In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Brendan Simms, Director of the Centre for Geopolitics and Professor of the History of European International Relations of the University of Cambridge. They talk about a wider context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the lessons learnt from Hitler’s victories and miscalculations of WW2, the role of the transatlantic alliance in the conflict, and the global implications of the war.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): Why did Hitler decide to invade Poland knowing that the Eastern powers were going to interfere?
Brendan Simms (BS): That’s a very good question. Hitler’s attitude toward Poland was actually much less negative than it is assumed. He did not particularly target Poland in the 1930s. Moreover, he identified Poland as a country with which he could have good relations. In fact, he was considered an admirer of Marshal Piłsudski.
Why did he attack Poland? The reason for why and when he did it, on 1st of September 1939, is that his main concern was the preoccupation with the Anglo-Saxon powers – the British Empire and the United States. He saw them as the real global ordering forces, and he wanted to join them. And in his view the only way to do that was to secure contiguous living space with Germany and the East. That living space was conceived of … not Poland itself. His initial hope in 1939 and the beginning of 1939 was to secure Polish cooperation for the attack on the Soviet Union.
When that request was denied, he attacked Poland to basically occupy it and use it as a jumping of point against the Soviet Union. The ultimate target was the Soviet Union not because he was concerned about the Soviet Union attacking him, but rather because he saw in the Soviet Union the land that he would have needed to counterbalance the Anglo-Americans. And since 1937 he was ensured about the escalating enmity of the Great Britain, but also of the United States under Roosevelt, who gave his famous Quarantine Speech in the autumn of 1937, which was pretty much directed against Hitler.
That was the reason Hitler felt he was running out of time. He needed to secure his position. He failed to secure Polish cooperation.
LJ: How do you view Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric? Do you see in it an echo of the historical context of Hitler etc.? Do you think that there are parallels here, especially in the context of fighting against the Anglo-Saxon powers?
BS: First thing to be said is that it is very different historical context. Vladimir Putin is not the same as Hitler, for example he does not have the same antisemitic policies. There are many other differences. We need to be clear about this.
Having said that, you are absolutely correct to draw attention to these fascinating and disturbing parallels, which does center around the antagonism against the Anglo-Saxon world – a world which is a world of international capitalism. A world which is controlled by the West, which, in their view, shout out Russia unfairly and set all the rules.
Just as Hitler was conceived as a counterbalance against the British Empire and the United States, Putin sees the Eurasian Economic Union as a counterbalance to China and the United States, and specifically against the European Union, some of which structures it mimics. There is a fretful and unsettling parallel between Hitler and Putin. They both see themselves as representing a counter pole against the Anglo-Saxon order.
LJ: I wanted to talk to you about the Russian invasion in the wider context. Is it peripheral to the central conflict in terms of the European affairs?
BS: I think it is a very essential conflict. It’s a challenge to the entire European order. A full-scale attack on the southern state involving the annexation and deliberate annexation of large chunks of that state. But it must be made clear that the 24th of February is an escalation of the invasion, but it is not the original invasion itself, which of course goes back to the start of 2014 with the annexation and then the Russian intervention to support separatist movements. That was actually the beginning of this conflict, which has been a great challenge to the European order and to the global order ever since, because it is an open act of defiance against the prevailing system undertaken with at least the tolerance and, to some extant, also support of the Republic of China. This is a huge challenge. The fact that at the moment a lot of anxiety and discussion around it have quieted down compared to late February and early March shouldn’t disguise the fact that what we are looking at is something of absolutely critical importance.
LJ: Is it possible to decipher what are the goals of Putin in this war? Do you see geopolitical or ideological reasoning behind the invasion? How do you see his goals in this conflict?
BS: I think his aim and his concern is first and foremost a conflict with the West. In his own mind, and in his own mind only, this is a defensive conflict. In his own mind, he is reacting to what he regards as the unwanted ambitions of the West with him and what he believes to be the Russians’ space.
To that extend, Ukraine is a battleground. It is not the main target of the war. I say this not to belittle the achievements of the Ukrainians or to deny them agency, but simply to make a point that when Ukraine is defeated, it is not the end of the story.
He regards Ukraine as an area in which the western influence is growing and threatening him. He also sees Ukraine as a kind of anti-Russia: he says that on a numerous occasions that he cannot allow Ukraine to become anti-Russia. Ukraine was to become a success to get on a road to Poland. When we look at 1991, the economic difference between Poland and Ukraine was not large at all, and now it is huge and that is result of the Western option and the European integration with Poland.
What he cannot envisage at all is the same thing happening in Ukraine, as it would affect Russia itself. Thus, while Ukraine is important itself, his main battle is with the West. That’s why I say it’s a much broader conflict, and that’s why we can’t afford to lose it.
LJ: Do you think that in some way the West, the EU and USA play similar role that the United States played toward the Great Britain before the Pearl Harbor, that is, being more than purely neutral force, but at the same time trying to avoid entering into conflict? Is there a parallel? How do you see this parallel?
BS: It is a fascinating parallel and it is encouraged by the fact that some of the key legislations on the American side is actually turned in Lend-Lease to Ukraine and the Congress, so they see the parallel as well. So, there is the idea that just as America in 1940 and early 1941 was the arsenal democracy, as it was put, that the West could serve Ukraine. Certainly, that would be a very good idea. Much has been done already. Much more needs to be done.
The thing that worries me is that this was an escalatory ladder on the American side that led the United States into direct conflict, which provoked Hitler in a sense. I recall a book written by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, which is called “Hitler’s American Gamble, which precisely deals with this period in the autumn and winter of 1941 when Hitler is thinking what to do about the United States.
Lend-Lease very considerably drives Hitler towards declaring war on the United States. I am concerned that Putin might react to this Lend-Lease thinking that he is at war with the West anyway, so he might as well go all out. He has certainly made similar argument on some occasions.
Another interesting parallel is that the PRC has not yet openly entered the fight and it is not so obvious that it will do so. In some ways, we have a parallel related to the Germans, who were already at war, but the Japanese were pandering their move. So, there are all kind of interesting resonances which lead as in different directions here.
LJ: How do you see the prospects for a future conflict, considering the resources of Russia with the indirect or direct support form China and the West, which is still stronger but not that determined to defend Ukraine as it was during World War II? How might this conflict develop in a couple of months or years?
BS: I think that Russia has no chance of winning a long conflict. At the moment, it is waging war of attrition, which in many ways is precisely the wrong way to wage war. The West’s help for Ukraine has already been substantial. Just as in case of Japan and Germany, the same will happen to Russian Federation. Maybe not in the sense of physical alienation, but in the sense of long-term slow bleeding of its economy, culture, demography and health, Russia will simply be marginalized and undermined as a population and political entity.
Its only chance was to wage a kind of Blitzkrieg, which Putin intended and failed. Thus, Putin is in many respects like Mussolini, who attacked Greece in 1940 and failed. Having been unsuccessful in the Blitzkrieg, they really have no likelihood of success in a war of attrition. This is the kind of thing which the West is good at, i.e., supplying weapons, cutting off the enemy from the global commentary, etc. This is contest in which the West can endure longer than Russians, which makes me optimistic.
LJ: Do you think it is possible for us to enter militarily into the conflict later? What would have to happen? Are there any other scenarios in which the escalation of NATO and Russia is possible?
BS: I think that the Russian attack on the NATO, so Baltic States (Poland, Finland, Sweden) would certainly lead to military conflict. You could envisage scenario in which NATO would be brought into the war nonetheless, which could be related to the scenario in which civilians are being killed, so things we saw at the beginning of the war. However, at the moment, it seems quite remote for a simple reason – the Russians are not pursuing their objectives and are probably in a retreat.
There is no real sign that Putin is escalating either. There has been very perceptible slowdown of Russian actions during last weeks and months. Thus, I think no direct intervention seems likely.
LJ: How do you see the European response to the war so far? Is it below the strategic level that we would expect from Europeans who wanted to disengage somewhat from the United States? Or do you think it is some kind of a Cold War situation?
BS: I think the response is very differentiated. If we compare it to the response of annexation of Crimea, it is better. There is very little discussion of what is going on and who is to blame under the agreement that actions should be taken.
Beyond that, I think it depends on which part of the Europe you are looking at. Mainly the eastern part, particularly Poland, Finland, Sweden, the Baltics have mounted the best response, which is not surprising as they are on the front line. Much of the rest of Europe has been frankly pretty pathetic. The German response was a dismal, but not as bad as in the period immediately preceding and in the years before the war. As you know, Germany bet on the wrong horse and made completely wrong assumptions about the intentions of the Russians. It allowed itself to be in the situation of an energy blackmail and the results are now playing out for everyone.
I was not surprised by the speech of Chancellor Scholz. I am disappointed, but not really surprised, that so far Germany has done less militarily to support the Ukrainians, even though the speech promised otherwise. But such is the nature of modern Germany, which has many good qualities, but strategic thinking, the ability to strike blows according to their weight, are not among those qualities. The same, to certain extend, can be said of France, which also bet on the wrong horse. You remember President Macron’s negotiations with Putin, which actually lasted longer than the day of the invasion. That, of course, was the mistake.
What I think needs to be realized as well is the UK’s response. The UK had been warned of the invasion and it was very much present on the front lines to supply Ukraine with weapons. The fact is that it is the European country that helped president Zelensky and Ukrainians the most. As I have said, the European is actually differentiated. The UK is in the lead to some extent. Poland and the Baltic countries, Sweden, Finland play an important role. The rest of the Europe continues to dispense. Nevertheless, I believe that without the support of the United States, Europe would be in a very difficult situation. Yes, in the end, the United States is leading, but the United Kingdom and some other countries that supplied Ukraine also played a very important role.
LJ: How do you see these implications for both the European project and the global affairs, especially the rivalry between China and Russia? Do you see that it will be a kind of preservation of the status quo, or rather an attempt to dismantle the current world order?
BS: In the case of the European Union, I’m afraid that while one might expect and hope that this shake-up will bring the Union closer together and provide some impetus for a full political union, unfortunately there is very little indication that it will bring us closer to the United States of Europe. So, I fear that this will not lead to any great change in the European Union. It will simply show the European Union and some of the weaknesses that were there prior to the escalation of the invasion.
he other implication is that it shows how important Britain is in Europe. I believe that this is something that Europe has to think whether it is going to pursue those differences under the differences in a way that it might cut across the relationships with the UK. It is important as the United Kingdom is doing many things for Europe: it is protecting the European order, which seems striking as Europeans seem to be uncapable of doing it for themselves. Thus, I think the Europeans have to ask themselves whether they will pursue the differences with the UK or will perhaps step back a bit and recognize what the UK is doing on the defense front. It is something that the EU has to ponder on.
Finally, as for the global implications, I don’t quite agree with you that PRC antagonism has receded. It has zoomed back. That is still there. That is still important after the invasion of Ukraine. The question is, what are the implications? Will the PRC think that now that the Russians have moved so I should move? Should we move now before it is too late?
This was a major part of Japanese thinking under Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United States. Or they will think, given the difficulties Russians has had with Ukraine, “will it be so easy to take over Taiwan? Let’s look at the West’s reaction to this invasion, and what will happen if we are disconnected from the economic system.” So, we do not know, I am afraid, what the leaders of Beijing will decide.
The podcast was recorded on September 28, 2022.
Find out more about the guest: www.cfg.polis.cam.ac.uk/directory/brendan-simms
Check out Professor Simms’ recent book “Hitler: A Global Biography” (2019): www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/…al-biography
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.