No appetite in the West to prevent Putin power grab
Lessons from the Thirties show us why we can't appease the ex-KGB thug in charge of Russia, says Charles Moore
When the word "appeasement" first came into political use, it was supposed to be a good thing. In the Thirties, 'The Times' newspaper, like many decent people, was obsessed with the idea that the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War had been unjust to the defeated Germany. And so, whenever Germany complained, 'The Times' wanted, in its own words (October 1937), "to do what is possible for appeasement".
No one could claim that the end of the Cold War was as harsh for the losers – Russia – as was Versailles for Germany. But it was humiliating. It knocked Russia off its perch as a superpower and removed from its control many places and people that it considered its own. By extending Nato and EU membership eastwards, the West made the Russians angry.
This anger has produced appeasers in the West today. There are a great many people, both on the Left and the Right, who see what is happening in Ukraine as a judgement not on Vladimir Putin, but on the West for its "double standards" and aggression. His admirers seem to include Nigel Farage and Edward Snowden.
I was amazed to see a recently released film by the eurosceptic Bruges Group devoted to blaming the EU for the Ukrainian crisis. Here is an organisation named after Margaret Thatcher's famous appeal that the capitals of the Soviet Bloc should be seen as "great European cities" cut off from their roots by Communism. Yet it is feeling all sorry for the ex-KGB thug now in charge of the post-1989 residue.
There is much to be said against the EU's handling of the situation, but is the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union Baroness Catherine Ashton really more of a threat to world peace than Vlad, the impaler of his neighbours?
There, on the Bruges Group film, was the great Norman Tebbit, of all people, saying the West "would have been well advised to put an arm around Russia" after the end of the Soviet Union. It reminded me of Geoffrey Dawson, arch-appeasing editor of 'The Times', writing in 1937, "the Germans have a feeling that we never hold out a hand of friendship or sympathy from this country".
Dawson was right to worry about great nations with a sense of grievance. He was woefully wrong in failing to understand what it means to be up against a dictator. That error is being repeated today.
Dictators are not like you, me, Norman Tebbit or Geoffrey Dawson. They are liars. They do not believe in the rule of law inside their own country or internationally. They hate the honest expression of opinion. They never trust the leaders of other countries. All they care about is their power, which they see in a binary way: they can only win by others losing. "I know my enemies," said one particularly famous dictator, "I met them at Munich. They are little worms."
They seemed wormlike to him because they refused to recognise his true nature. The worms crawled to him, and he despised them for it. Let us resist any temptation to crawl to Mr Putin.
Here are a few tricks that dictators play:
1 Sudden plebiscites. In November 1933, Germany called a referendum on its own foreign policy. Lo and behold, it won 90 per cent support. In March this year, with Russian backing, a referendum was rushed through in Crimea.
Ninety-six per cent of those voting said they wanted Crimea to join Russia, although in the Nineties, they had voted to be part of an independent Ukraine. Comically, in 2003, rebellious Chechnya was reintegrated into Russia with an alleged 95.5 per cent vote in favour.
2 Inspire local militias that can be disowned when necessary. This was a favourite of the Serb dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, made a mistake recently when he said that Putin was losing control of extremist trouble-makers in eastern Ukraine. It is no problem for the dictator if his local supporters "go too far". It just gives him a stronger role when outsiders beg him to help calm things down.
3 The sudden change of tack. Rage is unexpectedly replaced by pacific noises, and vice versa. After regaining the Saar in 1935, Germany said that it was "prepared absolutely to renounce war" and was happy with its treaty with Poland. Milosevic used, from time to time, to offer to raise "peace-keeping forces" in the Balkans. Just now, the Russians have been saying that there is "civil war" in eastern Ukraine, thus justifying violence. But at the same time, as the Ukrainian presidential election tomorrow week approaches, Putin turns conciliatory.
4 The propaganda of the deed. Do something utterly outrageous (invade Abyssinia: Mussolini; take over the Crimea: Putin), and then watch the world flounder. This does not always work (see Galtieri: Falklands, Saddam Hussein: Kuwait), but the able dictator understands the weakness of his opponents.
Although what happened in Crimea is wholly illegal, the West protested limply and the Ukrainian government allowed its military presence there to collapse. Having achieved so much so easily, Putin knows he can now toy with the next mouse before killing it.
5 Never stopping. Power hunger cannot be satisfied. As the world gloomily contemplates Ukraine, Putin is starting to coerce the neighbours in his Eurasian union –- Belarus, Kazakhstan – towards his military will. He is ignoring his obligation to inform the government of Lithuania what he is doing in the Russian naval enclave of Kaliningrad. He is on the march.
6 An obsessive dislike of homosexuals combined with a curious taste for being photographed in manly and warlike poses, sometimes stripped to the waist. Often linked to an emotional ethno-political endorsement of religion but a conspicuous contempt for that religion's morality and love of peace.
Modern Russia is less totalitarian than its Communist predecessor, but, unlike the Soviet Union, it has a great deal of our money and is paying us with it. Its TV stations are fronted by Westerners. The West buys its gas. The former chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, is closely linked with Russian gas and oil business and recently celebrated his 70th birthday in St Petersburg with Putin as his honoured guest (can we not apply sanctions to the Schroeder bank account?).
Preposterous think-tanks pump out Putinolatry. (Do look up the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris, whose symbol is the bridge there named after the reactionary Tsar Alexander III.)
The essential appeaser's error is to say, "Let's be reasonable", to a person to whom reason is anathema and so ends up, by mistake, endorsing tyranny.
In January 1939, 'The Times's' leading article declared that, "Certain grievances in Europe which threatened war have now been adjusted without war, even though... the adjustment has been hasty and crude, and bears the marks of force." War came less than nine months later. Putin seems to be sorting out "certain grievances" in this spirit.
It is not easy to see what the West can do about this, since it plainly lacks the will.