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The lessons of Churchill’s “Operation Unthinkable”

Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, February 1945. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Though I passionately support Ukraine’s “battle for survival”, says Max Hastings in Bloomberg, it seems “militarily unlikely” that it could ever retake Crimea or the eastern Donbas from Russia. Think of the fate of Poland just after the Second World War, when it was occupied by Joseph Stalin’s Red Army. By 1945, Winston Churchill was convinced the Soviet leader “was a monster morally indistinguishable from Adolf Hitler”. He thought that, should Stalin continue to flout the agreement at February’s Yalta Conference that Poland be given “free governance”, the West should enforce it “at gunpoint”.

But his was a minority view. Most British people and Americans “felt a huge gratitude to ‘Uncle Joe’ and the Russian nation” for having borne the lion’s share of the sacrifice needed to destroy Nazism. Nevertheless, Churchill instructed his generals to draft a plan. The resulting document, “Operation Unthinkable”, wasn’t optimistic: the word “hazardous” features eight times. “There is virtually no limit to the distance to which it would be necessary for the Allies to penetrate into Russia in order to render further resistance impossible,” it reads. The chiefs of staff were never in doubt that the plan was, indeed, unthinkable “by anyone save the prime minister”. And because the Soviets had got to eastern Europe first, they held on until the end of the 20th century. The same is surely true of Crimea today: we didn’t challenge the annexation in 2014, so we have little hope of doing so now. “That is ugly, but it is the way our imperfect world is.”