With his decision to invade Ukraine, and with the incredibly savage way in which he is doing it, Vladimir Putin seems to have made the same mistake that Japan made in 1941 with its attack on Pearl Harbor. The circumstances were very similar. In that year, Japan attacked the United States, a much larger and more powerful country, based on the idea that the Americans would not have the character to oppose them in a long war, in which the economic and military prominence of the United States would prevail. Rather, the Japanese expected that the United States, with the Pacific Fleet lost in Pearl Harbor, would rush to a negotiating table where the Japanese would prevail because they were not afraid of war.
Things didn’t go as the Japanese had hoped. First, the Americans did not lose the core of the Pacific Fleet, the air carriers, which were not in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. Second, rather than cowing before the bloody attack of the Japanese, the Americans reacted with an unappeasable fury that the Japanese thought had disappeared from their character many years before. The fury led them to inflict an unconditional defeat on Japan less than four years later. The Japanese lost the war before it started, by awakening the giant.
Russia has not attacked the United States but Ukraine. But, when doing it, Putin awakened not just the United States but also Europe, which he had, like Japan, discounted as a decadent region corrupted by its own wealth. The United States is several times more powerful than Russia economically and militarily. Europe multiply this difference several times over. There is no way in which Russia could win a war against the former, much less against a coalition of the former and the latter. Putin awoke not one but two giants, and brought them together. The attack on Ukraine has been an attack on Europe, which will not forget this and will make sure that Putin does not attain what he wants. Moreover, the savagery of the Russian attack has shown that in Putin the world is facing as realistic a replica of Hitler as we can have in our times.
This is what we have seen happening these days. The entire West, full of determination, united in a way that Hitler never found until he invaded Poland.
Yet, in what unfortunately has become a predictable trend, a series of articles, written by people with different political backgrounds, have appeared in the Western media blaming the West, or the United States, for the horrible tragedy now being played in Ukraine. The case to support this bizarre accusation is presented in different packages but most of them can be summarized as the “let-us-allow-the-psychopath-do-as-he-wishes-to-avoid-confronting-him” argument. The idea is that if only the countries that were finally liberated from the Soviet Union’s grip in the 1990s had been willing to transfer their slavery to Russia when Russia recovered, we wouldn’t be facing these problems. But, no, they were not reasonable, and they wanted to be free and, being much smaller than Russia, they looked for protection in an international defense organization, NATO. Thus, even when it is not said explicitly in the articles presenting this argument, their writers think that these peoples—prominent among them the Ukrainians—are to blame in a fundamental, basic way.
The narrative does not stop there, however. It still lacks a crucial element, the assumed perfidy of the United States, to hone in on what is the real objective of this kind of reasoning: to put the blame of everything bad on the United States for motives that are not the subject of this note, which may include sheer conviction that the United States is an evil power, for unmanageable guilt complexes not related with the reality of the world, for sheer longing for attention, or for whatever other reason. The point is that the United States, according to these theories, injected in these peoples the subversive idea of freedom, which everybody should know should be kept away from Russia, the countries adjacent to it, the countries adjacent to these, until reaching a border line that should be defined by Russia exclusively.
Since the United States did not reject the pleas of these countries to enter NATO, the story goes, then poor Putin had to act to save his own and Russia’s right to enslave these countries, preserving the harmony that should prevail between brothers and sisters. Putin should not feel threatened. That should be the main axis of American foreign policy. And, if the United States steps out of line, we should all understand that everything that the Russians are doing in Ukraine, including invading a sovereign country, bombarding hospitals and schools and everything that moves, triggering the largest wave of refugees within living memory, should be blamed on the United States. And somebody should explain the Ukrainians that their rights take second place to the sense of comfort that Putin demands from the rest of the world.
Of course, this case cannot hold in any decent court of justice. It cannot resist a serious examination in purely pragmatic grounds, either.
There is no need to spend time arguing that Russia does not have the right to dominate all the countries around it, much less arguing that the Russians had acquired such right just because they have, or are supposed to have, more guns. We can, however, spend a few lines examining the idea that the world would be better protected against people like Putin and his followers if we all accept what he wants to do.
We know from history that appeasement did not stop Napoleon, or Hitler, or Stalin invading Poland along with Hitler, or any of the aggressive tyrants who tried to attain domestic support by invading other countries. Whenever Hitler obtained a triumph by threatening his potential opponents with war he just moved the goalpost—from Czechoslovakia to Austria to Poland. Surprisingly, in this process Putin has been more perversely honest than Hitler. While Hitler always pretended that the objective he had in mind was to conquer one single country, Putin does not even try to conceal that he wants to conquer all the territories that were behind the Iron Curtain from 1945 to the early 1990s. Thus, if he is served Ukraine, he has clarified that he would immediately demand the Baltic countries, Moldova, Georgia, and many more, maybe Finland, which was a part of the Old Russian Empire and then, maybe to protect a newly Russian Finland, Sweden and Norway as well. Thus, the argument to appease Putin to stop him from further aggressions cannot be applied in this case.
Moreover, cowing the opponents only could increase Putin’s prestige inside and outside Russia. it would facilitate the repetition of the same number. Russians would think that Putin attains costless victories with his bullying, and would happily support his aggressive adventures. As things have happened, Putin has been forced to lie inside Russia to protect his image of super hero and his power. Russian leaders who have lost wars have faced grave internal disturbances, in all cases. And the lesson of World War II in the cases of Hitler and the Japanese militaristic leaders was very clear: appeasement does not reduce, but instead increases, the danger of subsequent threats.
But there is another lesson in this direction that could be extracted from the Pacific war. The Japanese could not dream of reaching an overall economic and military superiority over the United States, but they could, and did, claim a local one, specifically in the Pacific. Yet, in two fierce battles, the Coral Sea and the decisive Midway, the United States proved that it had not just the character but also the force to massively defeat the Japanese Imperial Navy. The weak proved to be strong and vice versa. In our times, Russia has proved that its armed forces are much weaker than the power they projected, weaker than the heroic and much smaller Ukrainian army, and no match for the modern Western armies.
By supporting the Ukrainians in their fight for freedom, the West has obtained a tremendous strategic victory over Russia—it woke up to a terrible threat, unified itself with solid determination, learned the weaknesses of the Russian army in a real war in Europe, and disposed of the delusional view that if you smile to Putin he will smile back.
I hope that the argument that the best way to deal with a monster is to give in to his wishes will not destroy the strategic advantage that the West acquired over Russia and other potential enemies in the last several weeks.