The war in Ukraine reminds me of one word: naiveté.
Far too often we see how countries naively have given up their strategic advantages and/or resources, in exchange for security guaranties.
Let us start with Czechoslovakia in 1938. Germany had started a low-intensity undeclared war on Czechoslovakia on September 17, 1938. In reaction, the United Kingdom and France on September 20 of that year formally asked Czechoslovakia to cede its territory to Germany. An emergency meeting of the main European powers – not including Czechoslovakia– took place in Munich, Germany, on September 29-30, 1938. An agreement was quickly reached on Hitler’s terms, being signed by the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, and Italy. The Czechoslovak mountainous borderland that the powers offered to appease Germany had not only marked the natural border between the Czech state and the Germanic states since the early Middle Ages, but it also presented a major natural obstacle to any possible German attack. Having been strengthened by significant border fortifications, the Sudetenland was of absolute strategic importance to Czechoslovakia. On September 30, Czechoslovakia yielded to the combination of military pressure by Germany, Poland and Hungary, and diplomatic pressure by the United Kingdom and France, and agreed to give up strategic territory that was key to the defense of its country, to Germany on Munich terms.
The Munich Agreement was an agreement concluded at Munich on September 30, 1938 by Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. It provided “cession to Germany of the Sudeten German territory” of Czechoslovakia, despite the existence of a 1924 alliance agreement and the 1925 military pact between France and the Czechoslovak Republic. Most of Europe celebrated the Munich agreement, which was presented as a way to prevent a major war on the continent. The four powers agreed to the annexation of the Czechoslovak borderland areas named the Sudetenland, where more than three million people, mainly ethnic Germans, lived.
Adolf Hitler announced that this was his last territorial claim in Europe.
In March 1939, the First Slovak Republic, a Nazi puppet state, proclaimed its independence. Shortly afterwards, Hitler reneged on his solemn promises to respect the integrity of Czechoslovakia by creating the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, giving Germany full control of what remained of Czechoslovakia, including its significant military arsenal that later played an important role in Germany’s invasions of Poland and France. As a result, Czechoslovakia had disappeared.
Today, the Munich Agreement is widely regarded as a failed act of appeasement, and often referred to as the Munich Betrayal. The term has become “a byword for the futility of appeasing expansionist totalitarian states.”
Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon, during a press conference in 2001, warned US President Bush that in forging his coalition against terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks should not try “to appease the Arabs at our expense. We won’t accept it.”
President Bush was under fire from Arab states for his hands-off approach to the yearlong Palestinian uprising (the Second Intifada) and under pressure to lure moderate Arab and Muslim states into a global alliance against terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In response, his administration pressured Israel to agree to a ceasefire with the Palestinians, and said that creating a Palestinian state has “always” been on the US Middle East agenda.
Sharon called on the Western democracies “not to commit again the terrible mistake” made in 1938 when European democracies sacrificed Czechoslovakia for a temporary solution. “Israel will not be Czechoslovakia,” he warned. Mr. Sharon was alluding to the 1938 Munich conference, when European powers yielded to German dictator Adolf Hitler and allowed him to take over part of the then Czechoslovakia. World leaders in 2001, including President Bush, found Sharon’s remarks unacceptable.
Sharon exhibited strength and drew a clear red line. He showed the world that history’s mistakes shall not be repeated. He stood up for his country and took responsibility for its wellbeing, even if this meant a profound disagreement with a key alley.
In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine found itself in possession of one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals; it had the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile. Ukraine had physical but no operational control over this stockpile. Russia controlled the codes needed to operate the nuclear weapons, yet this was not deemed as a sufficient guarantee against Ukrainian access.
Ukraine quickly came under heavy pressure from the West to denuclearize and obliged. The Ukrainian leadership agreed to dismantle all its nuclear weapons and formally join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Three years later, on December 5, 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, together with Russia, the United States and Great Britain. The agreement stated that Moscow, Washington, and London all committed themselves, in writing, “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and reaffirmed “their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” Ukraine naively believed that giving up its strategic advantages and resources was a guarantee for a peaceful future.
In 2012, during a US presidential debate between Obama and Romney, the candidates were asked by the moderator what they saw as the biggest geopolitical threat facing America. Romney answered “Russia” and Obama mocked him for “being out of touch.” Putin surely watched the debate and rejoiced at Obama’s victory several weeks later.
Not even two years later, Putin invaded Crimea. Putin got away with it because President Obama and then-Vice-President Biden were toothless. The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies did nothing to stop Putin. The Budapest Memorandum was not even worth the paper on which it was signed.
After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and US stated that Russian involvement was a breach of its Budapest Memorandum obligations to Ukraine and in violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. On March 4, 2014, Vladimir Putin replied to a question on the violation of the Budapest Memorandum, describing the current Ukrainian situation as a revolution: “a new state arises, but with this state and in respect to this state, we have not signed any obligatory documents”. Russia further stated that it had never been under obligation to “force any part of Ukraine’s civilian population to stay in Ukraine against its will”. Russia even went so far to suggest that it was the US who was in violation of the Budapest Memorandum and described the Euromaidan as a US-instigated coup. The US, should have seen this as an insult, but its leadership was so weak and it did absolutely nothing.
In 2015, then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress in an effort to torpedo the US-led Iranian nuclear negotiations, which Netanyahu was convinced will result in a deal that hands Iran the capabilities to produce nuclear bombs on a silver platter. Netanyahu wanted Congress to vote to impose new sanctions on Iran, which would kill the talks, and thus significantly alter US policy toward the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s articulate appeal to Congress should have been seen as the wake-up call - by a trusted and tested ally- to the West who has been in a deep in slumber. But sadly, and shamefully, the US saw Netanyahu’s appearance in front of a joint session of Congress as an affront. Two-thirds of Congress voted along with President Obama and no new sanctions were passed.
So much for diplomacy.
During Trump’s presidency, Putin kept a low profile and did not initiate further military aggressions against any former Soviet republics. The most likely explanation for this is precisely because Putin realized that Trump was unpredictable and would likely use military force. He could therefore not afford taking any such risks.
With Biden back at the switch, but literally asleep this time, Putin didn’t hesitate for a minute. Biden, he must have figured, is totally predictable.
If we have learned anything from the events of the past two weeks in Ukraine, it is that diplomacy without the credible threat of military force is meaningless. Secondly, a country should never give up its strategic advantages and resources. Thirdly, Vladimir Putin has also proven that diplomacy even with the threat of strong sanctions is futile because he has nothing and no one to fear.
The West could have mobilized troops both from NATO and the US in and around Ukraine under the cover of a United Nations force to show that the use of military force is an option. This was likely not even thought of because the leaders of the free world were convinced that Putin would never invade. How wrong they all were.
As the Biden administration imposes broad sanctions on Russia in a late attempt to deter Russian military advancements and aggression in Ukraine, it has also been quietly waiving, releasing and otherwise not enforcing extensive sanctions that were part of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran. From a foreign policy standpoint, this administration has been singularly focused on rejoining a deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, responsible for the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and untold numbers of innocent civilians the world over. Iran has been seeking nuclear weapons and expanding its nuclear programs, infrastructure, and facilities since the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, but the world here again believes in successful diplomacy with megalomaniac despots and dictators and is doing all it can to reach an agreement in Vienna.
None of this makes sense, but it is the frightening reality in which we live.
The war in Ukraine confronts America’s main Middle East ally, namely Israel, with a “moment of truth” after years of skillful balancing between Washington and Moscow. While initially delivering signs of loyalty to its American ally, in the long-term, Israel will seek to regain its bargaining power and freedom of maneuver vis-à-vis the great powers.
Israel has managed to nurture cordial relations with the Kremlin while developing friendly relations with Ukraine. For several years Israel has secured Western, and even Ukrainian, understanding for its intensive public engagement with senior Russian officials due to Moscow’s dominant position in Syria directly influencing the IDF’s freedom of operations on that front. In 2014, Israel did not officially accept the annexation of Crimea, but neither did it join some of the UN resolutions against Russia.
Israel wrestles with a dilemma on how to secure its freedom of operations in Syria, rescue its citizens living in Ukraine and honor its historic mission to protect Ukraine’s Jewish communities, without jeopardizing its relations with Moscow that is now vilifying Ukraine as a “fascist country” whitewashing its anti-Semitic past.
While Israel will have to walk on eggs for the foreseeable future, the past few weeks have revealed that 18th century invasions and large-scale ground wars resulting in major humanitarian crises in a part of the world where such events should only be seen through the lens of history, are once again unfolding in the 21st century. There is only one explanation for this. It happens when leaders are so desperate for a diplomatic victory, at any cost, to declare à la Chamberlain “Peace in our time.”
Jacques R. Rothschild was born in Belgium and served as a unit commander in the IDF paratroopers. He graduated in Mathematics, Statistics and International Affairs from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lives currently with his family in New York City, where he works as an advisor to the Sovereign Wealth Fund of Kuwait. He also writes and speaks publicly about current affairs and causes for which he cares deeply.