By Christopher Clark
On the 100th anniversary of World War I, it is tempting to compare events in
Ukraine to 1914. But the current crisis bears little resemblance to the
geopolitical situation of the time. The answers history provides are
anything but singular and absolute.
The current emergency in Ukraine — on this everyone seems to agree — is
rich in historical resonances. But which histories in particular are
pertinent to the recent events? The complexity of the situation in the
Ukraine arises precisely from the plurality of quite different historical
narratives entangled in it. One thing is clear: the crisis can neither be
understood nor solved using a single historic logic.
Exactly one hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, the comparison
with 1914 inevitably comes to mind in this anniversary year. In its
complexity and swiftness of escalation, the “July Crisis” of 1914 is without
parallel in world history. On June 28 of that year, the Austrian heir to the
throne and his wife were slain in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb students acting
for a shadowy Belgrade-based ultranationalist network. The Austrian
government in Vienna offered its support and resolved to serve an ultimatum
on its Serbian neighbor. Berlin promised support for Austria on July 5.
Encouraged by Paris, Russia opted to defend its Serbian client by mobilizing
against Austria and Germany. Unsatisfied by the Serbian reply to its
ultimatum, Austria declared war on Serbia. Russia mobilized against Austria
and Germany. Germany first declared war on Russia and then on France. France
asked London for help. And, on August 4, 1914, following the German breach
of Belgian neutrality, Britain entered the war.
Differing Geopolitical Constellations
The spectre of that war is useful as a reminder of how terrible the costs
can be when politics fails, conversation stops and compromise becomes
impossible. But in fact the alignments implicated in the Ukrainian emergency
bear little relation to the geopolitical constellations of 1914. At that
time, two central powers faced a trio of world empires on Europe’s eastern
and western peripheries. Today, a broad coalition of Western and Central
European states is united in protesting Russia’s interventions in Ukraine.
And the restless, ambitious German Kaiserreich of 1914 scarcely resembles
the European Union, a multi-state peace framework that finds it difficult to
project power or to formulate external policy.
The Crimean War of 1853-1856 might offer a better fit. Here, at least, we
can speak of a coalition of “Western” states united in opposition to Russian
imperial ventures. This war, which ultimately consumed well over half a
million lives, began when Russia sent 80,000 troops into the
Ottoman-controlled Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Russia
argued that it had the right and obligation to act as the guardian of
orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire, much as it today claims the
right to safeguard the interests of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
But here, too, it would be a mistake to push the analogy too far. In the
1850s, the Western powers feared that Russian predations against the
Ottomans would destabilize the entire zone from the Middle East to Central
Asia, undermining the security of the British and French world empires.
Since the Ottoman Empire no longer exists, the mechanisms of transimperial
destabilization are absent in the current crisis, which involves the
relationship between Russia and one relatively isolated former client state
on its periphery.
An Unruly Dynamic of Revolution
Pushing back further into the past, we can discern more distant precedents:
the Russian annexation of the Eastern half of Ukraine after 1654 and its
evolution into Cossackdom over the next century and a half, followed by the
push south into the Crimea from the reign of Peter the Great onwards. This
is the long, slow story of Russian territorial expansion, a process lasting
centuries in which Muscovy acquired on average every year an area equivalent
in size to modern Holland.
What none of these historical genealogies captures is the unruly dynamic of
revolution and civil strife in Ukraine today, a phenomenon that evokes very
different precedents. Following the news over the last few weeks, it has
been difficult (for historians at least) to ignore the many parallels with
the English Civil War of the 1640s. Then as now, an increasingly
self-confident parliament confronted a controversial head of state. It was
not the office of the king or president as such whose legitimacy was in
question, but the conduct of the person discharging it. And just as
President Viktor Yanukovych fled to an undisclosed location after the
breakdown of order in Kiev, so Charles I, having tried and failed to arrest
the ringleaders of the parliamentary opposition, left London for Windsor in
1642, to return seven years later for his trial and execution. In both
cases, news of a provincial tumult in support of the beleaguered sovereign
(Irish Catholics in the English case, Ukrainian Russians in the Ukrainian)
triggered a decisive escalation.
The Ultimate Psychodrama
The Ukrainian uprising has naturally tended to monopolize the attention of
the European media. For mature Western democracies, the spectacle of tens of
thousands of citizens armed only with candles and posters asserting their
rights against a corrupt and ruthless regime is the ultimate psychodrama.
Nothing better replenishes the charisma of democracy than observing the
violent convulsions of its birth.
The difficulty of the current crisis lies precisely in the folding together
of these very disparate narratives: civil strife, geopolitical tension and
imperial expansion. The arrangements put in place since the collapse of the
Soviet Union have added a further layer of complexity.
Meanwhile, the EU has invested deeply in the process of democratization in
the Ukraine. The Partnership and Cooperation Agreement signed in 1998 exists
to sustain political and economic transformation within the partner state.
Ratification of a new “Association Agreement” negotiated in 2007-2011 and
incorporating a “deep and comprehensive free trade area” was made
conditional upon the implementation of key domestic reform targets.
By contrast, NATO, as the alliance formed to protect Western interests in
the Cold War, is focused firmly on the global balance of power, just as the
Crimean coalition was in the 1850s. NATO and the EU are not coextensive and
not identical in their interests. When the Americans, the Poles and the
Baltic states proposed the extension of NATO membership to Georgia and
Ukraine in 2008, France and Germany objected, just as Prussia refused to
join the anti-Russian Western coalition of 1854-5. Lastly, there is the
complex political demography of Ukraine, itself the legacy of centuries of
Russian penetration and settlement. The deep ethnic divisions in the
country, the jigsaw of autonomous regional “republics” and the special
constitutional and military status of the Crimean peninsula make no sense
without this history.
Any solution has to take into account the very different imperatives implied
by these narratives. Using the Ukraine as a proxy to box the Russians in
would be insensitive to the history of the region and will merely lead to
further instability. Letting the Russians do whatever they want would merely
invite Moscow to use Ukraine as a proxy for pushing the West back — the war
for South Ossetia, which broke out shortly after the decision not to grant
Georgia NATO membership — showed how quick Moscow will be to capitalize on
the irresolution of Ukraine’s Western partners. Betting the farm on the
Ukrainian revolution is risky, given the unpredictability of all such
No ‘Balkan Inception Scenario’ Today
What is needed is a composite solution that takes account of all the
interests, each with its deep historical hinterland, engaged in the
conflict. Are we in danger of “sleepwalking” into a major conflagration?
There exists today no counterpart for the kind of “Balkan inception
scenario” that fueled escalation in 1914. In a recent statement for a news
program, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier conceded that the
EU foreign ministers (himself included) had been too quick during the early
days of the crisis to engage with the Ukrainian opposition and too slow to
take account of the larger geopolitical issues that are entangled with the
crisis. This remark exhibited a level of self-critical reflection and a
readiness to adjust to new developments that would have been completely
alien to his early twentieth-century counterparts. The statement issued by
European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on March 5 following a
meeting of the Commission to discuss the situation in Ukraine struck exactly
the right note. It spoke of the overriding importance of political and
economic stability and of respect for the rights of “all Ukrainian citizens
and communities.” Caution has been a salient feature of US President Barack
Obama’s recent statements, and even the crude threats emanating from the
Kremlin have been in marked contrast (so far!) with President Vladimir
Putin’s circumspection in practice.
The Ukrainian emergency is a reminder of how quickly events can undo the
best-laid plans and produce unforeseen constellations. But all the key
players in this drama appear to have grasped one thing: namely that the
answers history gives to the questions of the present are multiple and
conditional, not singular and absolute.
Christopher Clark, 54, is a professor of Modern European History at the
University of Cambridge. His latest book “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went
to War in 1914,” about the outbreak of World War I and the scope of German
culpability, is a bestseller.
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