honorable and astute at doing that management without sacrificing human solidarity.