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World leaders gathering this weekend at the Munich Security Conference look to decisively distance their governments from "Munich."
Munich, the city, became "Munich" the symbol in 1938, when French and British leaders at the Munich Conference acquiesced to Hitler's takeover of Czechoslovakia in hopes of avoiding further European warfare. The "Munich Analogy" became shorthand for appeasement.
The shorthand has had a long tail, invoked in countless conflicts since then. Including in recent years, when Western leaders appeased Russia after its 2008 invasion of Georgia and its 2014 annexation of Crimea and destabilization of Eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself chastised gathered leaders at last year's conference for failing to curb Russia's revanchism. Days later, on Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, creating a geopolitical jolt that will be the focal point of this year's Munich conference.
For the first time in 20 years, Russia isn't invited. The U.S. delegation will be led by Vice President Kamala Harris, backed by a bipartisan delegation of about 50 members of Congress. The administration, which has rallied allies to Kyiv's cause, will focus on "transatlantic unity," said Michael Kimmage, a history professor at the Catholic University of America and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They'll also stress that "there are no cracks in the edifice of the alliance or the coalition behind Ukraine; that this coalition is in it for the long haul; and that in terms of providing what Ukraine needs in the next couple of months that there's going to be a very strong commitment."
These messages are not "new," "abstract" or "complicated," Kimmage said, adding that while there is an ongoing debate — particularly in more Kremlin-friendly countries like Hungary — of a negotiated settlement, steeling Kyiv for the fight will be the focus of most conferees. "In that sense, not to evoke the ghosts of Munich." Instead, there's a desire "to overcome that past and not have it seem salient."
Meanwhile, Moscow "is trying to play the waiting game; it hopes that the resolve of the West for Ukraine will weaken over time," said Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Speaking from the conference in her native nation, Fix (who co-authored with Kimmage "Putin's Last Stand" in the current issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine) said that the message to Moscow will be "there is no war fatigue." The West, she said, "will stand by Ukraine's side," citing the recent breakthrough on supplying Western tanks.
Repeating appeasement "was really close because we had two instances when Russia behaved the way it did today," Fix said, citing Georgia and Crimea. The full-scale invasion "was really the last opportunity for the West to wake up to what Russia has become." While the alacrity was late, now "there is no one in the West who would not see [Russian President] Vladimir Putin for what he is." The "shock of the war," she said, "has really woken up the political leadership in all countries. So I think [the Munich analogy] was close. But I think the West has not failed that test."
The tests will intensify. So the West can't afford to give the invaders a "breather," said Nataliya Bugayova, a native Ukrainian who is now a nonresident Russia Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.
Speaking during a virtual event hosted by Harvard on Wednesday, Bugayova said that "the first element of Russian capability is actually momentum, and the Kremlin should be denied additional breathers on the battlefield" which are used to "reconstitute its force and prepare for future attacks."
But Russian forces may indeed get a "breather" because Western arms can't match the fierce fighting. "The current rate of Ukraine's ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said before the 54-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group met in Brussels — a city that "stands more for the European Union" than NATO, said Fix, who added that the E.U. has gained in stature because of successful sanctions implementation and its deft defusing of a potential European energy crisis.
Whether intended or triggered by ammunition shortages, the "breathers" also "lessens pressure on Putin domestically," Bugayova said. "One thing we have learned in the last 12 months is that the thing that can influence Russian information space is not Russian atrocities or Russian casualties but Russian battlefield setbacks." Putin, she added, "faces a lot more risk from the people who support the war than those who do not because he relies on his nationalist base to both sustain his regime and to continue this war."
To rally that nationalist base, Russia sometimes invokes Soviet heroism during the siege of Stalingrad — another city used as a symbol, in this case as a military and moral model of Russian resolve.
But in the inverse universe of Russian disinformation, it's not besieged cities in Ukraine as Stalingrad's military and moral equivalent, but Russia itself.
Marking the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad on Feb. 2, Putin said: "Now, regrettably, we see that the ideology of Nazism, in its modern guise, in its modern manifestation, once again poses direct threats to the security of our country. Again and again, we are forced to repulse the aggression of the collective West."
"What Stalingrad stands for in Russia is heroism and victimization," said Fix, who could have been describing Kyiv over the last year. Now, she added, many may ask: "To what extent is Russia behaving in a way that Germany behaved back then?"
Defending Ukraine is a vital U.S. national-security interest "even if we remove the humanitarian and moral considerations aside," Bugayova said. "Why? Because this goes to the question of Kremlin intent" — not just in Ukraine, but beyond. In places like Moldova, where on Monday the country's president outlined an alleged Kremlin plot to overthrow the government and end its hope for eventual E.U. membership.
With Harris in Munich, President Joe Biden will mark the invasion anniversary in Warsaw — yet another city concurrently serving as a symbol.
Historically, Kimmage said, Poland "has the deepest history of antagonism with Russia." Currently, he added, "It's an acknowledgment that Poland, among all the European countries, has done the most" on refugees, rallying continental cohesion, and in facilitating military support.
As for Kyiv itself, Fix and Kimmage separately both evoked the same symbol: David.
So, too, did Zelenskyy, saying in a virtual speech to the Munich Security Conference: "I am grateful to everyone who gives the sling to Ukrainian David, thanks to which Russian Goliath has already started to lose his ground."
Moscow isn't Goliath everywhere, Kimmage and Fix stressed, especially in the Global South. But "the bigger strand of the story," said Kimmage, sees Moscow as "perpetrating a very radical, destabilizing war, and doing so in a haze of war crimes and without any sense of accountability."
The "kind of war crimes and attacks on cities that Russia has amassed during the war is, I think, the new association with Moscow," concluded Kimmage. So "not just as a center of autocratic power, but Moscow as a representation of a country that has blood on its hands."
World leaders must continue to be resolute in responding. As they meet in Munich, they must not allow another "Munich."