Spain 1939, Ukraine 2024?

Spain 1939, Ukraine 2024?

Those who believe that the United States and Europe should liquidate their commitment to Ukraine might do well to remember the fate of the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War.


Stalin’s strategic calculus also changed. Japan and the USSR clashed in the Far East. German and Italian support for the rebels in Spain remained strong (and the U.S. and the European democracies stayed on the sidelines). Over time, Stalin’s attitude toward Hitler switched from opposition to accommodation, and without ever abandoning his rhetorical support for the Republic, he progressively unwound his commitment to Spain. He engaged in secret negotiations leading to a non-aggression pact with Germany, and only six months after the Republic’s final collapse, both Germany and the Soviet Union were invading Poland and dividing it up between them.

Until recently, Ukraine has enjoyed consistent support from the United States and its NATO allies. However, the question of how long this will continue remains open. And, as of March 2024, Ukraine is losing ground with the funding for U.S. assistance stymied in Congress. And even if aid for the current year is approved, its continuation into 2025 cannot be assured as ever more voices call for a “negotiated” solution while Putin and his regime reiterate their maximalist goals of both retaining seized eastern territories and assuring a pro-Russian government in Kyiv.


Stalin’s decision to abandon Spain may have seemed logical at the time. A few months later, he and Hitler were dividing up Poland together. In less than two years, his erstwhile partner’s tanks were driving towards Moscow. While this trajectory of events can hardly be blamed entirely on what happened in Spain, the abandonment of the Republic was a culmination of failures by those threatened by Nazi Germany that began in the Rhineland and went on to Austria and Czechoslovakia before both Western Europe and the Soviet Union found themselves paying the price of appeasement.

Those who believe that the United States and Europe should liquidate their commitment to Ukraine might do well to remember the fate of the Spanish Republic. It was hardly a perfect state, wracked by internal ideological conflict, any more than Ukraine is, with its ongoing corruption problems. But it is easy enough to read what lessons Hitler and Mussolini took from the Soviet Union’s decision to abandon Spain (not to mention the democracies’ decision not to aid it at all). We can only hope that there will not be an abandonment of Ukraine from which Putin will draw similar conclusions.

Richard M. Sanders is a Senior Fellow in the Western Hemisphere at the Center for the National Interest. A former member of the Senior Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State, he served at embassies throughout Latin America and Spain. He also served the Department of Defense as Foreign Policy Advisor to the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.