Are We in 1938 Again? Lessons from History as Putin’s War Rages

Posted By June 10, 2024 No Comments

Is it 1938 all over again? (DALL-E)

With Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions in Ukraine, many analysts draw parallels to historical events, suggesting we might be teetering on the edge of a global conflict reminiscent of 1938. The question at hand is whether the West is wisely utilizing the time bought by Kyiv’s resistance.

History is often a guide in times of crisis, as leaders look to past events for inspiration and caution. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, deeply influenced by her country’s history of occupation and her own family’s exile, sees today as a “1938 moment.” She argues that the world is facing interconnected threats similar to those leading up to World War II, with authoritarian leaders testing their limits.

Parallels to 1938

Kallas points out that the conflicts in Ukraine, the Middle East, the South China Sea, and Armenia, though varied in their immediate causes, all signal a broader struggle for power reminiscent of the pre-WWII era. She insists that the lesson from history is clear: resist and rearm, or face dire consequences. “If aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere,” she warns. For Canadians, this underscores the importance of supporting Ukraine to prevent the spread of authoritarian influence that could destabilize global security, impacting Canada’s economic and political interests.

Historian Timothy Snyder supports this view by imagining a 1938 where Czechoslovakia, like modern Ukraine, chose to fight back. He suggests that if Czechoslovakia had resisted, the trajectory of history might have been different, potentially avoiding a full-scale world war. Snyder’s analogy underscores the importance of Ukraine’s resistance today, as yielding could mean empowering Russia for future conflicts. Canadians should recognize the implications: if Ukraine falls, Russia’s next moves could further destabilize Europe, indirectly affecting Canada’s national security and economic stability.

Lessons from Churchill’s ‘Locust Years’

The comparison extends to Churchill’s warnings about the “locust years” of the 1930s, a period of missed opportunities for rearmament that left the Allies unprepared. Christopher Hitchens noted that America’s repeated military misadventures stem from the “Munich syndrome,” a fear of appeasement. The lesson here is that failing to act decisively now may lead to greater conflicts later.

The Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn echoed these sentiments, emphasizing the need for decisive action. Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski posed a critical question: “Ukraine has bought us time. Will we put it to good use?” This question harks back to Churchill’s era, where Britain’s delay in rearmament allowed Nazi Germany to gain a significant advantage.

Johann Wadephul, a German defense policy expert, fears that Europe’s current pace of support for Ukraine is insufficient. He warns that if the war drags on without substantial intervention, Ukraine cannot withstand the combined forces of Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea. The consequences of a Ukrainian defeat would be catastrophic, affecting human rights, resource access, and Western confidence. For Canada, this scenario could mean a more unstable global market, affecting trade routes and economic stability, along with increased pressure on NATO, of which Canada is a key member, to respond more robustly to future threats.

A Tale of Two Strategies: Russia and the West

Indian think tank leader Samir Saran criticizes the West’s disorganized response, contrasting it with Russia’s strategic planning. He argues that if the West cannot effectively support Ukraine against Russia, it sends a troubling message about its ability to counter other threats, such as China. This criticism should resonate with Canadian policymakers, emphasizing the need for a coherent and united Western strategy to support Ukraine and deter other authoritarian regimes from similar aggressions.

Despite NATO’s apparent strength, Ukraine feels the support is too slow and limited. Blame is often cast across Europe, with Germany facing criticism for hesitating to fully commit to Ukraine’s defense. French President Emmanuel Macron, while urging courage, also recognizes the political constraints within Europe.

Former UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace bluntly criticized German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s cautious approach, arguing that it undermines Europe’s security. Eliot Cohen, a strategic analyst, calls for a clear plan for victory, emphasizing the need for increased military production and strategic clarity. Canada, as part of the broader NATO alliance, must consider its role and readiness to support such a plan, recognizing that the defense of democracy in Ukraine is crucial to the stability of the international order that Canada relies on.

The Cost of Complacency

The debate ultimately hinges on whether Europe believes a Ukrainian defeat can be contained. Many fear that allowing Russia to retain conquered territory would embolden further aggression, destabilizing Europe and weakening the Western alliance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his supporters have long warned of the dire consequences of inaction, urging Europe to recognize the gravity of the situation.

As history shows, the cost of complacency is high. In the 1930s, Britain’s delay in rearmament led to devastating consequences. Today, Europe faces a similar choice: act decisively to support Ukraine or risk repeating the mistakes of the past. The stakes are high, and the world watches as history potentially repeats itself. For Canada, this means understanding that the repercussions of a Ukrainian defeat could reach far beyond Europe, affecting global security and Canada’s own national interests.

The Global Impact and Canada’s Role

Canada, as a part of the global community, cannot ignore the broader implications of the conflict in Ukraine. A victorious Russia could lead to increased geopolitical instability, which in turn could affect global trade routes, energy supplies, and international security frameworks. This instability would inevitably have repercussions for Canada’s economy and national security. Canada’s position as a middle power means it has both the opportunity and responsibility to advocate for a strong, united response to Russian aggression, ensuring that democratic values and international norms are upheld.

Canada’s involvement in international sanctions against Russia, its support for Ukrainian refugees, and its military aid to Ukraine are steps in the right direction. However, as the situation evolves, Canada may need to consider further actions, including increased military support and more robust diplomatic efforts to rally international allies in defense of Ukraine. The lessons of history teach us that appeasement and inaction can lead to greater conflicts, and Canada must be proactive in its approach to ensure a stable and secure future.

The parallels between 1938 and today’s geopolitical climate are stark and alarming. The lessons from history are clear: aggression must be resisted, and time must be used wisely. As Ukraine stands against Russian aggression, the West, including Canada, must act decisively to prevent a repeat of the catastrophic events that followed the Munich Agreement. The world’s future depends on it, and Canada’s role in shaping that future is crucial. By supporting Ukraine, Canada helps defend the principles of democracy and international law that are fundamental to global stability and prosperity.