“Never Again?” How false conclusions from the Second World War brought the attack on Ukraine closer

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In order to summarize the conclusions that the Western world made after the Second World War, two words are enough: ‘’Never again.’’ The horror of the Holocaust, the condemnation of Nazism, sorrow for the millions of dead, and finally, the rejection of war as it is, everything is reflected in this slogan. The phrase “Never again” became a statement of fact after the Cold War ended. The “red menace” has disappeared, and it seemed that at least this part of the continent was on the path of sustainable and conflict-free development. The frame of mind of an entire generation of the Western establishment was defined by confidence in this, and was so strong that Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014 was seen as an unfortunate exception to the general rule. However, Russia’s full-scale aggression was a shock that caused not only a wave of solidarity with Ukraine, but also awakened old fears.

Pro-Russian sentiments in the West have not yet completely disappeared, but they do not currently have a decisive weight. The main debate in the West today, in 2024, is between those who support decisive military support for Ukraine and those who prefer to bring the “parties of the conflict” to the negotiation table as soon as possible and finally start what is called a “diplomatic settlement” in the language of diplomatic protocol. Both positions are based on strong arguments, including those rooted in the experience of the Second World War. The misinterpretation problem of this experience led to the fact that European cities are bombarded again, and the word “genocide” is back in the columns of the leading media and echoes from the UN tribunes.

See no evil

The first false conclusion from the Second World War experience was that peace is such a great value that reality can (and sometimes must) be ignored in order to preserve it. Russia’s transformation into an aggressive dictatorship was neither sudden nor covert; the process began during Putin’s first term as president and continued uninterrupted for more than two decades. The Kremlin’s official ideological evolution was also obvious to all. Ironically, the distorted memory of the Second World War became the backbone of the Putin regime’s ideology. Having unjustifiably appropriated the exclusive status of “the country that defeated Nazism”, Russia quickly turned from narcissism to messianism, and the sentimental slogan “Thank you, grandfather, for the Victory” (“Spasibo dedu za Pobedu”) was replaced by the threatening slogan “We can repeat.”

Moreover, back in the 2000s, the Kremlin armed itself with the doctrine of “Russian world”, which substantiated Russia’s claims to extend its influence over neighbouring independent states. However, the idea of ​​“Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok” was in the air even after Putin’s infamous Munich speech in 2007. It was a rather frank statement that Russia is not satisfied with the existing world order, and it reserves the right to disregard the established rules of coexistence on the continent and beyond. It is difficult to imagine that the audience to whom this message was addressed did not understand Putin. They simply decided not to attach due importance to his words, fearing that an adequate reaction would upset the status quo.

READ ALSO: Forgotten Declaration of War. Why Putin’s Anti-Western Rhetoric Is not a Bluff

After all, it is not only about words and not only about Putin. The Transnistrian region rejection from Moldova (1991-1992), two bloody wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and after 1999), the attack on Georgia (2008) are far from an exhaustive list of armed conflicts, during which Moscow demonstrated that it still cherishes traditional imperialism. The Ukrainian Crimea annexation and occupation of a part of Donbas in 2014 became another turn of Russian expansionism. And, as it has become obvious now, ignoring this trend did not help preserve peace but, on the contrary, encouraged Moscow to engage in even more large-scale aggression.

Appeasement of the aggressor

It is unlikely that there will be at least one politician in the West who would like to gain the sad fame of the U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. As we know now, the Munich Agreement of 1938 did not avert a major war in Europe and did not even significantly postpone it. But the paradox is that in the 21st century, there are many willing to repeat this obvious mistake, belittling the true significance of the events in spring 2014 in Ukraine.

Ten years ago, Moscow’s ambitions extended far beyond the borders of Crimea and Donbas. Even then, Russian propaganda operated with the ideology “Novorossiya from Kharkiv to Odesa”, which reflected the real appetites of the Kremlin. The hybrid invasion initial plan assumed the seizure of Southern and Eastern regions of Ukraine by creating puppet quasi-republics such as the “LPR” and “DPR”. The fact that Russia managed to capture only a third part of the territory of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions on the mainland was the result of the enormous forces of the Ukrainian state and civil society, which thwarted the plan to dismember Ukraine. However, the world reaction turned out to be disproportionate to the level of the threat. Instead of punishing the aggressor, he was invited to the negotiating table, starting the so-called “Minsk Process”, and the sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation turned out to be ineffective. Instead of countering, or at least containing Russia, the West has chosen a strategy of appeasement, ​​and this is what has encouraged Putin to try again. But this time it was about the occupation of the whole territory of Ukraine.

It was difficult for the Western establishment and societies to accept the fact that war has returned to Europe. Even more unbearable is the idea that the Kremlin’s threats against the Baltic countries and other NATO members are not a bluff, but a declaration of intent. Geographical expanding of the armed conflict would indeed be a tragedy, but indecision or “restraint” in supporting Ukraine increases the likelihood of this scenario.

Fear of “militarism”

The militarization of the West is an adequate and forced response to the threats it faces today. Increasing military budgets, rearmament, intensifying in the defence-industrial complexes – all this can look like a catastrophic slide to an even bigger war, which threatens to turn into the Third World War and finally destroy the world order. However, such reasoning contains a fundamental error. It is hardly worth reminding that the stable international order on the continent after 1945 was created by force of arms, and the Cold War did not turn into a “hot” thanks to the obvious military superiority of the West.

After the USSR collapse, there was prevalent among Western elites idea, that Russia could be integrated into the Euro-Atlantic community through the development of economic ties that would force Moscow to curb its own imperial appetites in favour of pragmatic gain. But this idea did not come true. The economic ties with Europe were seen in the Kremlin as a tool of blackmail and pacifism as an admission of weakness. The consequences of this are well known: peace on the continent has become less, not more.

The new world order, which Putin has been talking about for the third year in a row, has nothing in common with decolonization. The Russian dictator is talking about a world in which the right of power, not limited by any agreements, laws and conventions, will rule. There is no doubt that it would be a militarized world full of violence and brutality. The only real way to prevent this scenario is to improve the collective security system, which can force Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang to observe the rules of civilized coexistence. It is possible only when calls for order are based on a real and undeniable willingness to use force.

The Ukrainian factor

Ukraine, which was to become a strategically important resource appendage of the Third Reich, was at the centre of Hitler’s colonial plans, has aptly noted a historian Timothy Snyder. Ukraine was the same resource for Stalin, and therefore the collision of two totalitarianisms became inevitable. Today, Ukraine also plays a key role in what kind of world will be tomorrow. But now it is not so much about the economic and natural resources that Putin could take over, but about the political and symbolic resource. Having achieved at least partial success in its war, the Kremlin will prove that the international order created after 1945, and finally consolidated after 1991, can be revised. And the greater his successes, the more convincing this example will become.

Today, it is not too late to avert a catastrophe that could befall Ukraine, the West, and eventually the whole world. The West has enough resources that can be mobilized and properly directed by efforts of political will. We are talking about large resources and the unusual speed of decision-making in democracies. However, it will be the best investment in our common future, where “Never again” sounds like a statement of fact, not a reproach.

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