A Munich in Moscow

February 10, 2015
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow February 6, 2014. Photo via USA Today

Staunton, February 7 – The meeting of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Ukraine without the presence of Ukrainian leaders has led many commentators to draw parallels with the 1938 Munich Conference at which Britain and France sold out Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the name of “peace in our time.”

Perhaps the most thoughtful of these is offered by Andrey Piontkovsky who argues that “events in Ukraine are developing approximately according to the very same scenario” that events in Czechoslovakia did 77 years ago and strongly implies that they will continue in the same direction as well.

Just how far Merkel and Hollande are prepared to go for peace in their time is unclear, he argues. It could be anything from “a second Transdniestria” to the legitimation of Russian “peacekeepers” inside the borders of Ukraine and the “guarantees” Putin seeks for a “non-aligned” government in Kyiv.

But as the Russian analyst points out, the very fact of the meeting represents “an enormous political success” for the Kremlin leader. Not only does it boost Putin’s prestige and end all the talk about his international isolation, but it divides Europe and the United States as well as undermining the unity of Europe itself, two long-standing Moscow goals.

Many if not all “had hoped that Putin had been driven into a corner, but now he is again on the march. All this,” Piontkovsky says, “has become possible” thanks to the shift of position of German Chancellor Merkel who has succumbed to Putin’s latest campaign to achieve exactly those two ends.

(Piontkovsky dismisses Hollande’s presence in Moscow and his actions as not unexpected because the French president has been “zombified by Putin” for a long time and thus could be expected to follow Merkel if she made such a shift away from support for Ukraine against Russian aggression to cooperation with Moscow in the name of ending the conflict.)

Among the leaders of Putin’s latest ideological effort has been Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center and someone “very respected in America as a pro-Western specialist,” even though in fact he is “a GRU colonel” and may now even be a general in the Russian intelligence services, Piontkovsky says.

In an interview to London’s Financial Times, Trenin suggested that if the United States provided weapons to Ukraine, “’the Russians’ in this case would use tactical nuclear weapons,” a statement that so frightened the Europeans that Merkel and with her Holland changed their approach and have pushed Ukraine toward acceptance of Putin’s plans.

Not only does this open a gulf between the EU leaders and the United States and between Germany and France and many other countries in the EU, but it allows Putin to achieve two other goals as well. On the one hand, it sets the stage for exactly the kind of negotiations Putin wants: by world leaders face to face over the fate of lesser powers.

And on the other hand, it shows that aggression and even the threat of aggression works for Moscow, thus guaranteeing there will be more of it. In that way too, Moscow 2015 resembles Munich 1938, even if the leaders of Germany and France are not prepared to learn those lessons or even think longer term.