A powerful state was threatening to protect its compatriots over the border by intervening in the neighboring country. The neighbor had a well-equipped army but could not have beaten back the powerful state all by itself. The world stood on the brink of another world war. But thanks to the intercession of diplomats, a hastily written agreement averted a major conflagration.
“All the elements were present on the spot for the outbreak of a conflict which might have precipitated the catastrophe,” reported one of those diplomats after the conclusion of the agreement. “We had populations inflamed to a high degree; we had extremists on both sides ready to work up and provoke incidents; we had considerable quantities of arms which were by no means confined to regularly organized forces. Therefore, it was essential that we should quickly reach a conclusion.”
The diplomat, of course, was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had just negotiated the Munich Agreement with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. In September 1938, Hitler had given Europe an end-of-month deadline to give Germany the Sudetenland, a section of Czechoslovakia where a large German minority lived. Otherwise, the German leader intended to seize the region by force.
Hitler promised that it would be the last territorial demand he would make of Europe.
In the brief speech he gave in front of 10 Downing Street, Chamberlain declared that the Munich Agreement was “peace for our time,” which for some reason has been repeatedly misquoted as “peace in our time.”
It wouldn’t be Hitler’s last diktat or his last territorial grab. The following September, after Germany invaded Poland, Chamberlain would reverse himself and declare war against Hitler’s regime.
In retrospect, it’s easy to criticize Chamberlain’s naivete. Perhaps he wasn’t fully versed in Hitler’s appropriation of the concept of lebensraum—“living space”—to justify his desire to expand the national borders of Germany. Maybe he didn’t know that in 1936 Hitler had spoken covetously of the “rich forests” of Siberia and the “incalculable farmlands” of Ukraine.
But those who speak of a “peace for our time” in Ukraine by compromising with Russian President Vladimir Putin—effectively trading land that is not theirs for a peace that won’t endure—have a much harder time explaining away their naivete. For one, they have to reckon with this earlier history of appeasement that holds lessons for all those who engage with authoritarian leaders with imperial ambitions.
These “peace advocates” must also deliberately close their eyes and ears to Putin’s version of lebensraum, namely the “Russian world” that he routinely invokes to extend Moscow’s “protection” to Belarus, Ukraine, and areas on the Russian border with significant Russian-speaking minorities.
These erstwhile lovers of diplomacy probably don’t know that the word mir in Russian means both “world” and “peace.” So, when Putin talks of this “Russian world,” he is also speaking of a Russian peace. Such a “peace” would preserve Russian territorial gains in Ukraine, amnesty all Russians who have committed war crimes during this conflict, and absolve Russia of its financial responsibility for damages incurred during the war. In other words, any such consolidation of the “Russian world” of Vladimir Putin requires a “Russian peace.”
Instead, peace activists should be clamoring for a “peace in their time,” namely a peace on Ukrainian terms. Ukraine, after all, is the victim in this conflict. It should ideally decide the timing and the parameters of any peace deal.
Fortunately, it now seems that the international community may be coming around to that position as well.
The meeting in Jeddah
This last weekend, representatives from over 40 countries came to the Saudi city of Jeddah to talk about peace in Ukraine.
Russia was not invited.
The snub was deliberate. The meeting was designed to build a peace plan around principles that Ukraine has put forward, especially the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory and the return of those lands to Ukrainian control.
Territorial integrity and the inviolability of sovereignty are bedrock principles in international law and inform the operating consensus of the United Nations. So, it’s no surprise really that the participants in the Jeddah meeting reached agreement that these Ukrainian demands should be at the heart of any peace deal. Other issues, such as war crimes and compensation, remain controversial.
That so many countries showed up in Jeddah is already a step forward for Ukraine and the prospects for a “peace in their time.” The participants were not just the usual suspects who are already supplying Ukraine with arms. Many of the countries in the Global South who showed up have been hitherto reluctant to anger Russia, which is a source of arms shipments, grain, and occasionally other products. But Russia’s abrogation of the grain deal and its deliberate targeting of Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure, a war crime in and of itself, has been a step too far for many countries in the Global South who have come to depend on cheaper Ukrainian grain exports.
For the time being, countries like China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil continue to insist that they are working with both sides. But the Jeddah meeting sends a signal to the Kremlin that it can no longer take for granted even the qualified support it has received from these powerful countries.
Ukraine expects that the Jeddah meeting will lead to two summits that will finalize a peace deal that could come with the imprimatur of the international community.
Putin cracks down (again)
Boris Kagarlitsky is the most prominent Russian leftist of his generation. I interviewed him in Moscow over 30 years ago, in October 1990 during the waning days of the Soviet Union, about the challenges of creating a left party and the emergence of a “second dissidence” in response to the ruling elite and their economic programs. He was the most interesting commentator on the ultimately quixotic efforts to pull some version of democratic socialism out of the wreckage of Soviet communism.
Kagarlitsky is now sitting in jail, having been arrested for his statements against the war in Ukraine. This week, the Russian government also designated him a “terrorist.”
Opposing the war in Ukraine required something of an about-face for Kagarlitsky, who improbably supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Donbas secession struggles in 2014. Becoming part of the “patriotic left,” he took advantage of the greater media exposure that came with his newfound allegiance to the Russian government.
But that only made his subsequent criticism of Putin’s war in Ukraine all the more threatening to the Russian government. His arrest has come amid a crackdown against dissent across the political spectrum. This week, the government also added 19 years to the sentence of the country’s most prominent dissident, Alexei Navalny. A rather conventional nationalist during his protest days, Navalny has also recently changed his tune on aspects of the Ukraine War, for instance now supporting the reversion of Crimea to Ukraine.
And then there’s Igor Girkin, who occupies a position on the political spectrum further to the right of Putin. A former intelligence operative and mercenary, Girkin helped set up the pro-war Club of Angry Patriots in April. But not even these extremist, pro-war credentials have saved Girkin from the wrath of Putin. When the military blogger directly criticized the Russian president last month, he too was thrown in jail.
Presidential elections will be held in Russia next year. Though press spokesman Dmitry Peskov confidently speaks of a landslide victory, Putin is clearly concerned that someone or something will pose a significant challenge to his authority.
But as long as Putin remains in charge, Ukraine will face a major obstacle in achieving peace on its own terms. Like Hitler, Putin has been coy about his own territorial ambitions. His spokesman Peskov said recently that “we just want to control all the land we have now written into our Constitution as ours.” That means the Donbas and Crimea—and a few more pieces of territory—but Russia doesn’t currently control all of the Donbas. So, even this “modest” imperialism would entail a broader land grab.
Putin’s ambitions, meanwhile, range from a “sanitary cordon” of Russian-occupied territory that prevents Ukrainian missiles from reaching Russian territory to the seizure of all of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to the all-out replacement of the “Nazi” government in Kyiv. The Russian government has also threatened to use nuclear weapons, so it is not above using nuclear blackmail to achieve its aims.
But all talk of Putin being satisfied with control of the territory the Russian army currently controls is naivete at the level of believing Hitler’s promise that Nazi Germany wouldn’t occupy any territory beyond the Sudetenland. The world soon saw through the claims of “peace in our time.” With the wisdom of hindsight and given the widely available evidence of Putin’s intentions, it’s time to rally behind the alternative: “peace in their time.”