Last week’s Minsk agreement, by which France and Germany in effect codified the cession to Russia of Kiev’s sovereignty over southeastern Ukraine, has temporarily taken the issue of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine off the table and thus off the conscience of the West. But the question whether the United States and its allies should arm Ukraine (and later Georgia? Moldova? Estonia? Latvia?) is going to arise again and again in the months and years ahead.
And when it does—a whiff of moral perversity attending the debate over whether to help a victim of blatant aggression defend itself—the problem will conjure up the ghost of another deeply divided, chaotic, and near-bankrupt nascent democracy that fought for its life against insurgents who received huge supplies of weapons and “volunteers” from authoritarian regimes, while Western democracies imposed an arms embargo. That young republic was Spain, decimated by Hitler and Mussolini as the West stayed scrupulously out of the fray.
After fighting broke out between General Francisco Franco’s “Nationalists” and the Republican “loyalists” in July 1936, the British government declared that “a strict and impartial attitude of non-intervention” was “essential if the unhappy events in Spain are to be prevented from having serious repercussions elsewhere.” Without Western support and desperate for arms, the Republican government made a Faustian bargain with Stalin’s Soviet Union, which was far more interested in hunting down Trotskyites and establishing a Communist totalitarian regime than defending the Spanish Republic.
From 1936 to the defeat of the Republic three years later, Nazi Germany spent an estimated $215 million—$3.6 billion in today’s money—to provide the Nationalists with 600 planes and 200 tanks and to pay the salaries of an estimated 16,000 German “volunteers” of the Condor Legion. Encouraged by Germany, Mussolini sent the Nationalists 660 planes, 150 tanks, 800 artillery pieces, 10,000 machine guns, and 240,000 rifles. In addition to providing arms, Germany trained 56,000 Nationalist infantry, gunners, and pilots. The Luftwaffe pilots secured Nationalist dominance in the air, strafing Republican troops and bombing Madrid with impunity, while the Italian Navy controlled the Mediterranean and bombarded Malaga, Valencia, and Barcelona.
Although no historical parallel is ever precise, the strangling of the Spanish Republic suggests some lessons for today. First, one-sided embargos stop neither rebellion nor aggression, not to mention brutality. Will Mariupol, Debaltseve, or perhaps soon Kharkiv, devastated by missiles from Russian Grad rocket launchers, soon stain the reputation of the West as indelibly as Guernica, the Spanish town where in April 1937 the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion killed 200-300 civilians?
Second, while democracies usually seek peace, their opponents are always after victory. This is useful to recall in light of the arguments by the opponents of arming Ukraine that doing so would “pour gasoline on the fire” and “antagonize” Vladimir Putin into “widening the war.” If only it were that easy! Where and when has “not angering” dictators bound on conquering or destabilizing their neighbors ever worked? Where and when have such aggressors been dissuaded from proceeding according to their own plans and timetables, shaped by ideology, cold geostrategic calculus, and opportunity? Name one dictator whose aggression has been prevented or even slowed down by noninterference. Was Mussolini? Was Saddam Hussein? Did “not angering” Hitler by not confronting him after Germany began to arm itself in violation of the Treaty of Versailles make him scale down his ambition? Did inaction help after Hitler violated another article of the Versailles treaty by moving troops into the Rhineland in 1936? Did ceding Czechoslovakia appease him?
No one is equating Putin with Hitler, but I am afraid the general paradigm fits. Like revisionist dictators of the past, Putin in his war on Ukraine is driven by a set of ideological, political, and geostrategic imperatives. A stable, democratic, and Europe-bound Ukraine is an existential threat to Putin’s regime and his dreams of the “Russian World” and a “Eurasian Union.” Punishing, humiliating, dismembering, and ultimately destroying such a Ukraine is necessary for him to survive—as he almost certainly intends—as Russia’s president for life. Furthermore, after a year of deafening propaganda that portrayed the war as a proxy battle between Russia and NATO, anything short of a smashing victory—precluding Ukraine from ever attempting to recover its southeast—would subtract significantly, perhaps fatally, from the regime’s domestic legitimacy, already imperiled by a spiraling economic crisis and double-digit inflation on many food staples.