What Churchill and Selassie taught us about Aggression and Ukraine

By Rob Dannenberg

Rob Dannenberg served as chief of operations for CIA's Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the Information Operations Center before retiring from the Agency.  He served as managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and as director of International Security Affairs at BP.  He is now an independent consultant on geopolitical and security risk.

EXPERT PERPECTIVE/OPINION — On June 30th, 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia addressed the League of Nations in Geneva.  His speech was an appeal to the member states to act collectively to prevent further aggression against his country by the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

The speech was historically significant for many reasons, not the least of which were its content and the context in which it was delivered. Ethiopia had been invaded and faced renewed threat of occupation from the forces of Mussolini.

Five and a half years later, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the US Congress in the Senate chamber. The powerful speech he delivered less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, resonated both with Congress and the American people.

Britain had been at war since 1939 and had stood alone against an aerial onslaught by Germany, now known as the Battle of Britain. The country was also at risk of invasion by sea.  At the time, Britain was the front line and bulwark of democracy in Europe which was largely occupied by Nazi German forces.

Eighty-two years later almost to the day, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy traveled at great personal risk, to address the US Congress in Washington. Zelenskiy’s own country is now the frontline and a bulwark of democracy in Europe. It remains under brutal assault by Russia, a much larger, nuclear power which has conducted an unjustified act of aggression by invading Ukraine and is now engaged in 21st century genocide as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is acting more like a dictator, seeks to erase Ukraine’s national identity, language and culture.  

There are lessons from each of these speeches worth bearing in mind. Particularly, as a new Congress comes to power in Washington and as the current assault on Ukraine nears the one year mark. The most important lessons to be learned are about the nature of the adversary and what’s at stake for the world. 

Selassie’s speech, considered by observers at the time to be powerful but ultimately delivered in vain, did not result in any action by the League – nor the then-neutral US – to help Ethiopia. Selassie asserted that the question at hand was not just the matter of Italian aggression, but also of collective security, the existence of the League, the trust placed by states in international treaties, and the value of promises made to small states. At the end of his speech, Selassie prophetically reminded the Assembly and the world, “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow.” 

Less than four years later, Hitler attacked Poland and then conquered most of Europe. Imperial Japan continued its assault on China and the British Empire in Asia and the stage was set for the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

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Churchill’s speech to Congress was attended by representatives of both parties who had favored “isolationist” positions under the “America First” rubric before the Pearl Harbor attack. And while Churchill sensed that resolve in Washington for defeating the Axis powers was strong, he knew better than the leaders of the US, the price that would have to be paid for victory. 

Victory would require deep financial and material commitment from the United States, the “arsenal of democracy”.  His speech was delivered with forceful conviction but also with a balance of wit and hard facts.  Churchill knew the nature of the leadership of the Axis powers. 

The wicked men and their factions, who have launched their peoples on the path of war and conquest, know that they will be called to terrible account if they cannot beat down by force of arms the peoples they have assailed.  They have plans and designs which have long been contrived and matured. They will stop at nothing that violence or treachery can suggest.”  

Churchill knew the stakes and recognized the opportunity that the defeat of the Axis powers would present for the free world.

I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”

There is certainly great purpose and design in the current fight against Putin.

Zelenskiy’s remarks echo the sentiments of both Selassie and Churchill. He recognizes what is at stake not just for Ukraine but for the free world.

Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender,” said Zelenskiy.  “So, here the front line, the tyranny which has no lack of cruelty against the lives of free people – and your support is crucial, not just to stand in such a fight but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield.”

He had a clear message for the US Congress and the American people.

It is in your power, really, to help us bring to justice everyone who started this unprovoked and criminal war. Let’s do it. Let terrorist — let the terrorist state be held responsible for its terror and aggression and compensate all losses done by this war. Let the world see that the United States are here.”

Perhaps most significantly, Zelenskiy showed an understanding of what’s at stake for the Russian people, who in their own way are hostages to Putin’s kleptocracy.

The Russians will stand a chance to be free only when they defeat the Kremlin in their minds. Yet, the battle continues, and we have to defeat the Kremlin on the battlefield, yes.” 

By calling out defeating the Kremlin, Zelenskiy is calling for a commitment that the US and the free world need to understand and accept.

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This war is bigger than just returning to Ukraine the territory it has lost to Russian aggression since 2014. The “wicked men” in the Kremlin that launched this aggression must be held to account.

Selassie understood the threat and Churchill understood the nature of the opposition he faced as does Zelenskiy. There are many experienced voices calling for a negotiated solution to the war.  They should know better. 

If Selassie, Churchill, and Zelenskiy were now given a voice in those chambers of proposed diplomacy, they would argue that the best negotiating tactic is a clear definition of victory and commitment and resolve to bring those responsible to account. Anything less—if Putin’s kleptocracy survives this aggression—means that it will inevitably return and the price will be paid by the free world in the future as both Russia and the other members of the new axis of evil, jump in to the fray. 

Churchill knew what needed to be done and worked tirelessly in his relationship with US President Franklin Roosevelt and the other western Allies to bring about the Casablanca conference less than two years after his speech before Congress. The Casablanca conference produced an historically provocative declaration, “unconditional surrender” which represented the unified voice of Allied determination that the Axis powers would be fought to their ultimate defeat.  And similar resolve is required now. Other than Zelenskiy are there any western leaders who understand this?

The response of the US, NATO, and much of the free world to this latest Russian aggression against Ukraine, is commendable both in terms of sanctions against Russia and Belarus, as well as financial and military support to Ukraine.  But Putin is preparing for a long war.

Despite the ineptitude displayed since February 24 by the Russian armed forces (and in the lead up to the war by Russian foreign and military intelligence), Putin is doubling down on his maximalist objectives for the war. There are strong indications that the Russian President is preparing a major restructuring to turn the Russian economy into a command, wartime economy.

In the past two months, Putin has repeatedly stated that there are no limitations on the level of support Russia will provide its armed forces. On January 11, Putin again replaced the senior general in charge of the “Special Military Operation,” this time, with Chief of the General Staff, Valeriy Gerasimov.  

This move was likely made to deflect criticism of Army General Sergey Surovikin from pro-war Russian milbloggers who blame Surovikin (who has been in command of the invasion for the past three months) for the withdrawal from Kherson and the failure of the missile and drone “blitz” against Ukrainian civilian and energy infrastructure.

Nonetheless, all indications from the Kremlin indicate that they intend to continue their aggression, including attacks on civilians. No announcement of additional sanctions, military, or financial support for Ukraine seem to have any effect. The time is now right for a more Churchillian approach. 

That approach starts with defining victory.

A clear message needs to be sent to Putin that this aggression will not stand and – at a minimum – all Ukrainian land needs to be returned to Ukraine including Crimea.  Reparations need to be paid for war damages and most importantly, war criminals—including the Kremlin leaders who started this war—must be remanded to justice. 

A great deal of moral courage and resolve will be required to make this type of a momentous declaration.  All the more so, since the aggressor is a nuclear power. But the aggressor is opposed by nuclear powers as well, and powers whose weapons systems have proved superior at every level of the conflict thus far. Mutual Assured Destruction and deterrence still work. 

The ineptitude of the Russian military effort and the effectiveness of Ukrainian resistance bolstered by support from the West, has to be apparent at some levels in the Kremlin and Russian society, beyond Putin. 

In addition to a public definition of victory by the West, a more concerted effort needs to be made to message the Russian people themselves about the hypocrisy of their leaders. Russian journalist Sergey Yezhov has recently published a collection of images of children of the Russian elite vacationing in the Maldives, Seychelles and elsewhere, clearly unconcerned about the war in Ukraine and any risks of serving there.  Putin’s rule is more fragile than many imagine and is becoming more fragile as the war drags on and Russian casualties mount.

As Zelenskiy brought to our attention, Russians will only have a chance to be free when they defeat the Kremlin in their minds. We should help them to do that by continuing financial and military aid to Ukraine, uniting around a definition of victory that would make Churchill proud, and bringing to bear information resources to help the Russian people get rid of the kleptocracy that is destroying their country.

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