The war in Ukraine and 'the follies of the victors'

Winston Churchill titled the first chapter of the first volume of his history of the Second World War (The Gathering Storm) "The Follies of the Victors."  Churchill recounted the missteps and errors committed by the victorious powers of the First World War that led to the greater catastrophe of the Second World War.  They were the follies of well-intentioned statesmen whose main goal was a just and lasting peace, but whose policies, in Churchill's opinion, "cleared the way for the renewal of war."

"The victors imposed upon the Germans," Churchill explained, "all the long-sought ideals of the liberal nations of the West."  Germany was assigned blame for the war, and massive indemnifications were imposed by the victors, so Germany had to print money, which led to inflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class.  Simultaneously, the victors disarmed as "the British and American Governments proceeded to sink their battleships and break up their military establishments with gusto."  This was their version of a "peace dividend."  The victors substituted "well-meant platitudes" for "reasonable common sense and prudence."  The effect of the victors' imprudence opened a political void in Germany, wrote Churchill, that was soon filled by Hitler and the Nazis.

Should, God forbid, the current Ukraine war lead to a larger European war between NATO and Russia, with all that would entail, some future historian may write about the "Follies of the Victors" of the Cold War.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed two years later, there was, to quote Churchill about the aftermath of World War I, "a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world."  The victorious Western allies convinced a rump Russian state led by a democratically inclined Boris Yeltsin that Germany should be unified and pledged that NATO would not expand toward Russia's border.  Instead, the United States offered Russia a place in the proposed "partnership for peace."  Meanwhile, the Western nations reduced their overall defense budgets in search of a "peace dividend."

Two years later, however, President Bill Clinton set in motion the expansion of NATO to include Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary — which became members in 1999.  Clinton also offered a vague security guarantee to Ukraine if its new government would surrender leftover Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia, and hinted at Ukraine's eventual membership in NATO.  Mark Helprin, writing in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books, includes this development as one of the "tragedy of errors" that ultimately led to the Ukraine war.  "To believe ... that ... NATO's eastern expansion was irrelevant, was ... to deny Russia the interests and fears that we would certainly have ourselves understood and devotedly pursued had the United States collapsed and the Warsaw Pact expanded to Canada."  George Kennan warned about this in 1997, but by then it was too late.  And Vladimir Putin stepped into the political void left by Yeltsin's fall from power and the end of Russia's democratic experiment.

During the next two decades, NATO expanded farther and farther east, virtually encircling European Russia (with the planned admission of Sweden and Finland, that encirclement would be complete).  And the United States even suggested NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, despite public protests by Russia.  

Helprin writes that "it was highly reckless for Western governments not to recognize that, justified or not (it is irrelevant), Russia would react to the diminution of its sphere of influence."  He notes that at Yalta, we accepted a Soviet sphere of influence to avoid a "third world war."  Helprin also notes that in issuing and enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, the United States "has claimed — and maintained by more than 100 uses of armed force — the greatest sphere of influence the world has ever seen."  "And yet," Helprin writes, "we thought nothing of challenging Russia by expanding (and in the process severely weakening) NATO."

Vladimir Putin in 2022, like Hitler in the late 1930s, is the aggressor in Ukraine.  Exposing the "follies of the victors" does not excuse his Russian aggression and crimes.  But when we look back on the events preceding the outbreak of today's European war, like Churchill looked at the events leading up to the Second World War, Churchill's conclusion then has a familiar ring to us: "The crimes of the vanquished find their background and their explanation, though not, of course, their pardon, in the follies of the victors.  Without these follies crime would have found neither temptation nor opportunity."

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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