The comparison with the 1938 Munich agreement comes easily to many people. Hitler was given a free hand in Czechoslovakia in the hope that his hunger for territory would thus be stilled. Alas, appeasement did not work and the Second World War broke out the next year.
But who still knows about the Algeciras agreement? This is where in 1906 the great powers ended a crisis about the expansion of French influence in Morocco, by deciding in the end not to escalate and to award all powers involved some form of compensation. War was averted and thus nobody now remembers the agreement, just as we have forgotten how various crises in the subsequent years were settled. But when in the summer of 1914 the great powers no longer were willing to compromise, a totally superfluous world war started.
Who is to say which comparison best fits the current crisis in Ukraine?
Yes, Russia has ‘gained’ the Crimea. But it has also ‘lost’ the rest of Ukraine, for those who want to speak in such terms. Blind to his massive unpopularity, Moscow persisted to see support for Yanukovich as the way of preserving its influence in Ukraine. The result: the opposition is now in power and has logically turned to the European Union (EU) instead. The EU did not really have a clear long term vision, but almost in spite of itself it now finds itself best placed to influence Ukraine and thus has the chance to help it become a stable and democratic country.
For that to happen, first and foremost further escalation must be avoided. The EU will adopt targeted sanctions against specific individuals, to signal its discontent with the Russian military intervention and the illegal referendum on the Crimea. But de facto we will have to accept that henceforth the Crimea, whatever its legal status, will be in the Russian sphere of influence. In geopolitical terms, that does not change much. What counts is the naval base in Sevastopol, which was bound to remain under Russian control anyhow. This might allow Putin to agree though, without too much loss of face, to abandon all attempts to destabilise mainland Ukraine. Through quiet diplomacy (not tweeting about it is allowed for once) the EU must make it very clear that otherwise much harsher sanctions will follow, including in the energy field.
Even without Russian interference Ukraine will likely be very unstable for some time to come. As a large part of the population simply feels closely related to Russia, the country remains very much divided. The EU has rightly accorded enormous financial support to the interim government, but it should emphasise that this does not come without conditions. Ukraine urgently needs a government that represents the whole of the country and that ends corruption. If the events of the past weeks only result in one clique being replaced by another that only serves its clients, none of this was worth it.
Because of its close relations, Germany is best placed to take the diplomatic lead within and on behalf of the EU. Thanks to the Atlantic Alliance we know that our own territory is not directly threatened (and that one should not too quickly think in terms of precedents). With that knowledge in mind, the EU can confidently lead the diplomatic offensive – the only offensive that is now necessary.