Over Christmas I took a long stroll in the snow along with my wife, a proud West Berliner, through the “No-man’s Land” along the former path of the Berlin Wall, erected over 50 years before. We walked from our apartment near Frohnau train station—formerly the end of the line before East Germany—along der Mauerweg through fields and farmland until Stolpe, a small village in Brandenburg. The topic of conversation was the Wall, reunification, and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The dominant narrative in the West has always been that the fall of the wall and collapse of the Soviet Union marked a final victory of Western democratic capitalism over communism. However, for many citizens of the USSR—and especially guardians of the state such as Vladimir Putin—there were no great upheavals, no mass protests of discontent, no tanks or revolution in the streets in cities outside of Moscow. Nothing had changed in their lives and no one had asked them. They simply woke up without the country they had long been exhorted to fight for, work for, and love. That memory is still there today.
There is also still a great deal of Ostalgie—nostalgia for East Germany—among those who grew up there. East Germans enjoyed a higher standard of living than anywhere else in the communist bloc. Some today would take it back; others do not go that far, but offer that they had less worries then. Most West Germans are obligingly accepting of this, but less so of the “solidarity” tax citizens of western regions have paid for decades for the redevelopment of the former-East. Most do not discuss the matter out of politeness. When the topic is broached, the passionate responses make it easy to see why.
That the West should suggest a wall—the “Ukraine Wall”—be built in Europe is not only short-term in outlook, but plain cowardice. Will we really allow an Iron Curtain to slowly ascend over Ukraine?
The West may have come out on top in the Cold War, but it never truly vanquished the East and could never banish it from memory. This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested at the Munich Security Conference that the legal basis of German reunification was questionable. It has also long been part of the Russian narrative that the West broke a promise not to expand NATO eastwards. Much of Russia’s patently false argument for its response in Ukraine stems from supposed broken promises and encroachments by the West, the EU, and NATO.
In her continual quest to be “Chancellor of all the Germans,” Angela Merkel offered no response to Lavrov’s suggestion that the country she leads may lack legitimacy, but she was willing to insist that there is no military solution to Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is certainly true in Germany’s case. Besides a generally dovish national sentiment and a constitution that prevents offensive military action, her government has purposefully allowed the Bundeswehr to fall into a woeful state of disrepair. Merkel is always the first in diplomatic negotiations to tip her hand that force will not be considered. For Germany, military action is not only off the table, it never made it on.
A New Munich Moment?
In Munich the Chancellor was unable to answer how she would stop Russia without a military solution if diplomacy failed. Others have made suggestions. Eminent University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer argued in the New York Times that arming Ukraine would escalate tensions and cause Russia to act even more recklessly, reminding us that Russia has nuclear weapons and is protecting “a vital strategic interest.” Stephen Walt of Harvard echoed this sentiment in Foreign Policy. Mearsheimer suggested something that many academics and policymakers have also offered as a solution to the troubles in Iraq—create a “buffer state”, an idea that keeps coming back despite research by Tanisha Fazal and others that buffer states are historically most likely to die. The idea would allow Ukraine to be divided between Moscow and Kiev as a buffer between the EU and NATO-dominated West and Russian-dominated East, ceding to Moscow what it seeks for the sake of peace.
It is hard to believe that 53 years after the building of the Berlin Wall and 25 years after its fall, America, Germany, and its Western partners would agree to another wall—real or imagined—to divide East and West. And not only to stand by helplessly and watch it being built as in 1961 Berlin, but suggest it as a solution and pursue the idea as a solution from our side in 2015. The immediate motivations are easy to understand and are a familiar refrain—appeasement and peace in our time: Echoes of Neville Chamberlain.
Strangely, many of those arguing against the West arming Ukraine to halt Russian aggression paint a picture of a determined Moscow, led by a resolved Vladimir Putin, willing to bear any burden to halt the advance of NATO and the EU onto its doorstep, while also earlier in the conflict arguing that Moscow and Putin would easily be stopped by the economic effects of a round of sanctions. So which Russia are we facing? One determined to control Ukraine at all costs, or one that will break once the sanctions bite?
The sanctions are indeed biting and Moscow shows no sign of retreating. If a Western military response is truly off the table, the only answer if diplomacy fails, the argument goes, is to give Moscow what it wants—half or even all of Ukraine to keep the Western wolf from its door. But this is not the first time Russia has sliced off pieces of states who shirked its rule—the same has already happened in Georgia and Moldova. Surely Moscow will be emboldened to again employ a tactic it has thrice succeeded with. Surely even if Putin gets what he wants his “little green men” will return elsewhere to maintain or expand Russia’s “buffer” as it sees fit in coming years.
Giving Moscow what it wants is not a solution. Success will embolden Moscow to try it again in future—just as much if not more of a threat as escalating the conflict by helping Ukraine defend itself. Putin has calculated that the West would rather cave to him than confront him in its lust to finally savor the elusive “peace dividend.” He may be correct. How far will the West allow him to go? He will take every inch we give him.
The Western allies stood by helplessly and watched the Berlin Wall being built in 1961 because East Germany and Moscow wanted to halt the embarrassing exodus of its citizens into the West—it walled its citizens in. America, its allies, and West Germany had no fear of the movement of goods and services or political ideas across its borders. Today, Moscow and Putin again fear above all the movement of free thinking, fair elections, and ideas across their borders. The idea that the West should suggest or allow a wall—the “Ukraine Wall”—to once again be built in Europe is not only short-term in outlook, but plain cowardice. Will we really allow—or even suggest—an Iron Curtain slowly ascend once again over Ukraine?
As my wife and I walked back toward Berlin in the snow along the path of the Wall from Stolpe in the former East, we felt like we were going back in time and that history was repeating itself in a different place. The players are the same, but the outcome may be different. Again a despotic Moscow seeks with force to play puppet-master in states it considers to rightfully be part of its orbit and empire. Will America and the West have the strength and resolve to oppose it once again?
[Top photo: Flickr CC: Jareed; Body photo: Flickr CC: Daniel Antal]
Chris Miller is a veteran of the U.S. Army and a Purple Heart recipient following combat in Iraq. He has worked as a military contractor in the Middle East and his current work focuses on strategic studies. His interests are CBRNe, military and veterans issues, the Cold War, and international security affairs.