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More than a whiff of Munich

A whiff of appeasement ? Putin's already won.

When the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace suggested there was a “whiff of Munich in the air” there was a rush to explain what he did NOT mean by the reference to Chamberlin’s infamous agreement with Hitler. The foreign office assured us he was not suggesting the Putin was another Hitler. Heaven forefend ! Nor was he intimating that some European leaders were showing weakness in the face of aggression. Goodness no ! Presumably, one hopes, he wasn't suggesting the most obvious lesson of Munich – go to war now, not later.

Whatever historical insights might have been bouncing round Mr Wallace’s noggin events seem to be proving him right in one regard. The threat of force has summoned a desperation to appease Putin. I may yet be proved wrong in 24 hours, but I have never though it likely that Putin would mount a large-scale invasion. He’s a chancer and gambler, not a fool. And by making all the moves necessary for a lightening war he’s already won a lot of what he really wants : not a slice of land but respect.

A parade of breathlessly worried Western leaders from Presidents Biden and Macron down to our very own Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, have dragged themselves to Moscow for an audience with the Great Autocrat and the ritual humiliation that inevitably follows. They take the medicine, never sneer back and fold on his real demand : a return to the glorious old days of the Soviet Union and the Cold War when American and Soviet leaders could meet and carve up the world into spheres of influence, largely unbothered by what individual nations want. Putin want a destabilised Ukraine, not a democratic and prosperous one, moving deeper into Europe’s orbit, a candidate to join the EU and NATO. He wants NATO to draw its horns in, and step down its presence in former communist member countries. He hasn’t yet got exactly what he wants, but he’s got all those things on the table.

Of course empathy is a wonderful thing, and it is important to understand how hurt Russia feels – some Russians feel - since the fall of the Soviet Empire. Not only have old allies like Romania and Bulgaria joined both organisations but so have Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, former states of the Soviet Union. It is encircled and diminished. Putin would love to reverse that. But while he should be understood, he shouldn’t be indulged and needs to hear some hard truths.

We could start by saying that Brits understand too well that the end of Empire is a painful thing which, for some, leaves a jagged hole where there used to be a sense of prideful superiority. But you can’t hang on to a sense of identity which relies on the subjection of other nations. Putin in his lengthy essay on history and Ukraine stresses that the country is not only integral to Russia’s security but it’s sense of self, the foundation of its language religion and culture. Maybe. It is also true that without Scotland there would never have been the curious construct that we call Great Britain. A second referendum would not, however, see troops massing on the border – even if an independent Scotland re joined the EU.

The essential hard truth the West must firmly, even rudely, make is one an autocrat finds it hard to swallow. It is up to individual sovereign nations and their citizens to decide their path, their allies, their destiny. It is not to be decided in Moscow or Washington. Any compromise on that is not a whiff of Munich but the stench of appeasement.

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