In 1938, when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich proclaiming “peace in our time”, Winston Churchill famously denounced the decision Britain and France had just made. “You were given the choice between war and dishonour,” he said. “You chose dishonor and you will have war.”
Sadly, British prime minister David Cameron, French president François Hollande, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and US president Barack Obama, facing a similar choice in Ukraine, have chosen dishonour as well. Now it is Ukraine that is getting the war, while Europe stands aside, even as its security is undermined and its values mocked.
More than 100 prominent Czech and Slovak public intellectuals have written an open letter to Europe’s key leaders, admonishing them to get off their chosen path of appeasement. As citizens of the successor states to Czechoslovakia, the country that received its death sentence at the Munich conference, we feel a particular responsibility to speak out.
It has been a year since Ukraine’s citizens sent a corrupt regime packing, with many perishing under their national flag and the flag of the EU, to open a path towards dignity and freedom for their country. It has also been a year since the Russian army occupied Crimea, violating the principle of the sanctity of borders upon which peace in Europe has stood since the Second World War.
Today, the bloody footprints of Russian agents and soldiers are as evident in Ukraine as the poisonous traces of polonium were in the streets of London following the murder of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. The order for that murder, as an inquest in London is now hearing, can be traced to the Kremlin.
As many as 50,000 Ukrainians and Russians may have died so far in Russia’s war against Ukraine, with almost 2m expelled from their homes. Yet the leaders of the democratic West refer to Russia’s aggression on the territory of a foreign state in a type of Orwellian newspeak. They call it a “conflict” or a “situation” instead of what it is: An invasion and a war. As citizens of a region that endured both Nazi and Soviet occupation, we know all too well the danger of euphemism.
In 1938, while other democracies silently looked on, Britain and France betrayed their ally Czechoslovakia. Under the pretence of protecting the German minority in the Sudetenland, they allowed Hitler to begin dismembering the entire country. Within six months of the Munich Agreement, on March 15, 1939, Hitler’s Wehrmacht was marching through the streets of Prague.
Bohemia and Moravia became a Reich protectorate, and Slovakia was given nominal independence under a puppet regime. Czechoslovakia’s impressive industrial capacity and human resources were placed fully at the service of Hitler’s war machine. By the time Hitler attacked France, one quarter of all German weapons came from the occupied Czech lands.
Today, history appears to be repeating itself with a vengeance. In 1994, Ukraine surrendered its arsenal of nuclear weapons. By signing the Budapest Memorandum, the US and UK became guarantors of a disarmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence. They have betrayed that pledge with nary a political consequence to themselves.
The paucity of support for Ukraine from the Western democracies is a sad reminder of their failure to stand up to Hitler (not only in Czechoslovakia, but also in the Spanish Civil War). And the craven refusal to live up to the Budapest Memorandum is casting a shadow on the credibility of other international guarantees and agreements, including the mutual-defence assurance that lies at the heart of Nato membership. After all, if one fundamental pledge can be broken for reasons of political expedience, why not another?
Indeed, if no one in the West is willing to help Ukraine defend itself and its 45m people, what are the chances that the world’s democracies will risk confrontation with Russia to defend Estonia’s 1m citizens, or Latvia’s 2m, or Lithuania’s 3m?
Of course, it is always preferable to attempt to negotiate rather than resort to war. But a willingness only to negotiate is perceived in Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the sign of weakness that it is. Negotiations can succeed only if conducted alongside the toughest and broadest possible sanctions on the Russian economy and the provision of effective and extensive help to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s citizens, like the citizens of Poland who fought alone after the betrayal at Munich, are fighting bravely against a ruthless aggressor. They do not fight for their freedom alone, but for the freedom of democratic Europe. To reward their courage with betrayal mocks everything that the West believes about itself.
Let us be clear: Russia’s war against Ukraine is an attempt to stop the eastward spread of democracy in Europe. War in Europe is here. Donations of bandages and blankets to Ukraine’s ravaged people will not stop the bloodshed — or prevent the West’s dishonor.
- is a former senior diplomat and adviser to the late Czech president Václav Havel. is a former member of the Czechoslovak parliament and a specialist with the World Bank. Project Syndicate, 2015