Putin thought he could get away with the invasion of Ukraine

Giles Milton (source: Macmillan)

Giles Milton is one of my favorite authors. And it’s always a real pleasure to be in touch with him. Even before I wrote my review of his last book, he agreed to answer some questions for this blog. If you haven’t read his book yet, run to the bookstore or get it online. This is a must, in the context of the aggression war conducted against Ukraine. For the time being, I trust you will enjoy this interview.

Mr. Milton, Checkmate in Berlin is a brilliant lecture about American and British innovation in adversity, mainly in organizing the Berlin airlift. Do you see the same attitude these days towards Ukraine?

Nothing on the scale of the Berlin Airlift had ever been attempted before. True, the Americans had airlifted vast quantities of weapons to the Chinese during the Second World War, but the Berlin Airlift was supporting (and keeping alive) several million Berliners.

There is definitely an analogy to be made with the current situation in Ukraine. The West is supplying enormous quantities of weaponry to the country, and it is having a material effect on the battle. If the NATO countries continue to do this, and the Ukrainians continue to display such astonishing courage and innovation, then the Russians are in big trouble.

It is largely thanks to Truman that the whole of Berlin did not fall under Soviet control.

There is a fascinating episode in the book where President Truman decided to overrule the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s decision denying the planes required by General Lucius Clay for the airlift. That’s what might have saved Berlin. Where does Truman stand on your leadership barometer during the Cold War?

President Truman is never considered one of the ‘great’ presidents: he is often written about as if he was merely a business-manager of the USA. I have rather more sympathy and respect for him. He, after all, became President unexpectedly and had very little foreign policy experience. He did not always cover himself in glory – I think he massively underperformed at the Potsdam Conference – but he subsequently listened to his advisors and agreed with their assessment that Stalin was no longer to be trusted.

Once he had taken this decision, he stuck to it – rigidly. It is largely thanks to him that the whole of Berlin did not fall under Soviet control. He also oversaw the Marshal Plan and the formation of NATO, two key products of the early Cold War.

Putin cannot afford to lose in Ukraine, while Biden (and the West) cannot afford to let him win.

President Truman is one of President Joe Biden’s favorite past presidents. As an historian, do you observe any similitude between both leaders’ foreign policy in light of the war in Ukraine?

It is a little too early to say, vis-à-vis Ukraine and Biden. But I suspect that Biden will continue to supply the Ukrainians with as much weaponry as possible. The stakes are very high on all sides. Putin cannot afford to lose in Ukraine, while Biden (and the West) cannot afford to let him win. Although it pains me to say so, I think that Biden/NATO is correct in refusing to establish a no-fly-zone. To be effective, this would require them to attack air and missile bases inside Russia, which would effectively be a declaration of war.

Arming the Ukrainians, but not getting overtly involved, is the West’s attempt to prevent this conflict escalating into Word War Three.

Was there a moment, during the first years of the Cold War in Berlin when the world was only a gunshot away from war?

Yes, I think if the Soviets had deliberately shot down an Allied plane in the early days of the Berlin Airlift, it could easily have triggered a major conflict. But – and it’s a big but – the western allies no longer had enough troops on the ground to fight the Soviets. Demobilization had taken place at a rapid pace. If conflict had broken out, it would have been very tough for the western powers. Berlin might well have been lost to the West.

You are an extremely engaging author and it’s hard to put down your book. One of your best qualities is to offer anecdotes that bring your characters to life. I particularly liked reading about Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Are there a few similar anecdotes that you had to leave out of the book and that you might agree to share with us?

When researching such a vast historical canvas, you always unearth far more stories than you can possibly include in the book. There are some very interesting stories about the kidnapping of Berlin scientists, both by the Soviets and the Americans. But they were a little too tangential to the main narrative of Checkmate in Berlin. Perhaps they will find their way into a future book!

The book is filled with fascinating personas. General Kotikov – commandant of the Soviet sector in Berlin – must have been a handful for his counterparts, while Colonel Frank Howley was my favorite beyond measure. If you had the chance of having a beer with one of the characters of your book, which one would it be?

Without doubt, Frank Howley. He is such an engaging, larger-than-life character – and he was so brilliant at reading the minds of his adversaries. But I would also like to have met Ernst Reuter, the mayor of west Berlin, who was one of the towering figures of the early Cold War. He didn’t look particularly inspiring, but when he spoke in front of millions of Berliners, he managed to encapsulate the spirit of fiery defiance. It’s rare for an orator to inspire the world! Reuter did just that.

Some [accounts of Soviet brutality committed in Berlin] were so terrible that I could not include them in my book.

In my review of Checkmate in Berlin, I have drawn a parallel between the Soviet attitude early in the Cold War and what we can observe since February 24 in Ukraine. How would you compare the resistance of the Ukrainian people with the resilience of the Berlin citizens in Berlin in those years?

The resistance of the Ukrainian people is both inspiring and terrifying. The accounts filtering out from the East of the country are horrific and, as is so often the case, it’s the civilians who are suffering the most.  

Likewise, the population of Berlin suffered terrible hardships under the Soviets, especially in the spring and summer of 1945. I read dozens of accounts of brutality, gratuitous violence, and mass rape – most of it conducted against innocent civilians. Some of them were so terrible that I could not include them in my book.

It is possible that Putin, in common with his Soviet antecedents, would not have invaded if he had feared that the West would defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

At the very end of the book, you share Colonel Howley’s assessment of the Soviet military conduct with the readers. About his adversaries, he said: ‘They’ll only use force if they have a more-than-reasonable chance of succeeding.” On the ground, in Ukraine, Russians’ chances of succeeding seem to be less than optimal. Would you say that President Putin went below Soviet standards with his war of invasion?

Putin’s invasion was predicated on two assumptions: 1: he would win a quick victory. 2: the West would not dare to intervene. He was wrong on both counts. I do think there was a failure of western diplomacy. It is possible that Putin, in common with his Soviet antecedents, would not have invaded if he had feared that the West would defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity. After the West’s limp response to his snatch-and-grab attack on Crimea, he thought he could get away with it.

The arms are flooding into Ukraine precisely because Zelensky has proved such a skilled operator.

As an historian and author, would you agree to share with us your assessment of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s leadership in wartime?

A brilliant wartime leader, he has truly risen to the occasion. What is so smart is his use of the international media.

Listen to his public addresses: he cites Winston Churchill when speaking to the British parliament, he speaks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 when speaking to Congress. He knows exactly how to push the emotional buttons. And it is working; he has Western public opinion fully behind him and, therefore, the Western governments as well. The arms are flooding into Ukraine precisely because he has proved such a skilled operator.

Would it be indiscreet to ask if you are working on another book and, if so, what will it be about?

It is called Vodka with Stalin and it tells the story of the Allied mission to the Kremlin during World War Two. It focuses on three key individuals (two Americans and one British) who worked alongside Stalin during the war. It’s particularly exciting to research and write, as it has never been written about before.

Many thanks for the generosity of your time and insights Mr. Milton. I can’t wait to read your upcoming book.

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Giles Milton’s recent book Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World is published by John Murray in the United Kingdom and Henry Holt and Company in North America.

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