The American writer and journalist Robert Wright tried to figure out why the US president, despite all his assurances, did not want to conduct real negotiations with his Russian counterpart Putin.
1. Topic 1. Munich
Last week, Ukrainian President Zelenskiy gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he complained that NATO had not set a clear timeline for admitting Ukraine. His speech generated the following headline in the British tabloid Daily Mail: “Ukrainian President denounces Western ‘appeasement’ of Putin in scathing speech in MUNICH…”
Yes, the headline said “Munich” in capital letters: MUNICH. It was a useful reminder that in foreign policy circles, the word “appeasement” almost always refers to the infamous speech of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938. With Germany massing troops along the border with Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain made concessions to prevent an invasion and then walked out of the meeting declaring that “there will be peace in our time”. That was enough for six years and 60 million bodies.
Since then, people who favor concessions that can reduce the likelihood of war have been accused of being in favor of “appeasement” and have been severely warned against repeating the Munich mistakes. Undoubtedly, President Biden realized that he would be overwhelmed with the word if he mentioned the possibility of fulfilling Putin’s most important desire by excluding the admission of Ukraine to NATO. (Commentators sent “Munich Warnings” back in November and December in response to rumors of another concession.)
The comparison with Munich should not be ignored. First, it is always regrettable to make concessions to someone who threatens to invade a country. You’d rather not reward this kind of behavior. However, I think that paying such a price is the only important parallel between the Munich case and the Ukrainian case. And there are at least two big differences between these two cases.
Difference #1. In Munich, when Hitler threatened to invade and seize part of the territory, Chamberlain agreed to give it to him. Great Britain and France forced Czechoslovakia to give Hitler the Sudetenland, the German-speaking part of the country. On the contrary, the idea behind the concession between NATO and Ukraine was to keep Putin from seizing the territory he threatened to seize. There has been much talk, from administration officials to others, that excluding Ukraine from NATO would somehow violate its “sovereign right” to decide which alliances it joins. This is nonsense. Ukraine has no more sovereign rights to join NATO than I have to join the Council on Foreign Relations. International alliances, like the organizations that underlie our establishment, choose their own members.
In short, Chamberlain replaced one kind of violation of Czechoslovak sovereignty—loss of territory by invasion—with what was essentially another kind: loss of territory without invasion. Nobody asked Biden to do this with Ukraine. We asked him to prevent the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty (loss of territory through invasion) by doing something that does not violate anyone’s sovereignty.
Putin has never — neither in his rise to leadership of Russia nor in his subsequent foreign policy — been as careless with the risk-taking that Hitler has shown again and again. So there is no reason to believe that Putin would have followed through with the expansionist fury that followed the Chamberlain deal, when Hitler annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland within a year. (Hitler was surprised that the invasion of Poland led to France and Britain declaring war on Germany. It was just that risk assessment was not his forte.)
Furthermore, since any deal with Putin would make continued compliance with the NATO-Ukraine concession contingent on Russia’s continued compliance with that deal, this “concession” could easily be reclaimed if Putin violated the deal. The promise not to expand NATO is easy to withdraw, it was impossible to allow Nazi troops to occupy part of Czechoslovakia and win back.
2. Theme “You can’t convince Putin.”
The portrayal of Putin as crazy, irrational, or incomprehensibly strange is a common theme in the Blobosphere (and it certainly works in synergy with the Munich theme, as it puts Putin’s tactical psychology in close proximity to Hitler’s tactical psychology).
In January, for example, influential Blobster Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and MSNBC Russia expert, explained in The Washington Post why there was no point in offering Putin things like freezing NATO expansion:
“If Putin thought the way we do, perhaps some of these proposals might work. Putin thinks differently than we do. It has its own analytical structure, its own ideas and its own ideology, only a few of which correspond to Western rational realism.
Also in January, international relations scholar Tom Nichols wrote in The Atlantic that Putin “simply does not share a common worldview with his opponents in the West.” Rather, “deep in the dark recesses of Putin’s psyche” there are such things as “an emotional and inner attachment to Ukraine” so strong that it gives the West “limited influence in the situation that is now unfolding.” Hence the title and subtitle of Nichols’ article: “Only Putin knows what will happen next: only he can make a choice and return Europe to the brink of a big war.” Hence Nichols’s view of why Putin has been amassing more and more troops to the border with Ukraine:
“No one really knows why Putin is doing this.”
Not everyone will see the Ukraine crisis as a bewildering product of Putin’s eccentricities. Take, for example, the current director of the CIA, William Burns. Back in 2008, when George W. Bush fatally coerced a stubborn European leader into promising a future NATO membership for Ukraine, Burns sent a memo to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that contained the following warning:
Ukraine’s accession to NATO is the brightest of all the red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of talking with key Russian players, from slackers in the dark corners of the Kremlin to Putin’s harshest liberal critics, I have never found anyone who sees Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russia’s interests.
Burns added that “it is difficult to overestimate the strategic implications” of offering Ukraine NATO membership, a move that he predicted would “create fertile ground for Russian intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”
So, 12 years ago, Burns predicted that almost the entire Russian national security establishment would be inclined to create problems in Ukraine if we offered it NATO membership. And now that we promised Ukraine NATO membership, and Putin is indeed creating problems in Ukraine, people like McFaul and Nichols say the explanation must lie somewhere in the dark recesses of Putin’s peculiar psychology.
I am not saying that Putin’s calculations concern exclusively Russia’s national security. Obviously, Putin is a politician, and he reacts both to domestic political forces and to geopolitical ones. But even in the home realm, his pattern of responses is understandable as a product of the rational mind.
For example: if enough Russians feel that the West does not respect their country, Putin can score points by going against the West. And, to be more precise, if the Russians find out that the pro-Western Ukrainian government is narrowing down the role of the Russian language in public schools and shutting down Russian-language media—both the Ukrainian government has done—then they will oppose Ukraine, which could be a particularly popular way to oppose the West. A recent New York Times article about Putin noted “nationalist instigators on prime-time talk shows and in parliament who have been urging him for years to annex more Ukraine.”
None of this is rocket science! It is not difficult to get at least a rough idea of the political and geopolitical factors that shape the thinking and actions of world leaders, and then to apply them accordingly. Nevertheless, our best blobster writers for our most respected blob publications—McFaul for the Washington Post, Nichols for the Atlantic—sit and scratch their heads in pitiful bewilderment: this alleged image of Putin is so strange that it makes no sense to serious negotiations with him.
In defense of McFaul and Nichols – and other blobsters who also suffer from cognitive empathy deficits – they may be victims of a cognitive bias known as attribution error. It can distort our perception of both allies and enemies. With enemies, it works like this: if they do something that we consider bad, we tend to attribute this behavior to their internal disposition, their basic character, and not to external circumstances.
So if, say, we are trying to explain why an enemy is threatening to invade Ukraine, we are ignoring explanations related to political and geopolitical circumstances and accepting explanations that see the problem in the enemy’s fundamental location – in his “emotional and internal attachment to Ukraine” or, more vaguely, in a kind of “analytical framework” that we rational Westerners find hard to understand.
In any case, whatever the roots of cognitive empathy deficits and other unfortunate Blob-typical tendencies that have surfaced of late, the damage has already been done: it seems that Blob has won again. Thanks to people like McFaul and Nichols, as far as we can tell, there has been no serious attempt to negotiate with Putin – to offer concessions that were clearly at the heart of his motivation. And now that Putin has recognized Ukraine’s separatist republics and sent troops into them—an act of aggression and a direct violation of international law—the political cost of concessions for Biden will be even higher. (And the real cost of concessions—in terms of the magnitude of the offenses that will now be rewarded—is higher.)
As the aggression unfolds and possibly spreads far beyond the Donbas, which includes these two republics, expect to hear people like McFaul and Nichols make excuses: Putin is as bad and irrational as they are about him. they say! You may even hear some analogies with Hitler. But remember: from now on, we are seeing what Putin did after we took the advice of McFaul and Nichols and refused to engage in serious negotiations with him. We see what happens when you don’t try to “appease”.
Author (c) Robert Wrightwriter, journalist.
In fact, everything is quite simple here – the American establishment did not and does not consider the Russian Federation an equal partner for negotiations. Biden is part of this establishment and surrounded by representatives of it, so he behaves accordingly.
Russia was denied in plain text – none of its red lines or spheres of influence will be taken into account. Therefore, the subject of negotiations was rather quickly exhausted: Russia was clearly shown that within the framework of the Washington world order, Russia cannot count on the realization of its national interests even within the rather limited border spheres of influence. Which left Russia with a rather simple choice – either capitulate and accept this reality, or proceed with further actions aimed at dismantling the Washington world order and a world based on American rules.
Russia was simply left no choice, although a significant part of the Russian elites for a long time actively and consciously hoped to come to an agreement with the West, sincerely wondering why the latter did not want to give Russia the little that it asks for being part of the West.