This essay originated as a Post first filed on 1 March 2014, as events in Ukraine were still unfolding.
Does the situation in Ukraine have the potential to lead to a wider conflict?
Far from preserving the existing order, the First World War saw the break-up of European institutions and alliances that had lasted for over a century. At the start of 1914, Europe was at peace and seemingly united. Ethnic tensions in the Balkans, however, led to the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. Militant leaders in Germany encouraged its ally, Austria, to seize the opportunity to resolve the ‘Serbian’ question by force. Austria invaded Serbia in July 1914. Serbia was a protectorate of Russia. On the verge of a second communist revolution, unstable Russia had a non-aggression pact with France. France had twice in the previous 60 years been at war with Germany. Germany did not want an unstable communist regime on its doorstep. and planned to invade while that country was still weak, but first it had to disable France. The easiest route into France was through neutral Belgium. Atrocities against the civilian population, such as the sacking of Louvain, allowed the press to inflame public opinion in Britain.
Britain had stood on the sidelines but now felt bound to intervene in support of the Belgians and, by secret concordat, of France. German naval ships shelled towns on the English coast, killing civilians and further enraging the British public. Men flocked to join the armed forces. Turkey, the so-called Ottoman empire, aligned with Germany. Italy, only recently unified, came in on the side of the Austrians. Initially fluid, the war rapidly ground to a stalemate along the Belgian border with France. For the next four years, neither side was able to gain territory. It became a war of attrition – and of who could produce the most munitions. Ten million soldiers in total were killed, and an equivalent number of civilians. The British empire rallied to the flag. Britain was joined by troops from its African, Canadian, Australasian and Indian dominions and, eventually in 1917, by its erstwhile rival, the USA. The Italians changed sides. Virtually landlocked by enemies, blockaded at sea, its surface fleet confined to Wilhelmshaven, Germany was unable to sustain the war effort and, after a military defeat in the Spring of 1918, with starvation and growing opposition to the war on the home front, sued for peace in November of that year. Twenty-one years later, despite the best efforts of the international community – Versailles was not quite the punitive treaty it has been portrayed – it started all over again.
It was, in short, an unholy mess. Historians still argue to this day over what exactly happened to create this fragmentation of the C19th order in Europe. Most agree, German expansionism was to blame; essentially driven by boneheaded Prussian generals and, later, a gang of criminal psychopaths who somehow became the elected government. It seems impossible that a similar scenario could play out today. Just because it is exactly 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War does not automatically require history to repeat itself.
It is inconceivable, is it not? now that the European Union has created an apparently stable economic bloc of 28 countries in counterbalance to any further expansion of the Russian Federation; with the collapse of the Soviet Union leading to a more balanced force of arms, and with Russia tied-up in disputes with the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus, that the larger nations in Europe, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, Poland could find themselves again mobilising armies of millions of men to slaughter one another in a virtually static war of attrition. It seems so – well, old-fashioned. There is no obvious casus belli between any of the EU nations and others in the European economic co-operation area, which includes Switzerland and Norway and other countries not in the EU but tied to it by trade accords. Nor do Russia – a member of the G8 – and the EU nations have any real cause to fight each other; Vladimir Putin’s macho posturing and heavy-handed nationalist rhetoric seemed designed purely for show, to cement his power internally. The obvious PR hype appears to westerners almost comic. Rather like Hitler’s ‘Charlie Chaplin’ moustache, in fact.
Only, Hitler’s war killed 50 million.
The idea of trembling civilians cheering themselves up in their shelters by singing some ‘hip-hop’ version of ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’, or of Rihanna entertaining the troops under the missile launchers on the foredeck of some nuclear-powered navy cruiser, seems ludicrous today. It’s another world. And yet, here we are in 2014, with Russia mobilising 150 thousand troops along its border with Ukraine, six thousand combat troops allegedly having already entered the Crimean peninsula on the old pretext of protecting the majority ethnic Russian population from what they claim is a foreign-sponsored coup d’etat, Ukrainian nationalist and fascist elements against the democratically elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych…. It’s a horribly familiar pattern, of claim and counterclaim, of crudely manufactured hysteria, appealing to ancient myths, summoning old demons and offering reckless belligerence and threats, that could so easily trigger a conflagration, as it has many times in the past, because nobody has the will or the imagination to prevent it. We could end up going to war in 2014, as in 1914, simply because we didn’t believe in the possibility of it.
The western claim is that Yanukovych, an old-style Moscow apparatchik and kleptocrat with a terrifying bouffant hairdo, rigged his election and gaoled his opponents, notably the outgoing populist president, Yulia Timoschenko; and, having initially promised to seek closer ties with the EU, succumbed to pressure from the Kremlin to accept instead an economic co-operation agreement with Russia – the suspicion being that this was the plan all along. Of course, Russia must be seen as keen to defend its borders against incursion by western interests, or elsewise show dangerous weakness. This betrayal ignited tensions between the pro-western and pro-eastern communities, triggering mass demonstrations in Kiev and other cities. Yanukovych voluntarily fled the country, days after ordering security forces to fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing possibly 100; he stands further accused of looting the State coffers of some $37 billion. Guided tours have been conducted for the downtrodden public and foreign media to view his opulent country house, with its private zoo and underground boxing arena, his many cars and personalised whisky bottles. Such images will not play in Russia. Again, could his flight have been deliberately engineered by the Kremlin as a pretext for seizing territory?
Notwithstanding the alternative version being loudly promoted in the Russian media, of the urgent necessity to counter extreme fascist and anti-semitic elements controlling Kiev and threatening the Russian-speaking population, there appears to be no generalised assault on – and potential ethnic cleansing of – ethnic Russians going on in Ukraine. Far from there having been a coup, the rump Parliament has reorganised itself with commendable urgency and responsibility, re-establishing control over the levers of power, the institutions of state; and has announced fresh elections within three months. The Russian case, however, is that Moscow and the EU had already succeeded in brokering an interim agreement, signed by Yanukovuch, promising reforms and elections in December, and that the Ukraine parliament stands in flagrant breach of it. On 1st March, with troops already massing on the border (military ‘exercises’) and an advance guard manning key installations in what now looks like the breakaway republic of Crimea, the Russian Duma voted President Putin war powers. In response, the Ukrainian parliament mobilised the army and called-up its reserves, claiming that it was in a state of war with Russia. Events that led overnight to a terse 90-minutes’ confrontation over the telephone between Putin and US President Barack Obama, and a virtual ultimatum from the USA that direct intervention in Ukraine, a sovereign state, would be a ‘serious mistake’ that would not go unpunished, seemed (as of this morning) to be rushing matters to an unfortunate climax. (3 March: Stock markets and the ruble have reacted accordingly.)
Just as in 1914, events on the ground are rapidly outpacing the efforts of the international diplomatic community to find common purpose. And just as in 1914, there are complexities that are almost impossible to unravel. The western case against Russian intervention rests on a 1994 agreement in which Russia, the US and the other regional powers agreed to guarantee the territorial integrity of the republic of Ukraine. Crimea, for millennia strategic region contested by rival empires, was ceded to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954, but has never considered itself Ukrainian. Thus, the stage was set for another old Soviet-style ‘liberation’, as with Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 – South Ossetia in 2008.
It is, unfortunately, the case that enough anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism is at the heart of the current crisis to justify Moscow’s alarm; there are indeed neo-Nazi elements operating among the nationalist dissidents, although in a minority. This dredges up bitter memories of pro-Nazi collaboration and anti-Jewish pogroms in the occupied Ukraine of 1941. The general unrest in the cities is very much part of a global, anti-authoritarian movement of the educated young middle-class in favour of the liberal democratic consensus prevailing in the US and western countries, but its very successes have left those countries with a power vacuum, an uncertainty of political direction wide open to exploitation by fundamentalist elements. Combine this with Putin’s very real fear of a consumer-led ‘velvet revolution’ at home and lingering resentment at the so-called victory of the west in 1989 over the former Soviet Union, of which he was an active supporter, combined with Russia’s centuries-old paranoia about the ‘security’ of its borders, and you understand his recalcitrance in the face of what he would consider hollow US sabre-rattling and threats.
Is it the Cuban Missile Crisis, only in reverse? Well, we have seen both Russia and the USA climb down before, over the stationing of US ground-to-air missile defences in Poland and Turkey. Obama has to be aware of Russian sensibilites, concerning its borders and its sphere of influence. It is still a matter of conjecture, how far he and Secretary Kerry will push this. Putin has been willing thus far to put up with the gravitation of former Soviet republics towards NATO and the west, as it has saved him the cost of consumerising those populations. Will Ukraine be seen as a defection too far?
Most dangerous, in my view, is the very fact of no-war. There have been around 300 conflicts globally since the ending of the Second World War, including renewed conflict over ethnic and religious divisions in the Balkans, so-called peacekeeping interventions, insurgencies and ‘proxy’ wars; but no generalised warfare between the major powers for 70 years. Is it enough to keep the lid off the pressure-cooker? Or are we up for a fight?
The human predisposition towards violence is capable, as we saw in 1914-18, of building up a lava flow of hatred. It takes very little – dubious press reports of nuns being raped and babies bayoneted, or confusion over who, exactly, started the shooting – to tip civilization over the edge. In addition to the powder-keg that is the Ukraine as I write, there are signs of instability arising again in South America; dangerous Islamist insurgencies across the whole of central and north Africa, and the deeply concerning rift between China – the unknown element in any potential conflict involving Russia (3 March: China has issued a statement offering Russia equivocal support, not surprisingly given their own casting of a covetous eye on Mongolia) – and Japan, effectively a US protectorate, ostensibly over minor territorial claims in the South China Sea. Ostensibly, because the superficial argument over a handful of tiny, uninhabited islands; and, thus, fishing and mineral rights, is being used politically on both sides to justify a ratcheting-up of nationalistic, militaristic sentiment over unresolved historic wrongs. Coincidentally, China’s economic growth is faltering, her environmental problems mounting, along with terrorist acts by separatist movements in the west of the country. A containable war might suit China just fine.
Then, there is the as-yet unresolved stalemate in Korea, between Chinese-sponsored north, governed (if that is the word) by a babyfaced, nuclear-armed psychopath, and US-sponsored south, to provide a further flashpoint. Finally, the conflict in Syria still rages, pitting Russia and China against the US and NATO in a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, in which both sides are prepared to sponsor rogue jihadi terrorist groups regardless of the risk to the wider world. It may all be too much for the fresh-faced interns at the State Department to unravel.
While it seems impossible that Britain and France would ever again gang-up to fight Germany, since there is no sign whatever that Germans any longer entertain expansionist ambitions (the country has already achieved economic dominance in Europe and peacefully reunited with its eastern province), and we are all friends, we can at least imagine the USA once again being dragged into other nations’ wars on two fronts; eastern Europe, and western Pacific. Unlikely, as it would take months or years to rebuild their deployment capability on such a scale. And, of course, Britain – or at least, its government – would naturally feel obliged to help its ‘oldest ally’ (we forget we were at war with America in 1812 and that the outcome of the two European wars in the 20th century was the loss of the British empire and the gain of the American one…) And that would involve our newest ally, France – as we have to share the one aircraft carrier between us.
The final, most obvious discouragement to the notion of Russian actions in Ukraine spreading to, say, Poland and the Baltic states, former Soviet bloc nations in the borderlands, is that all sides in any potential European demarche have become demilitarised; softened by years of shopping, TV gameshows and tourism – the ‘panem et circensem’ (bread and circuses) that ultimately contributed to the economic and military collapse of mighty Rome. Even Russia is part of the consumer revolution, with its nightclubs and German cars and rapidly westernising tastes. The Russian army is poorly equipped, and poorly motivated – although units are battle-hardened through years of internal suppression of Islamist separatist ambitions in the Caucasus republics. The Americans and British are war-weary after years of apparently futile policing actions in Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan – although US Special Forces are said to be secretly operational in some 80 countries. France is increasingly tied-up opposing Islamist insurgencies in its former central African possessions. Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain haven’t a cent to spare. The Scandinavian countries, with the possible exception of Denmark, are traditionally non-belligerent. The credit-burdened EU nations, needing to choose between social welfare and military ‘security’, have wound-down their armed forces to the point of tokenism; although there are signs of right-wing nationalist resurgence almost everywhere. But an ‘in-out’ plebiscite planned by the British (increasingly prey to the allure of the obnoxious tendency) for 2017 is potentially a rallying point for the break-up of the union. And what then?
In short, all we have in the armoury now to resolve these deeply rooted international disputes should they result in a generalised conflict consists, essentially, of untried cyber ‘malware’ whose effects would essentially be merely temporarily disruptive; robotic systems that have yet to get into production; chemical and biological weapons whose delivery vehicles are pretty unreliable; and our rusting arsenals of Cold War-era nuclear weaponry. Oh, and millions of unemployed, bored, surplus young men…. A BBC report that Russian troops now in Crimea have been seen ‘digging trenches’ is a chilling reminder that one only needs to pick up a rock to kill another human being.
All we need do now is to choose our enemies.
Since this was written, the war has opened up on another front. The Syrian conflict has spilled over into Iraq, driven by the heretical but highly organised Islamist sect known variously as ISIS, ISIL or the Islamic State. The additional complexities of this borderless insurgency are of a truly mindboggling nature, requiring as they do the support of Russia, the Russian-backed Assad regime and Iran in countering the rapid expansion of IS, which has attracted an army of 30,000 jihadists from all over the world; secured money, heavy weapons, oilfields and territory in a series of lightning pincer movements, ethnically cleansed non-Muslim populations and declared a caliphate.
To date the West has been on the back foot (it has to be said that most of the Western leaders were on holiday at the time). Kurdish Peshmerga forces assisted by limited US air support have largely succeeded in stopping IS’s advance on its northern front, but the Iraqi army without its Ba’athist officer corps (removed by the USA after the 2003 war) is essentially unwilling to fight; while Baghdad remains threatened and in a state of political stalemate following the controversial replacement in August of the divisive government of Nuri al-Malaki.
As of 8 September, in the wake of a NATO summit the world is awaiting a key strategy statement from President Obama.