May 6, 2016

Back to appeasement?


In the course of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt – suffering from many ailments, as well as Soviet infiltration of his administration and the Department of State – sought a “modus vivendi” with Joseph Stalin. Having just experienced the results of a similar course by his British brothers acting through Foreign Minister Neville Chamberlain in Munich in 1938 involving a different psychopath, Adolf Hitler, FDR nevertheless failed to recognize the similarity between Hitler and Stalin. The result was a 45-year Cold War (only it wasn’t so cold in Korea, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Hungary, Vietnam and Afghanistan – those conflicts resulted in significant loss of life). The economic loss resulting from an arms race was trillions of dollars.

Such was the result of appeasement. Today, the lineage of history’s international psychopaths includes Vladimir Putin. Yet in Russia he is not an aberration. He is widely supported. Elections are irrelevant; they are simply staged. The opposition is cast in the Kremlin. Mr. Putin and Russia have been flexing their muscles since Mr. Putin was first appointed prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Chechnya was cowed. Moldova watched as Russia froze the conflict in Transnistria with Russian troops standing guard. Then Mr. Putin took on Georgia, severing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, once again stationing Russian troops there. Still, these acts of aggression were merely exercises before Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2014. Russian forces have been there ever since.

The West reacted appropriately. It condemned and imposed economic sanctions.

In the meantime, Ukraine began the laborious process of rebuilding after suffering a pro-Russian kleptocrat as president for three years. The rebuilding consisted of defending itself in armed conflict, while rebuilding its military, reforming its economy and battling a system of corruption that was inveterate to Soviet society for 70 years. In fact, Ukraine has adopted or drafted laws and strategies establishing a civil service that is depoliticized and independent, lowered its taxes, reduced regulations, mandated financial transparency on state assets, diversified food products, opened new markets, reduced dependence on Russian gas through alternative sources and conservation, increased the living wage for its citizens and government employees as an incentive in the struggle against corruption, and formed several civil society structures to monitor corruption.

The results have been mixed. The West could have been more helpful with military technology and lethal arms, but Ukraine survived during these last two most trying years and now possesses a quarter million-strong standing military force, and the World Bank forecasts growth in Ukraine’s GDP in 2016.

Recently, the West – in particular impatient Western business interests largely motivated by greed – is feeling the need to end the West’s isolation of Russia and move back to appeasement. This is not unusual historically. Western banks and business continued to do business with Adolf Hitler at the height of World War II. Introducing a moral component as a counterweight to greed for many seems naive.

Economic sanctions are effective only in the long term. While economic sanctions have proved relatively effective to date, they must remain in place to accomplish their ultimate purpose. Thus, ignoring the moral component, the apparent conundrum is not so difficult to address – immediate aggrandizement versus long term development for a more prosperous future.

An argument has been advanced that the United Sates and Old Europe have no real interest in a democratic and independent Ukraine. Specious historical perspectives are presented for a Russian sphere of influence buying into Russian disinformation and purported concern for the Russians in Ukraine, including Crimea, and even the Baltic states. These perspectives conveniently ignore history’s genocides. Frankly, there would be no significant Russian concentration in the eastern part of Ukraine (Donbas) or in Crimea had it not been for genocides by starvation of Ukrainians in 1932-1933 and by deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

To the strictly business mind, a historical or moralistic approach does not matter. Well then, consider a long-term economic and strategic approach. Business does not work well where access to markets is limited by authoritarianism and extreme poverty. That should speak to the self-interest of business. Do America and the Old Europe have a significant strategic self-interest in a democratic and economically viable Ukraine? The answer: A secure New Europe that includes Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine is a much more attractive economic opportunity than one that is fearful of Russian aggression. Besides, Mr. Putin’s Russia is the European Union’s bitterest enemy.

Ukraine is unfortunate in that it neighbors Russia. On the other hand, Ukraine’s geographic location is prime. It is the gateway to Europe; in fact, Ukraine is located in the center of Europe. Ukraine’s population consists of some 45 million people; 99 percent of Ukraine’s population is educated. Ukraine is or could be the breadbasket of Europe even today. It is a large source of metal ore. There is a very good reason why Polish leaders have opined that without an independent Ukraine there will be no Poland and that in the long term Russia is more dangerous than ISIS. Similar expressions have come from the Baltic countries. Does Old Europe need New Europe?

We live in a global community. The Cold War and spheres of influence are concepts of a failed history. While we often repeat fallacious clichés that history repeats itself, with the dynamics implemented by technology, history simply cannot repeat itself.

Appeasement of Russia is a remnant of old thinking. It was a dismal failure in the past because it absorbed energies, lives and economics for a half century. Mr. Putin and bellicose Russia cannot be appeased. Concessions will simply whet their appetite. A weakened Russia, however, can be affected. Russia has to be confronted, neutralized and ultimately dragged or welcomed into the civilized world.

Ukraine is the keystone to a global community – a civilized community that can protect its citizens, defeat terrorism and secure a relatively peaceful world. With foresight and perseverance on the part of the West, Mr. Putin will become an anomaly even in a withdrawn and aberrant Russia. Ukraine is important not simply for its own sake, but more so because its successful future as a democratic, secure and economically sound state would be a model for others in the international community less fortunate than the West. What’s in it for Western business? New vistas and expanding markets, not to mention, the moral factor.