Capstones: History's Lessons for the Crisis in Ukraine

February 2022

After a flurry of diktats and deployments, Vladimir Putin’s contrived crisis over Ukraine has triggered a flurry of diplomacy across Europe. It all may be a ploy by Putin to test NATO, or extract concessions, or posture his coiled-to-strike army. Indeed, by the time you read this, Putin may be digesting another slice of Ukraine or hailing himself as peacemaker. Either way, to prevent this from becoming a routine, the U.S. and its allies must address the root causes of the problem. Toward that end, NATO should recall some key lessons from history.


First things first: Holding talks to promote security and stability in Europe is an undeniably good thing.

“Jaw, jaw,” as Winston Churchill said, “is better than war, war.” If they build real understanding and secure real commitments, all these conferences—in the past month, we’ve seen U.S.-Russia talks, NATO-Russia talks, OSCE-Russia talks, UN Security Council talks—will have helped prevent another war in Europe and advance the cause of peace.

However, the NATO allies should keep in mind the reason for these talks: Putin’s gun-to-the-head military threats, determination to upend the settled outcomes of the Cold War, and drift into paranoia.

None of this is hyperbole. Consider the words of Putin’s deputy foreign minister: “The Europeans must…think about whether they want to avoid making their continent the scene of a military confrontation. They have a choice. Either take seriously what is put on the table or face a military-technical alternative.” His words are underscored by 100,000 troops and 1,200 tanks massed on the Russia-Ukraine and Belarus-Ukraine frontier, along with the coordinated movement of 140 Russian warships.

Regarding the post-Cold War order that has brought peace, prosperity, stability and free government to most of Europe, Putin is demanding that NATO not expand eastward, cease all military activities in Eastern Europe, pull back its forces to where they were deployed in 1997 (before the alliance invited Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic into the fold), and grant him veto authority over the decisions of sovereign nations. In short, Putin is threatening a second invasion of Ukraine because he claims NATO’s expansion violated agreements at the end of the Cold War. The problem with Putin’s version of history is that it doesn’t correspond with reality. As the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer details, Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding broader enlargement” as the Cold War thawed. Gorbachev himself concedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”

That brings us to the matter of Putin’s paranoia. Like history’s other revisionist autocrats, Putin masters in the double-standard and is adept at contriving historical grievances. For example, Putin advisor Dmitry Peskov contends that Ukraine can never be permitted to join NATO because “NATO is an instrument of confrontation.” Even if we accept the Kremlin’s notion that NATO is an “instrument of confrontation,” we should keep in mind three important facts:

  • First, NATO has never invaded or attacked Russian (or Soviet) territory.
  • Second, virtually every government in Europe views NATO as an essential element of European security—and Putin’s Russia as the main threat to European security. That explains why seven of the Warsaw Pact’s eight members chose to join NATO; why three former Soviet republics chose to join NATO; and why two others (Georgia and Ukraine) desperately want to join NATO.
  • Third, if Putin’s position on Ukraine was simply a function of his NATO-phobia, he wouldn’t oppose Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, which is definitively not “an instrument of confrontation.”

The crux of the problem is that Putin fears having another Western-oriented democracy next door—as former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves observes, “Russia has bad relations with all the democratic countries on its borders”—and believes Ukraine and Russia are “one people, a single whole.” In fact, he calls Ukraine “Novorossiya,” a czarist-era term for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions. Putin lamented in December how the collapse of the USSR meant that “historically Russian territories with a historically Russian population, primarily in Ukraine, had found themselves living outside Russia.”  He then claimed that Ukraine and its Western allies are building “an anti-Russia” by “stockpiling the latest weapons” in Ukraine. “Just imagine how Russia must live and carry on.” 

This would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high and the consequences weren’t so grave. Here are the facts: Russia, which invaded Ukraine, has a $1.7-trillion GDP, a population of 145 million, 1.4 million men under arms, a $61.7-billion military budget, and 4,500 nuclear warheads. Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia, has a $153-billion GDP, a population of 44 million, 297,000 men under arms, a $5.9-billion defense budget, and zero nuclear weapons. In fact, Ukraine surrendered its entire nuclear arsenal in exchange for a commitment from Russia to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against Ukraine and to respect Ukraine’s “independence…sovereignty and the existing borders.”


That brings us to another lesson from history: Like his Soviet predecessors, Putin doesn’t keep his word. And so, any treaty or deal yielded by these conferences must include stringent and verifiable enforcement mechanisms. Without such mechanisms, any deal with Putin isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. As President Theodore Roosevelt observed, “Diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.” It pays to recall that these words come from a man who believed in diplomacy, a man who negotiated treaties that staved off and ended wars in Europe, Africa and Asia, a man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

TR’s assessment about the connection between diplomacy and force remains unchanged because man’s nature remains unchanged. Treaties are only as good as the character of the governments that sign them, and peace talks only produce real peace if all sides desire peace. Putin doesn’t desire another war in Europe. But he desires, as Churchill said of Putin’s predecessors, “the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” For Putin, that translates into a neutered NATO and a reconstituted Russian Empire. Just consider Putin’s actions in recent years: a crippling cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; invasions and occupations of NATO aspirants Georgia and Ukraine; repeated violations of the INF Treaty; arms shipments to Taliban forces waging war against NATO peacekeepers operating under UN mandate; strategic-influence operations targeting political institutions in the U.S. and 26 allied countries; costly cyberattacks against America’s energy infrastructure and food-supply infrastructure; the illegal annexation of Crimea; military incursions into America’s exclusive economic zone off Alaska; the opening of dozens of military bases, ports and airstrips above the Arctic Circle; provocative tests of anti-satellite systems; the shutoff of natural-gas supplies bound for Central Europe; nuclear threats against NATO members. All of this occurred while Russia doubled military outlays, yielding 600 warplanes, 2,300 drones, new hypersonic missiles, nuclear-tipped underwater drones designed to render coastal areas uninhabitable, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles designed to loiter in the atmosphere and evade detection for months at a time.

These are not the actions of a peace-loving regime.

Moreover, the historical record shows that in the years before Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, NATO members slashed military spending, deemphasized their all-for-one collective defense commitments, and “hugged the bear,” in the words of former NATO commander Gen. Philip Breedlove. NATO didn’t even begin drawing up contingency plans for defending Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (which joined the alliance in 2004) until after Russia’s assault on Georgia. And it pays to recall that before Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the alliance had carved out a special Russian place within NATO headquarters, downgraded defense spending, and pulled back or shelved deterrent military assets. For instance, the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic-focused 2nd Fleet was deactivated in 2011. The U.S. Army’s Germany-based V Corps was deactivated in 2012. Washington withdrew every American main battle tank from Europe in 2013—the first time since 1944 Europe had been left unprotected by American heavy armor. That same year, Britain announced it would close its garrison in Germany, pulling thousands of combat troops out of Europe. By 2014, Germany fielded fewer than 300 tanks, down from the 2,125 West Germany deployed in the 1980s.

These are not the actions of an alliance bent on “confrontation.” Yet Putin’s Russia grew more aggressive even as NATO grew more accommodating.


That brings us to the lessons of Munich. Putin is not a latter-day Hitler. However, what Putin has set in motion with his bluster and brinkmanship serves as an echo of 1938. That was the year Hitler threatened war over German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. In response, Western powers scrambled to Munich for peace talks and then rewarded Hitler for threatening to launch a war of aggression.

Though not invited to Munich, Czechoslovakia was not silent. Czech Foreign Minister Kamil Krofta brought the betrayal at Munich into focus. “Today it is our turn,” he concluded. “Tomorrow it will be the turn of others.” He was correct. Neville Chamberlain’s post-Munich promise of “peace in our time” lasted 11 months. The consequences of that moment in history were so dire, the failure of democratic powers so total, that Munich became synonymous with appeasement.

The lessons of Munich would shape U.S. and Western security strategy for the balance of the 20th century.

After reading the Munich agreement, Churchill countered, “Between submission and immediate war there was this third alternative, which gave a hope not only of peace but of justice…defend Czechoslovakia against an unprovoked aggression.” He grieved the short-term consequences of appeasement: “Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness.” And he warned of what would follow: “We have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road…This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup.” As prime minister, he would not repeat Chamberlain’s mistakes. “We cannot afford…to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength,” Churchill counseled at the outset of the Cold War contest with the Soviets. “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”

Though not party to the Munich conference, Americans internalized its lessons. “We are ready, at any time, to negotiate for a restoration of peace,” President Harry Truman said. “But we will not engage in appeasement.”

“We have had a lot of talks, and some of them have produced very disappointing results,” President Dwight Eisenhower noted, grimly adding, “The pact of Munich was a more fell blow to humanity than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”

“The allies have made it unmistakably clear that our presence in Berlin, our free access thereto, and the freedom of two million West Berliners would not be surrendered either to force or through appeasement,” President John Kennedy declared during the second Berlin crisis. “To maintain those rights and obligations, we are prepared to talk, when appropriate, and to fight, if necessary.”

“There’s only one guaranteed way you can have peace—and you can have it in the next second: surrender,” President Ronald Reagan explained. “Admittedly, there’s a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement.”

And so, lines were drawn, arsenals built, alliances forged—all to prevent another Czechoslovakia, another Munich, another war with the survival of civilization in the balance.

Yet again, an aggressor pointing to imagined grievances is making demands and rattling sabers and seizing territory. Yet again well-meaning people are holding conferences in hopes of preventing war. It’s up to America and its NATO allies to determine whether this crisis ends in a just and durable peace—or in another Munich.


Since Ukraine is not a member of NATO, its security and sovereignty are not guaranteed by NATO. But to borrow Churchill’s words, there are many options “between submission and immediate war”—options that could help Putin reconsider his course.

Again, history offers helpful lessons. In response to Moscow’s efforts to foment revolution in the early hours of the Cold War, Truman declared that the U.S. would “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Reagan hastened the end of the Cold War by reviving that strategy of self-defense and providing aid—military, technical, economic—to those in Moscow’s crosshairs.

Today, that translates into strengthening Ukraine’s ability to defend itself from further Russian aggression by providing Kiev real-time intelligence; cyber-defenses and cyber-redundancies; shoreline defenses; radar-jamming and counter-jamming systems; and anti-aircraft, anti-personnel and additional anti-tank systems. As Congressman Seth Moulton bluntly puts it, the U.S. should provide Ukraine “weapons that will have a high cost in terms of Russian casualties” and “clearly articulate to the world how the weapons we provide will force Mr. Putin to incur substantial losses of Russian troops.”

This armament effort is not America’s alone to bear. Several NATO allies have joined the U.S. in shipping arms to Ukraine, including Britain, Czech Republic, Spain, Poland, France, Turkey, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Britain’s efforts are especially laudable: shipments of thousands of antitank missiles, deployments of personnel to train 22,000 Ukrainian troops, weapons systems and infrastructure for Ukraine’s coastline defenses, and the deployment of HMS Defender to the Black Sea, along with the deployment of additional troops, warplanes and warships as part of U.S.-led efforts aimed at bolstering the defenses of NATO allies in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

“Any incursion of any kind, of any dimension into Ukraine is not going to be a cost-free business, there will be casualties,” explains Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seemingly reading from Moulton’s playbook.

The U.S. and NATO shouldn’t limit their response to the terrain Putin has chosen. If Putin wants a grand reappraisal and reassessment of Europe’s post-Cold War order, the allies should oblige and make clear that NATO is eager to settle issues left unaddressed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For starters, NATO could invite the leaders of all nations where Russian troops are deployed but unwelcome (Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine) to identify ways the alliance can strengthen the security of these neighbor nations—and make their Russian occupiers uncomfortable. Gen. Kevin Ryan, a former military attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, notes that Russia’s outposts in Georgia and Moldova—bitterly opposed by both nations—are “exposed and vulnerable to military action” by indigenous forces “if supported by the West.”

In addition, Washington could encourage the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO. Both have been edging toward NATO membership since 2014. Given their strong democratic credentials and deepening military cooperation with NATO, either could join the alliance in short order.

Washington also could elevate Ukraine and Georgia to the status of “major non-NATO ally”—a designation that enhances security and defense cooperation. Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Taiwan and Tunisia are among those so designated. This would not tie the U.S. to a mutual-defense treaty, but it would send a strong signal to Moscow.

Even as the allies parry Putin’s demands, they must create “off ramps” to allow Putin to retreat without being publicly humiliated. As we learned during the 1962 missile crisis with Moscow and 2001 Hainan crisis with Beijing, allowing the enemy to save face can save lives.


Ukraine falls outside NATO’s mandate and mission. But the principles at stake in this crisis—the independence of NATO, the sovereignty of Europe’s nations, the maintenance of the post-Cold War order, what the North Atlantic Treaty calls the “stability and…security of the North Atlantic area”—definitely do not.

NATO’s interests and territory will be far more secure if Ukraine remains a sovereign, democratically-oriented nation—and will be further jeopardized if Putin is allowed to believe he can continue using military threats and military force to rebuild the Russian Empire.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay was published in the Landing Zone.

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