Today the world is watching Ukraine and Russia. And the two countries are going in opposite directions: Ukraine has chosen the European Union, democracy, human rights, and the market economy in a state governed by the rule of law. Putin’s Kremlin is pushing Russia toward the re-creation of an aggressive empire where democracy is a Potemkin village and where violence and lies rule. This is why Putin wants to destroy Ukrainian democracy and the Ukrainian state—so he can rule Ukraine as part of his post-Soviet empire. This is why he seeks to destabilize the country and block the presidential elections in May. The Ukrainian government is reacting to the provocations of Putin’s secret services with admirable composure—a strategy of resistance without violence that demands respect.
But their strategy is also cause for concern. The Kremlin views Kiev’s judiciousness and restraint as helplessness and acquiescence to Putin’s aggression. It treats the EU’s prudent and careful reactions the same way. And in Brussels there is a conviction that nothing is worse than the return of the cold war. But there is something worse—actual war. Putin’s policies are like opium for the Russian people—they are meant to fool Russians and compel them to obey. Fortunately, there are enough great people in Russia who are not susceptible to this drug.
In 1938, when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich and told the British people that he had brought them “peace in our time,” Churchill replied: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war." This wise British conservative knew where the policy of appeasement toward Hitler would lead. And we remember what happened. Poles and other nearby nations do not want to live in the shadow of a leader’s portraits again—even if instead of Stalin or Brezhnev the portraits show a KGB lieutenant-colonel.
The fate of our region is on the line today. Acquiescence to Putin does not end with Crimea—we are now watching Donetsk and Lugansk, and other countries will be next. This is very dangerous—not only for us, but also for Russia. It is tantamount to turning the clock back hundreds of years.
Passivity from the West will mean the victory of the spirit that prevailed in Munich in 1938 and in Yalta in 1945. Today, Putin and his crew have to understand that aggression toward Ukraine will cost them more than the abandonment of this aggression. The West passively observed the forceful pacification of uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It broke with passivity only after Soviet aggression against Afghanistan. It was at that point that Brezhnev was stopped, and his doctrine landed in the dustbin of history. That’s where Putin’s doctrine and his policy belongs.
Adam Michnik, a leader of the anti-Communist opposition in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, is the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, where this piece originally appeared. Translated by Agnieszka Marczyk.