As I write this, the city of Kyiv is being encircled by Russian forces. As Mike Lillis wrote in The Hill yesterday, the Ukraine siege leaves (U.S.) lawmakers horrified, unified—-and feeling helpless. Why are they feeling helpless? Lillis quotes Biden, who was speaking to House Democrats:
“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews, just understand — don’t kid yourself — no matter what you all say, that’s called World War III, OK?” he said.
The thought that our actions to help the Ukraine would start WWIII is enough to make anyone feel helpless. And frankly, we are mostly helpless. Due to decisions made long ago, and decisions made last week.
Or, as Sun Tzu famously said in the Art of War:
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
Ukraine and NATO
NATO was founded after WWII as an alliance mainly concerned with defending Europe against Soviet aggression. Ukraine and Georgia are republics that are former members of the Soviet block (USSR—Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The Soviets are gone, sort of gone. Still, President Putin of Russia has made it very clear that if Ukraine and Georgia are allowed to join NATO, their joining would be seen as aggression against Russia.
Ukraine and Georgia are thus listed as “aspiring members” of NATO. These countries have been listed as “aspiring” for a long time. When Ukraine saw Russian forces massing on its borders a few weeks ago, it again asked to join NATO. It asked with some urgency. Ukraine was turned down. Therefore, NATO has no treaty obligation to defend Ukraine from Russian attack. This is what I mean by decisions made a long time ago (who could join NATO) and decisions made last week.
The Maginot Line
Do treaties even matter? I took a course at OSHER Dartmouth on the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty ended WWI and set the stage for WWII. In fact, there were a whole raft of treaties at that time, as described in the book we used as an outline: Michael S. Nieberg’s book, The Treaty of Versailles: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press.
One aspect of these treaties was that Poland and France had mutual obligations to come to each other’s aid if attacked. When Poland was attacked by Hitler, France did declare war on Germany. And that is just about all that France did. The Germans could have predicted France’s lack of actions, because of the Maginot Line.
In the period between the wars, France built the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications that was meant to defend France from Germany. As we discussed in class, as soon as Hitler saw that line going up, he could make a pretty good guess that France would not send its forces east to repel an invasion of Poland. France would be sitting pretty (the French thought) behind the Maginot Line.
Evolving Ideas about Maginot
When I first learned about the Maginot Line, back in school, I learned that it was ineffective in stopping Hitler’s armies. This was true. The Maginot Line was ineffective. The German armies went through the Forest of Ardennes. The Maginot Line did not stop them.
But, when I was younger, I only learned about what happened DURING the battles. As Sun Tzu would point out, the existence of the line was the real problem. When Germany decided to attack Poland, Hitler had every reason to believe that he could send all his forces to the East. He didn’t need to keep part of his army in the West to defend against France. Because France would do nothing.
While Hitler invaded Poland, he left very few forces in Germany. If the French had attacked at that time, the story of WWII might well have been different. The French did not attack.
Once again, it wasn’t about the battle itself. The Maginot line sealed the fate of Poland, long before any troops were on the move.
Gloomy Gus Here
It’s pretty easy (especially for me, because I’m an Energy Wonk) to look at this whole thing as being about Nord Stream 2, the German need for gas, the importance of energy independence, and so forth and so on. And all these things played a part. But when you get right down to it, if you tell a dictator that you won’t defend a country (Ukraine is not allowed into NATO), you can be pretty sure he will attack that country.
I am usually upbeat, but I am feeling more like Churchill in the 1930s. Promising nothing but blood, sweat and tears for the future. I think Ukraine will be overrun by Russia, and the West will do nothing about it.
Energy Wonk Note:
This is an unusual blog post for me. However, today, I could not turn my mind to when or whether ISO-NE would end the MOPR rule.
Doug Sandridge is another energy wonk, and I was pleased to see his first post on Energy Ruminations (his new blog) was The Truman Doctrine Redux. Sandridge describes weak leadership in the West as the first problem that led to war. He puts energy in second place. I agree. You can also see Sandridge and Irina Slav discuss a more traditional energy topic (Hurdles to Net Zero) on this link to her blog.
Feeling like Churchill in the 1930s?? One of the FIRST things biden did as as Pres, REMOVE racist Churchill bust from Oval Office.
Churchill was racist, especially with regard to India. However, in “feeling like Churchill” I was referring to his steady warnings against the growing power and aggressive actions of Hitler’s Germany.
Good points. It seems to me like Putin massed his troops on the border and waited for two things before invading – explicit confirmation (in fact, a promise) from NATO that it wouldn’t act effectively to protect Ukraine, and the shutdown of several European civil nuclear power plants so that Ukraine’s potential allies in Europe would be reliant on Russian gas.
As another energy and geopolitical wonk, always appreciate your observations. Would add the famous “peace in our times” agreement disarming the Czechoslovakian defensive line. We here had our own anti-heros that, with the embargo on oil to Japan, assured the spread of war in the Pacific.