What can be gained by addressing Putin’s obsessions?

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Sheldon Goldberg | Special to WJW

In his April 7 op-ed, “We must address both of Russia’s obsessions,” Dave Anderson argued for something resembling the Munich Conference of September 1938 as a response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.


Munich was where Adolf Hitler promised that if he was allowed to annex the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia where approximately 3 million people were of German extraction, there would be peace. Following the French, British and Italian agreement to Hitler’s proposal, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned to London declaring that “Peace with Honour” had been achieved. Six months later, in March 1939, Hitler invaded and occupied the remainder of Czechoslovakia, and on Sept. 1, his invasion of Poland was the beginning of World War II.

Now Mr. Anderson offers an updated twist to this sad tale of appeasement. Whereas Germany did not fear Czechoslovakia in 1938, and although Anderson acknowledges that Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine, he writes that the “people of Russia (and Putin) still have security fears that cannot be rightly denied. Part of Putin’s public rationale for invading Ukraine from joining NATO, which has moved increasingly eastward since 1991.”

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Remember, however, that the “movement eastward” was the result of former Soviet satellites seeking to retain their recently won freedom to move westward, away from the Soviet Union/Russian Federation.

Anderson’s goal appears to be to “limit Russian aggression in Ukraine” not stop or reverse it and “simultaneously reduce Russian insecurity.” I would ask, what insecurity? NATO has not invaded anyone since it was created in 1949 to, of all things, deter the Soviet and now Russian aggression, which we have seen in Georgia, Chechnya and now Ukraine. Note that Mr. Anderson cites Putin’s “public rationale” but provides no analysis of Putin’s personal rationale, which as many Russia watchers have written, appears to be his desire to return to his concept of the grandeur of what was once the Soviet Empire, only now with himself as the new czar.


What, then, is Mr. Anderson’s solution? He claims that we “should not dismiss the significance of [Russia’s] security fears” and brings NATO’s nuclear arsenal into question.

He writes that these weapons bring “real and significant power to NATO against Russia,” but omits the fact that Russia has more nuclear weapons than NATO. He also omits that NATO is a defensive organization and its arsenal is designed to deter Russian aggression of the kind now taking place in Ukraine.

In fact, nowhere in Mr. Anderson’s article does the word “deterrence” appear. Instead, he wants to revive the spirit of the Munich Conference and require only NATO to remove its nuclear weapons from Europe. He cites the removal of U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey and the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba in October 1962 as an example. But again, he doesn’t require the Russians to remove their nuclear weapons that threaten Western Europe in exchange. No, he simply wants to have NATO remove theirs, i.e., give up its deterrent posture, and give Putin some “new territory,” so he can declare victory at home. I assume he means the Donbas and the illegally annexed Crimea, making a mockery of the 2014 treaty signed by Russia, among others, guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty. What makes Mr. Anderson think that if NATO gives up its nuclear deterrence and allows Putin to take Ukrainian territory that, like Hitler in 1939, he will stop there?

A key point to this discussion is that in dealing with a dictator— and that’s what Putin is — you are dealing with one man’s obsessions. And because his power has no legitimate base, feeding his obsession or allowing him to claim success in pursuing it strengthens his hold on power and feeds the obsession. It does not pacify or reduce it.

Lt. Col. Sheldon Goldberg is a 30-year Air Force veteran and a former NATO staff officer who has served on the faculties of the West German General Staff College, the Air Force Command and Staff College, and the Associate School of the Air War College. He has a doctorate in modern European history and master’s degrees in European security and Soviet and East European foreign policy. He is the author of “From Disarmament to Rearmament: The Reversal of US Policy Toward West Germany, 1946-1955.”

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