By mid-1940, Hitler’s Germany appeared to be unstoppable by mid-1940. It had already annexed Austria, seized on Britain and France’s appeasement policy to dismember Czechoslovakia, and subsequently conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The only significant holdout was Britain, but its chances for survival looked tenuous at best.
“Democracy in Britain is finished,” Joseph Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador in London, reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 20 as France was collapsing. Across the Atlantic, many officials were thinking the same thing. “In July of 1940, very few of us in Washington believed that Britain, even under Winston Churchill’s inspired leadership, could hold out against Nazi Germany,” Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles recalled.
This was no academic debate. If that kind of pessimism was justified, then the isolationists were correct in their insistence that any American effort to change the outcome would not only be wrong but also futile. Kennedy and others maintained that Britain should settle for a “peace” deal with Hitler—in reality, a humiliating surrender since the German dictator would accept nothing less—instead of trying to stave off inevitable defeat. The only constructive role the U.S. could play would be to make Churchill and his countrymen accept that grim reality.
As Mark Twain famously put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Is this the case now with how the world is responding to Russia’s war against Ukraine? Are even those who are most vociferously denouncing the daily tally of atrocities, death and destruction secretly, or not so secretly, longing for another “peace” deal that would reward the aggressor?
Ostensibly, there is little comparison between Britain’s situation then and Ukraine’s situation now. After all, the United States and its allies have applied round after round of unprecedented sanctions against Russia. The European Union did the previously unthinkable this week: it embargoed roughly two-thirds of oil deliveries from Russia. At the same time, the U.S. and others are continuing to supply Ukraine with far more weaponsry than what seemed remotely conceivable even a short time ago.
And yet there are disturbing signs that Ukraine’s backers could, as the Brits say, go wobbly. In other words, they may be less committed to a firm stance
against Russia than their proclamations indicate. On the eve of the EU meeting in Brussels, Germany’ Economy Minister Robert Habeck warned that the unity of the nations gathering there was already “starting to crumble.” To avoid a veto of the embargo by Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban, who has defended his close ties to Putin and reliance on Russian energy for his landlocked country, the EU exempted oil delivered via pipelines. At least for now, this means that Russian oil, albeit in much smaller amounts, will continue to flow West in return for payments that are helping fund Moscow’s aggression.
Then there are the mixed signals on arms deliveries. Russian forces have mercilessly shelled and bombed targets in the east, allowing them to make slow but steady gains. They devastated Mariupol before occupying it, and followed the same pattern before moving into Severodonetsk, tightening their control over much of the Donbas region.
But while Washington has indicated that it will deliver some of the longermedium-range rocket systems that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been pleading for, President Biden declared on Sunday that it would not be sending “rocket systems that strike into Russia.” This was very much in keeping with the Biden administration’s decision early in the war to effectively veto the delivery of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. In both cases, Putin could draw one conclusion: he is still feared by those who are trying to stop him.
He almost certainly drew the same conclusion from his 80-minute phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday. Their appeals for a ceasefire and negotiations, while insisting that he should withdraw his troops from Ukraine, looked suspiciously like the actions of leaders who are hoping for an elusive “peace” agreement that would only mask an acceptance of Russia’s territorial gains. Germany and France have also been notably stingy in providing military equipment to Ukraine. Some voices in the West are openly pushing for such a deal. An editorial in The New York Times declared: “A decisive military victory for Ukraine over Russia, in which Ukraine regains all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, is not a realistic goal. Though Russia’s planning and fighting have been surprisingly sloppy, Russia remains too strong, and Mr. Putin has invested too much personal prestige in the invasion to back down.”
Or, as Henry Kissinger put it in his speech to the Davos conference, negotiations must start now, and the most the Ukrainians can hope for is “a return
to the status quo ante” before the Russian invasion. By implication, he was saying that Ukraine will almost certainly have to give up more than the territory it already lost after Russia annexed Crimea and took de facto control of much of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014.
Zelensky has repeatedly vowed that Ukraine will not play that defeatist game, and he renewed his calls for more heavy weaponry for his embattled forces. The Kyiv Independent responded to the Times and all the appeals in the name of “realpolitik” with a blistering editorial of its own. “Ukraine’s belief in its victory isn’t based on overconfidence. It’s based on necessity,” it argued. “Any concession to Russia now will lead to another war sooner or later, while Ukrainians stuck in any region occupied by Russia will be tortured, raped, or killed.” It concluded with a ringing declaration: “Appeasement isn’t the voice of reason. It’s fear and short-sightedness that will only make things worse, something we’ve all seen too many times in the past.”
The Ukrainians fully understand that if they convey the sense that they cannot win, they will doom themselves to defeat. Churchill rallied his countrymen and then enlisted the backing of President Roosevelt for a massive military supply effort by pledging victory in the long run, and Zelensky is sticking to a similar script. He, too, understands that victory or defeat can be self-fulfilling prophecies. He, too, understands that he needs to gather the tools to give his army the chance to get the job done. “Everyone should be a lobbyist for the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine, which can speed up our victory,” he declared.
Besides, the recent gains by Russia in the Donbas region are still a far cry from what Putin was seeking to accomplish when he ordered the invasion in the first place. The underlying weaknesses that were exposed then—and are still glaringly exposed now—should not be forgotten. The vaunted Russian military machine is showing signs of strain at every level. The British Defense Ministry pointed out this week that Russia’s army has already been weakened by heavy losses of junior and mid-level officers, leading to “a further decrease in morale and continued poor discipline.”
On the economic front, time may not be on Russia’s side either. Most economists predict that sanctions will have a cumulative and growing effect. In a report for the Warsaw Enterprise Institute, Agnes Tycner declared: “This is still only the beginning and economic conditions for Russia will only continue to get worse as Putin continues his senseless war in Ukraine.”
All of that could prove to be true if everyone who is pledging more support for Ukraine continues to provide it—and resists the temptation to pressure the Ukrainians to take a suicidal deal.