Winston Churchill once compared Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin to intruders in a five-star hotel.
Hitler, according to him, broke into the top floor and kicked the door to the most expensive room.
The Soviet dictator went the other way: he walked down the corridor, trying every doorknob. When one door opened, he slipped inside to see what he could steal.
Applying this analogy to Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is right now banging his fist on the hotel reception with an ugly entourage in tow.
He tells anyone who is willing to listen that he booked a room many years ago and demands the keys to the room.
It is pointless to try to kick him out, because even if he can be forced to leave today, he will return next week or next month. And we know that he is not afraid to use violence.
It is not too late to prevent an invasion, to preserve both the independence of Ukraine and the face of the President of Russia, without endangering our national interests.
So, with the drumbeat of war getting louder and Boris Johnson, President Joe Biden, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz launching a whirlwind of desperate attempts to “bring Russia back from the precipice,” can anything be done to defuse the situation?
I believe it can. It is not too late to prevent an invasion, to preserve both the independence of Ukraine and the face of the President of Russia, without compromising our national interests.
The exit is narrow, but possible – and we will have to make some concessions.
First, let’s look at a grim alternative. The President of Russia could at any time send his troops into Ukraine under various pretexts.
He could pretend that some Russian troops amassed on the border were acting in self-defense after being attacked.
The exit is narrow, but possible – and we will have to make some concessions. Pictured: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky (right) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meet today in Kiev
He could argue that he needs to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, a minority population increasingly threatened by rising Ukrainian nationalism.
Or he could insist that Russia’s national security depends on keeping Ukraine as a buffer zone, which means sending its troops to keep NATO tanks and missiles out.
All of these arguments for aggression may be lies, but at least they are plausible enough to give Putin the excuse he wants if he is ready to go to war.
And with more than 130,000 troops already deployed, Russian troops could be in Kiev within 48 hours.
But it will cost a lot of money. The West will immediately impose crippling sanctions, and Russia will retaliate by cutting off grain as well as gas, for example, and further raising food and fuel prices in the West. Both sides will rearm, the cold war will intensify. Everyone will get worse.
First, let’s look at a grim alternative. The President of Russia can send his troops to Ukraine at any time under various pretexts.
The West has made mistakes both in how we have dealt with Putin’s demands and in our willingness to ignore the monstrous corruption among Ukraine’s oligarchs.
What we didn’t understand is that Russia sees Ukraine not as a separate sovereign state, but as a “brotherly nation” bound by blood and history.
Last summer, Putin published an essay insisting that neither Ukraine nor another neighbor, Belarus, should be treated as foreign countries. It is implied that he sees them as an extension of Russia.
This explains the requirement at the top of Moscow’s list: a guarantee that Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO, which comes with additional complications. Now Russia has begun making noise about US missile defense bases in Poland and Romania, two countries that are already part of NATO.
For the Americans, these bases are non-negotiable due to the threat of attack from Iran. If Tehran launches an intercontinental strike on the US, their missiles will likely fly over Romania. Thus, NATO defense is critical to US security.
The West has made mistakes both in how we have dealt with Putin’s demands and in our willingness to ignore the monstrous corruption among Ukraine’s oligarchs. In the photo: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
But Moscow sees it differently. US missiles from these bases can easily turn in their direction.
This gives the West an opportunity. Of course, the solution for NATO negotiators is to offer some concessions — perhaps an agreement not to deploy certain missiles in Eastern Europe as part of a binding treaty that requires Russia to honor guarantees, such as removing some of its own missiles from Russia’s west.
There is a precedent for this. In 1962, the Soviet Union brought the world to the brink of war by planting nuclear missiles in Cuba, just a hundred miles off the coast of Florida.
President John F. Kennedy clashed with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who withdrew his missiles from Cuba after several obsolete American missiles were removed from American bases in Turkey.
It was a small concession on the scale of things, and Kennedy kept the peace by downplaying Moscow’s humiliation. He told his assistants, “Don’t gloat.”
We must follow this example. Putin is an aging president who has ruled Russia since 1999. He constantly keeps one eye on his legacy. He doesn’t want to be seen as a man who renounced all claims to Ukraine or left the Russian speakers there to their fate.
Putin is an aging president who has ruled Russia since 1999. He constantly keeps one eye on his legacy. He doesn’t want to be seen as a man who has renounced all claims to Ukraine or abandoned Russian-speakers there to their fate.
We must also acknowledge the anxieties of ordinary Russians. Of course, NATO has no intention of provoking a war with Russia, but both in the 19th and 20th centuries there were full-scale European invasions through Ukraine aimed at Moscow. Both Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 failed, but the wars left deep scars in the national psyche.
Our Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace complained that in our relations with Moscow there was a “spirit of Munich in the air,” by which he meant the appeasement of World War II. He knows better than to engage in such rhetoric with Russia.
A peaceful solution may also require Kiev’s consent to local self-government in the Donbass. It will be a bitter pill to swallow, but it could satisfy Russia by leaving Ukraine legally untouched and giving the beleaguered country a chance to rebuild its economy.
Because economic issues are fundamentally important for ordinary Ukrainians. It cannot be overstated how miserable, criminal and lawless the Ukrainian economy has become. The only countries that are doing just as badly are the Congo, Yemen and Somalia.
Our Secretary of Defense Ben Wallace (pictured) complained that in our relations with Moscow there was a “spirit of Munich” in the air, by which he meant the appeasement of World War II. He knows better than to engage in such rhetoric with Russia
Successive presidents, henchmen, and mafia bosses have sucked so much money out of the system that living standards have barely changed since 1990. In Ukraine, oligarchs are almost literally stealing food from children’s mouths.
When Boris Johnson was in Ukraine two weeks ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky implored our Prime Minister to crack down on stolen Ukrainian funds flowing through London.
This is what we could do to win back people’s trust. Many wonder if they got worse under Putin’s rule.
Shortly before the pandemic, I was at a conference in Crimea, where I talked with teachers whose schools were located in cities annexed to Russia. I asked them what was the biggest change. “Now we are paid on time,” they said.
The West must admit how wrong we were to support Ukraine’s successive faltering and corrupt governments at the expense of its people.
At the same time, we must pander to Putin’s ego and allow it to claim some kind of victory without violating Ukraine’s fundamental rights.
This is not appeasement. This is mature diplomacy – and right now it is the only way forward without bloodshed.
The alternative is almost too terrible to even imagine.
- Marc Almond is director of the Institute for Crisis Studies at Oxford.