Appeasement vs. Structural Similarities

It’s become pretty common over the past five years to hear appeasement and the Munich Agreement rolled out as a historical parallel to contemporary events, in particular with regard to Iraq, Iran, and Russia. But I couldn’t help but think, in reading this Economist article describing just how bad the Russian economy is looking these days, how much the fixation on Munich ignores some of the structural determinants that made an aggressive, German military nationalism not only possible, but very likely in the period leading up to Munich.

The parallel between post-WWI Germany and post-crisis Russia is far from exact. The humiliation Russia feels towards the West about the post-Soviet era, for instance, is further removed from the economic hardship that could result from some of the developments described in the Economist article, and has been preceded by a period of relative wealth.

But this is the first time I found myself considering how Russia might react to the loss of oil revenue and easy credit and felt more alarm than reassurance. The reduced funding will obviously affect the Kremlin’s ambitious plans for modernizing the Russian armed forces. But while the Russian military remains a less than formidable threat to U.S. forces on a conventional battlefield, there remains the question of its nuclear deterrent, as well as the fact that all of the most likely conflict scenarios take place in Russia’s immediate neighborhood. What’s more, they involve nations that America has a strategic interest in defending but no formal treaty obligations towards. (I’m thinking of Ukraine and Georgia, but also Central Asia.)

Given that Russia’s bellicose posturing of late has to do with domestic political concerns in addition to strategic ones, and given that the economic hardship ahead will only exacerbate those domestic political concerns, the possibility of an increasingly aggressive Russian leadership — and an eventual “Munich moment” — seems like a very real one. Instead of focusing on Munich, though, we should try to find ways to drive developments in such a way as to preclude it.