on February 24, 2022
Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago. Since then, pundits and politicians have kept repeating the same warning, that we must respond cautiously to avoid WWIII. It does not seem to work. The longer Russians continue their aggression, the higher are the chances of the war spreading.
With the two previous world wars, we know exactly the day when they started. However, we can point to many previous events that led to the moment when a worldwide war was unavoidable. The fury of WWIII has not started yet, but on February 24, 2022, we passed the point, making it almost inescapable.
It was not much different during WWI
WWI arose from what seem to be eternal traditions that regional powers expanded their territories through wars. Before the war started in 1914, the Ottoman Empire had practically lost control of the independence-seeking Balkan nations. Russia was eager to help, assuming it would gain control over that territory. On the north was a weakening Austro-Hungarian Empire, hoping to regain strength by expanding into the Balkans. Further north, the newly unified Germany had grown into an industrial powerhouse that sought to expand its sphere of influence. They clashed over the Balkans, but their imperial ambitions were worldwide, ergo, colliding with Britain, which by then controlled about 25% of the worldwide territory.
Americans, just as today with Ukraine, eagerly helped the Allies but avoided doing anything that would constitute direct involvement. At the beginning of 1917, the war still had no clear winner. If the Germans won, American banks would lose the loans given to the Allies. German U-boats were tirelessly sinking merchant ships similar to the Russian rockets that are destroying the Ukrainian infrastructure today. When the Germans tried to pull Mexico into the war against the United States, Americans finally got it; they could not stay on the sideline in any major international war. America joined the war on April 6, 1917.
Today’s Americans have the same approach to the war in Ukraine. They are full of high-minded words but reluctant to provide heavy weapons and aircraft. We can speculate that with lukewarm support for Ukraine, the war might be smoldering much longer. It could reach a point where some powerful nations – China comes to mind – might align with Russia, hoping that together they might finally end the dominance of the United States in world affairs. Then, we will have WWIII in full flare. The only way of preventing that option is a swift defeat of Russia in Ukraine.
Stunningly, it was almost the same during WWII
The analogies to WWII are even more striking. Shocked by the atrocities of WWI, the civilized world tried to construct international laws to prevent the next war. By the Treaty of Versailles, Germany needed to pay reparations and was banned from rebuilding its military. Germans complained the penalties were too harsh, and Hitler played on that sentiment. Starting in the early 1930s, Germans rebuilt their military. After Hitler came to power in 1933, they openly violated the Treaty of Versailles agreements, reinstating conscription and investing heavily in modern military hardware.
Barely anyone tried to stop them. The Polish leader, Józef Pilsudski, saw the danger and advocated for a joint western European military intervention to halt the remilitarization of Germany. He was dismissed as having an anti-German obsession. Pilsudski was known to be effective in reaching his objectives but succumbed to liver cancer in May 1935. To the surprise of worldwide observers, in Berlin, with Hitler in attendance, Germans had a high-profile memorial ceremony. Knowing what happened later, we can say that Hitler could not hide his joy from having a severe obstacle out of the picture.
In a short time, Germans were mass-producing tanks and bombers. Worldwide leaders tried not to acknowledge that, even though it was a brazen breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Then, Hitler advocated for uniting with Austria. Under pressure from Hitler’s supporters, the Austrian president agreed to have a referendum on March 13, 1938. To make sure that it went right, on March 12, the German army entered Austria. The referendum was postponed until April 10, 1938, and was as rightfully conducted as the referendum for annexing Crimea in 2014. No one dared to intervene.
When one looks at the map, after the annexation of Austria, Czechoslovakia was cut into Germany. In its western part, today’s Czech Republic, Germans were a 30% minority, mostly settled along the border with Germany. To get them into Germany, Hitler pulled the most shameful act in the history of modern diplomacy, the Munich Agreement. Czechoslovakia had a military alliance with France. When the German army intervention seemed inevitable, France refused to help. So did Britain. Instead, they negotiated with Hitler. They betrayed Czechoslovakia, and on September 30, 1938, they signed the Munich Agreement, giving Germany about 38% of today’s Czechia. Six months later, without bothering to ask anyone, Hitler took control of the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Officially, World War II started almost one year later, on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. As with WWI and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, Americans were unwilling to become fully involved. Likewise to helping Ukraine now, Americans helped the Brits. Similarly to today, Americans falsely believed that they could avoid getting into a crucial worldwide conflict. Pearl Harbor was a wake-up call. The next day, December 8, 1941, the United States joined the war.
Politicians learned nothing from the Munich Agreement
The current situation in Ukraine brings to mind the circumstances that led to the Munich Agreement. Russia at least tried to pretend it followed international laws when taking Crimea and fomenting revolt in Donbas. It did not get any international approval for its actions. It would smell like the Munich Agreement, although no one was willing to expressly legitimize Russia’s actions. But, the condemnation was weak, and the following sanctions were not effective. No one signed the equivalent of a Munich Agreement, but everyone acted as we did. Politicians now are not much brighter than they were in 1938.
Instead of uniform condemnation of the occupation of Crimea, Western politicians were pointing out that, historically, Russia’s claims to Crimea were at least equally good as the Ukrainian ones. They conveniently omitted what everyone could see: Russia did not take a legal path to reclaim Crimea, but went with an illegal military operation.
With heads in the sand, butts are exposed for kicks
After 2014, there was a tiny chance of preventing the war that started in 2022. The West could have asked Ukraine to sell Crimea to Russia in exchange for Russia pulling out from Donbas. As a part of this kind of deal, Ukraine would stay out of NATO but would have NATO’s security guarantees in case of Russia’s hypothetical aggression. If Russia had not planned to invade Ukraine, it would have worked well for everyone. But no reasonable politician in the West suggested that because each knew Russia would never give up its intention of conquering Ukraine. But everyone pretended that they did not know that.
In short, Western politicians had their heads in the sand, exposing their butts for kicks.
On February 24, 2022, Russia declared war on the West without making it formal
When Saddam Hussein took Kuwait in 1990, there were no doubts that it was a bold breach of international law, and many nations quickly joined a coalition to fight the invader. There was no difference when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, but the response was unusual. Instead of allying with Ukraine, the leading Western politicians worried about not annoying Russia. It became evident that all of the painstakingly constructed international laws to protect peace were against petty criminals. The powerful thugs are above the law.
Aggression against Ukraine was an audacious challenge to the whole world. Putin’s actions were saying loud and clear that he could do whatever he wanted and no one would dare challenge him. The whiff of Munich 1938 spread all over Europe when leading Western politicians were discussing protecting peace by not infuriating Russia. They could not avoid noticing that Russia started the fighting in Ukraine, and it is a war against the international legal order that had protected humanity from the start of another worldwide war since 1945. But instead of finding the best way to vanquish the aggressor quickly, they worried about not punishing Russia too much. Like politicians in 1938, they did not see the obvious, that informally, WWIII had started on February 24, 2022. They miss the elephant in the room, that the objective is to win the war decisively before it spreads.
The article that the world ignored
Two days after the invasion, the Russian state-owned news agency RIA Novosti published an article by Piotr Akopov (often incorrectly transcribed as Petr Akopov). It looks like that article was written before the invasion and was scheduled for publication on the second day of the war, assuming Russia would control Kyiv by then. Someone in Moscow did not watch the news, releasing that text. It disappeared soon after its publication, but nothing gets lost on the internet. Russian and English versions are available, “The offensive of Russia and the new world!”
Piotr Akopov wrote under the assumption that Russia would decisively win the first encounter with Ukraine. He openly stated that Ukraine would cease to exist as an independent nation. He mockingly asked a rhetorical question: “Did anyone in the old European capitals, in Paris and Berlin, seriously believe that Moscow would give up Kyiv?” In that new reality, the West would see “the return of Russia to its historical borders in Europe.” For the Baltic nations, Poland, and Finland, it could not be clearer that they are the next countries on the Russian agenda.
In conclusion, Akopov boldly states what Western politicians have difficulty hearing: “This is the conflict between Russia and the West.” And further: “The era of Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over. The new world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not) – but not on its terms and not according to its rules.”
That article confirms that the invasion of Ukraine is the beginning of a military confrontation with the West. It is not an official Russian document; Putin did not sign it. But, in fact, it is a declaration of WWIII. If Akopov had not expressed the views of the Russian leadership, that article would not have appeared on the Novosti website. Yet, many Western politicians insist it is raining when they get spit on their faces.
How to win WWIII before it reaches America?
There is only one way to do it: depriving an aggressor of the ability to do it again. It means not only that Russia needs to be expelled from all presently occupied Ukrainian lands, including Crimea. Russia must lose Abkhazia and South Ossetia, taken from Georgia in 2008. Also, it needs to leave Transnistria. Lastly, it should renounce territorial claims to its neighbors and provide credible guarantees of a sincere commitment to becoming a peaceful member of the community of nations. Under those conditions, similar to those faced by Germany and Japan after 1945, Russia could rebuild its prosperity.
The current Russian leadership cannot do it. Putin and his clique broke fundamental international laws; ergo, they are criminals and should be treated as such. Western politicians worry that even a regime change in Russia might not alter Russia’s political objectives. Let them focus on protecting their nations from the possibility of WWIII reaching them. Also, Western politicians are fretting that a defeated Russia might disintegrate. Again, if they had known enough about Russia, they would have prevented the invasion of Ukraine. The future of Russia is in the hands of its citizens. The only thing that Western politicians can do is to communicate a clear vision of Russia rejoining the international community.
There is a risk that the failing Putin regime will use nuclear weapons. Millions of people can die worldwide, but Russia’s even more humiliating fall is the only possible end. Potential leaders of a future Russia need to know today that if Putin drops atomic bombs, the whole nuclear industry in Russia will need to be under close international supervision for at least one generation.
After signing the Munich Agreement, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, said he had achieved “peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” Winston Churchill, who was much better at seeing further than one day ahead, riposted: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”
Churchill was right, and it should be a warning against the policy of appeasing Russia today.