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From Munich to Munich

1938 – 2023

[This editorial is also available in Ukrainian.]

The Munich Security Conference, which has become an annual meeting place for thinkers and actors in international life, has just ended with the exceptional unity of Europe and the democracies in the face of the Russian war in Ukraine and the challenge being made to the international order by the world’s autocracies.

One cannot avoid comparing it with the Munich conference, held on 29 and 30 September 1938, at the end of which, believing they were avoiding war, the United Kingdom and France, deceived by Hitler's lies, offered him the territory of the Sudetenland, renounced defending an ally, and left the field open to Nazi expansionism, which heralded the Second World War.

In defiance of his commitments, within six months, the German dictator invaded the whole of Czechoslovakia, and the infernal mechanism of war was set in motion. For Hitler, it would be total, and, for the first time, civilians would be the prime targets, as is the case today in Ukraine.

Putin has not ceased to lie shamelessly about his intentions and actions. He has dared to claim that he has nothing to do with Wagner, a private military company, which now claims allegiance to him, nor with the assassinations of opponents abroad, in which the courts have demonstrated his personal involvement.

After having guaranteed that he would not invade his neighbour, he did so unashamedly, after having invented the most spurious pretexts, which has just been officially confirmed by his then spin doctor, the famous "Kremlin wizard", Vladislav Surkov etc, etc.

Each of his declarations, reread with hindsight, demonstrates a level of deception and lies that are quickly disproved by the facts.

We are therefore dealing with the same type of paranoid dictator, drunk with his supposed power, whom nothing can stop except force.

The real difference lies in what the allies showed in 2023 in Munich. First, there has been unwavering unity in the analysis of the situation and in the will to stop these criminal activities.

The "autocratic challenge" now has been singled out as it tries to gain traction across the world.

It concerns other states, whose leaders wish to remain in power by distancing themselves from democracies.

The Chinese Communist Party explains to a number of apprentice dictators, for example in Africa, that there are no strings attached to its support whereas Westerners, and especially Europeans, demand respect for human rights, transparency against corruption and the establishment of genuine rule of law.

Moreover, the personalities present in Munich last week demanded that the crimes committed by the Russians in Ukraine be judged, from the lowest to the highest echelons. The definition of the "crime of aggression" should gain in clarity and international justice in effectiveness, especially in the face of the true genocidal intent of Putin and his army.

But the representatives present in Munich over the last few days have also measured the consequences of Russian aggression on international relations.

By toying with nuclear weapons, Putin has in fact revived proliferation; by disregarding the UN, he has discredited his status as a great power and endangered international stability; by violating the recognised borders of his neighbour, he has opened the way for many revisionists to do the same; by openly ignoring treaties signed by his country, he has encouraged other satraps to follow his example; by once again attacking civilians, he has unleashed the most dangerous demons that often lead to total war.

The West has been responsible for two things, refusing to escalate, but supporting a state under attack. Their attitude should not be seen as weakness; they will not weaken, and their strengths are considerable.

They have learned from history that trying to appease such unbridled, revisionist and lying actors is a sure path to war. Winston Churchill once said that the 1938 agreement was "a defeat without a war".

The spirit of the security conference 85 years later was quite different, serious, and grave. Only steadfastness can still prevent a bellicose spiral that is well known on the continent. Europe is united as never before and determined to prevent it. It cannot afford to weaken and, to the surprise of many, it has no intention of doing so.