In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain arrived home from a conference in Munich. He and other leaders had met with Hitler; they had agreed to allow the German army to annex a slice of Czechoslovakia; in exchange, Hitler offered more dialogue, and promised not to fight any further. To the cheering crowd who gathered to welcome his plane, Chamberlain happily declared that the threat of war had passed: He had obtained “peace with honour….peace for our time.”
As it turned out, Hitler was not satisfied with that slice of Czechoslovakia. He wanted all of Czechoslovakia—and then all of Poland, all of Belgium, all of the Netherlands, all of France. In light of the blood, death and tragedy that followed 1938, Chamberlain’s deal came to be described by an ugly word: Appeasement. Chamberlain is remembered not for the peace he negotiated, but for the war that followed.
More than eighty years later, another gathering in Munich tried not to make Chamberlain’s mistake. Americans and Germans dominated this weekend’s Munich Security Conference, as is traditional, but plenty of other prime ministers and foreign ministers—British, Swedish, Finnish, Polish, Estonian – were there too. Instead of conceding to a dictator, all present condemned a dictator and demanded, unanimously, that the Russian troops gathered on the borders of Ukraine go home.
The American vice-president made a solid, well-received speech: Kamala Harris declared that although “the foundation of European security is under direct threat in Ukraine,” the alliance would push back: “we, the US and Europe, have come together to demonstrate our strength and our unity.” Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, sat beside Antony Blinken, the American secretary of state, and said that “what makes me optimistic in these difficult times is the knowledge of the strength of our transatlantic union and the solidity of our alliances.” Blinken responded in kind: “The single greatest source of strength that we have in dealing with this issue, in dealing with this challenge, is the solidarity that Annalena talked about.”
Everyone present agreed that invasion will trigger severe sanctions. The shuttering of the brand new, still unused Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia looks very likely. Export controls and further sanctions will target Russian banks, Russian companies, Russian individuals. Although not everyone will supply weapons to Ukraine, those who have already done so and those who will continue to do so were not shy about it. The consensus created a good mood, an almost cheerful ambience. Instead of dividing us the Russians have brought us together, lots of people said. I heard versions of this several times too: NATO should put up a plaque to Putin, he’s done so much for alliance unity. The memory of 1938 haunted the room, but it was rejected: At this Munich conference, there will be no appeasement.
But alongside this agreeable unity was a strong, steady, persistent note of dissonance. It came not from the allies but from the Ukrainians who appeared at the conference in large numbers: government ministers, business leaders, members of parliament from different political parties. The CEO of Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state gas company, told me he believes Russians aren’t worried about U.S. sanctions: They think they will “get around them,” just as they have done in the past. On Saturday, the Ukrainian foreign minister pointedly asked a room full of American senators and European foreign ministers what, exactly, would trigger these massive sanctions. Russian forces had begun shelling towns in eastern Ukraine that very morning. Why didn’t that suffice?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, was blunter, angrier, more bitter still. He flew into Munich for a few hours, despite warnings that leaving Ukraine might be dangerous, and the message he carried was not designed to cheer up the room: “The architecture of world security is fragile and needs to be updated,” he said. The rules, norms, laws and principles so highly praised by everyone else were not being upheld. The UN charter guaranteeing every nation’s right to sovereignty had already been violated when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, he said, and yet nothing had happened. Russia, a UN Security Council member, had already annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and yet nothing had happened.
Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, Zelensky said, in return for a security guarantee signed by the U.S., the U.K., and Russia. What happened to those guarantees? Ukraine had been told that the doors to NATO membership remained open, but Ukraine was never invited inside. Because the Ukrainians are not members of NATO, they know they cannot count on allied forces to come to their support. And as for those “lessons of history” that Baerbock and other German politicians have referred to in recent days, Zelensky wondered aloud whether they had been learned: “I just want to make sure you and I read the same books.” And then, in defiance of everything that everybody else had said, he used the word “appeasement,” not to describe Munich in 1938, but Munich in 2022.
I am writing this at a strange, amorphous, ambiguous moment. It is Sunday evening, February 20, 2022. No major invasion has yet unfolded, and no one has announced major sanctions either. Yet Ukraine is already suffering the consequences of renewed Russian aggression. Airlines are pulling their planes out of the country. Foreign investment is on hold. Ukrainian soldiers died this past weekend, murdered by Russian bullets. Zelensky mentioned one of them, Captain Anton Sydorov, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, who sang and played the guitar. He was 34 years old, the father of three daughters. Meanwhile, Russia pays no price. Not for Sydorov; not for the Crimean Tatars, the peninsula’s indigenous inhabitants, who have been “disappeared,” arrested and tortured; not for the destruction of life and property thanks to the war in the East.
Once again, there are no Chamberlains in this story: the Biden administration has used clear language about this crisis, revealing the intelligence it receives in real time. As a result, no one has fallen for Russian propaganda. Blinken really has rallied allies. Harris’s declaration was crystal clear. I cannot imagine that the Trump administration would have done the same, and I am relieved Trump is not in power.
But none of us knows what our actions will look like in retrospect, in the longer light of history. Will it have been enough, the few weapons we provided, the sanctions we threatened, to deter an invasion? Were there more sophisticated weapons we could have provided in recent weeks or recent years? Is Zelensky right to hint that a further invasion of Ukraine could be just a prelude, the beginning of a wider conflict that could drag much of Europe into a war? “For eight years,” he told the conference hall, “Ukraine has been rebuffing one of the world’s biggest armies. Which stands along our borders, not the borders of the European Union.” Or not yet.
In the meantime, despite everything that was said, everything that was promised, and everything that was discussed, Ukraine will fight alone. At a dinner on Saturday night, a Ukrainian woman whom I first met in 2014—she began her career as an anti-corruption activist—stood up and told the room that not only was she returning to Kyiv, so was her husband, a British citizen. He had recently flown to London on family business, but if there was going to be a war, he wanted to be in Ukraine. The other Ukrainians in the room nodded: They were all scrambling to find flights back too. The rest of us— American, Polish, Danish, British—said nothing. Because we knew that we would not be joining them.