It is famously reported that when Hitler advanced his troops back into demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, they had orders in their back pockets to withdraw if they met any resistance. They did not. Here is the story
Although Germany had been steadily building up her army since 1933 it was not strong enough to hold the Rhineland if France or Britain counter-attacked. Hitler later commented “The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland we would have had to withdraw..”
France was on the verge of elections and politicians were unwilling to take steps that would be unpopular with the population. French politicians and leaders knew that taking military action against Germany would be expensive and could lead to a full-scale Franco-German war.
The French appealed to the British for support but many British politicians felt that Germany was simply re-claiming what was theirs anyway. Additionally, popular feeling in Britain was totally against another major war.
The League of Nations, established by the Treaty of Versailles to deal with acts such as this, condemned Hitler’s action but did not enact economic or military sanctions.
Churchill thought that this was a moment of truth. Hitler had tested the will of the allies to resist his naked aggression and they failed to respond. If they had done so, then Hitler might have been contained without war. But they did not, and the world paid the heavy price later. Thus, Churchill thought, the great second war should be remembered as the one that could have been most easily prevented.
We are mistaken to think that this type of story is unique to Hitler. It is a common tale about bullies who equate power and coercion. They test and move forward or back based on their sense of what they can get away with. They pay little or no attention to chit chat.
So, I think Roger Cohen is pretty much spot on about Mr. Putin. He is a man who respects force. And he is making a bold move in Ukraine using force. Whatever one may think of Ukraine — and I am not one of its great friends — it is strategically important. For that reason, the west has no choice but to respond and to respond forcefully to Putin’s aggression. That does not necessarily mean military resistance. But it does mean sufficient counter-measures in the form of sanctions and other diplomatic means that Putin is set back. If we do not do this now, we should not claim surprise later if and when Putin acts in an even more outrageous fashion. As Churchill made clear, when one is confronted with this sort of bullying, the price of containment will only grow. And that growth may be exponential.
A moment of truth has arrived for us.