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At the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles divested Germany of a tenth of its prewar population and an eighth of its prewar territory, exclusive of overseas colonies, all of which were taken. The treaty also burdened Germany with enormous reparation payments to the victors and restrictions on what use it could make of the territories left to it.
Even some on the winning side thought the terms excessive; John Maynard Keynes of Britain stormed out of the Paris peace conference and issued a grim prediction: “If we aim at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare say, will not limp. Nothing can then delay for very long the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilisation and the progress of our generation.”
Reaction appeared in the form of German National Socialism and Adolf Hitler. The Nazis came to power railing against the injury done Germany by the postwar settlement, and step by step they began to undo that settlement—building an army, remilitarizing the Rhineland and demanding restoration of the territories and people taken from Germany. The economic depression of the 1930s discouraged France and Britain from punishing Germany for violating the Versailles accord, but so did the knowledge that the settlement had been unreasonable from the start, forced upon Germany at a moment of that country’s weakness. Many in France and Britain who were looking for reason not to fight another war against Germany observed that if they had been in the shoes of Germans in the 1930s, they might have been doing and demanding the same things. Perceptive Americans recalled that two-thirds of their country had violently and successfully opposed the effort of one-third to redraw the nation’s boundaries in the 1860s.
Eventually, of course, Hitler pushed too far. His attack on Poland prompted France and Britain to declare war. Whether or not he had expected this reaction, he took it as opportunity to invade and defeat France and assault Britain. Then he attacked the Soviet Union, lending weight to arguments that his complaints against Versailles had been a smokescreen for his megalomania. And his destruction of six million Jews and others in the Holocaust revealed the depths of his derangement.
When the war ended with the crushing of Hitler’s regime, the singularity of the evil he embodied made it tempting to blame the whole thing on him. More than a few people wondered whether matters would have played out quite differently if the shell that wounded him at the Battle of the Somme had killed him. Was World War II caused by one man? Or was the cause the Versailles system Hitler mobilized Germany against—a system Germany eventually would have rejected under another leader?
This wasn’t idle speculation. On the answer seemed to hang the optimal path forward after the war. Yet the question was never seriously pursued, for peacemaking after World War II took a very different turn than it had after World War I. Suspicions between the United States and the Soviet Union precluded a peace conference, and the lines of occupation at the moment of Germany’s surrender hardened into the frontiers of the Cold War. These frontiers didn’t soften until the Cold War ended in the early 1990s with the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
At this point, the victors—America and its allies—might have taken a lesson from the interwar period. The lesson could have been that after a war the losing side ought to be given a stake in preserving the peace settlement. Historians with a long view could have pointed to the European settlement after the Napoleonic wars, a settlement that deprived France of its recent conquests but gave that country a seat at the great-power table of the Concert of Europe. The result was the longest period of general peace in Europe in centuries, lasting until 1914.
The denouement of the Cold War looked more like that of World War I than of the Napoleonic wars. Russia, deprived not simply of its Cold War satellites but of such historic territories as Ukraine, was given little reason to honor the borders of the system that emerged. The fact the Russian government was complicit in the deprivation meant little to the second post-Cold War generation of Russian leaders, in particular Vladimir Putin, who imputed weakness and even treachery to his predecessors.
The peaceful passing of the Soviet Union had taken most Soviet-watchers by surprise; in their reckoning, empires don’t die without a fight. Their reckoning turned out to be right; it was the timing that was off. The Ukraine war can best be seen a delayed effort to prevent the permanent breakup of the Russian empire, much as the German aggression that produced World War II was a delayed response to the breakup of the German empire of 1914.
At some point the Ukraine war will end. A durable outcome will require terms that give Russia reason to maintain it. Conceivably the Russian government, perhaps after Putin, will have an epiphany that causes it to embrace Ukraine as a sovereign equal. Nations sometimes do adjust to unpleasant realities. Britain eventually reconciled to the loss of its American colonies. Mexico gave up on regaining California from the United States. Germany no longer insists on the borders it had under Kaiser Wilhelm.
A more likely scenario, at least in the short term, is that the current U.S.-led alliance provides a security guarantee for Ukraine so compelling as to convince Russia that another Ukraine war would be disastrous. The problem here is credibility. Ukraine means more to Russia than it does to the United States, and will do so for a long time. It already strains belief that Washington would risk a nuclear war over the Baltic republics; a similar guarantee for Ukraine would be even more dubious.
Better would be a bargain that, on its own merits, would be in the interests of Russia to keep. It’s not unreasonable for Russia to want guarantees that Ukraine not become an enemy. And given events of the last year, not to mention the half-century of the Cold War, it’s understandable that Russia considers NATO an enemy. So Ukraine would have to agree not to join NATO, and NATO would have to agree not to accept Ukraine as a member. In exchange, Russia would acknowledge Ukraine’s independence. The Western sanctions on Russia would be dropped. An international consortium of some kind would pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction.
Ukraine would object that this violates its sovereignty, for sovereign nations get to choose their allies. But the current war violates Ukraine’s sovereignty even more, and—supposing a truce that didn’t satisfy Russia—the continuing threat from a resentful nuclear neighbor would exact its own cost. Neutralization is the price Ukraine would have to pay for living in a tough neighborhood.
Neutralization isn’t a perfect solution. It’s not better than every conceivable solution. But it’s the best of the plausible ones.
The alternative is that this resumption of the Cold War lasts as long as the original version did.