You cannot extrapolate from past disasters to present dangers, but recent analyses of how war started in 1914 induce reflection as to the tragedy now afflicting Russia and Ukraine. Then as now mythic historical and ethnic arguments and emotions were held to justify the seizure of others’ territory, the denial of obvious truths and the subjugation of foreign citizens to the will of a victorious power. Then as now we are compelled to guess what the true motives and end ambitions of other powers – and allies − may be. Christopher Clark noted in The Sleepwalkers that ‘a striking feature of the interactions between the European executives [in 1914] was the persistent uncertainty in all quarters about the intentions of friends and potential foes alike’.
There is similar uncertainty about President Putin’s goals in Ukraine. He puts the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych (remember him?) and what has followed from it down to Western plots against Russia. It follows, for him, that Russia is right to fight as best it may for what he would see as its inherent right to rule Ukraine by proxy, thereby keeping the West at bay. For most in the West, that is obvious nonsense. Ukraine is a headache no one in the West wanted, but Russia’s use of force against it is a threat to the European order. Facing up to that threat, as we have to, reinforces (at least in the short term) the bond that has been re-established between Putin and the Russian people. Each time there has been the chance for Putin to reach for a compromise settlement, as there was with the near defeat of Russia’s agents in Luhansk and Donetsk last month, Putin has instead doubled his bets and stoked the crisis.
Kyiv has no alternative − if Ukraine is to prove a viable state with a long-term future − but to resist Russian military pressure as best it may. The first element of a deal that it has been suggested might satisfy the Kremlin would be Ukraine’s definitive and lasting exclusion from NATO, and, if one recalls how this started with Yanukovych’s rejection of an Association Agreement, presumably from a closer relationship with the EU as well. But neither of these elements would be secure for today’s Kremlin without effective Russian rule over Kyiv. Putin’s flagship project of a Eurasian Union is already damaged. Ukrainians are not going simply to forget that Russia has stolen Crimea, fomented anarchy in the East, and used Russian troops against them.
The second supposed element of a deal is the recognition of some form of separate status for at least Donetsk and Luhansk plus Russia’s retention of Crimea. Even if that could be agreed, it too could not be stable. Neither Donetsk nor Luhansk are the ‘People’s Republics’ the Russian-backed insurgents and their Russian assistants claim them to be. Absorbing Crimea into the Russian Federation is proving difficult enough. The challenge and expense of maintaining parts of eastern Ukraine as separate from the rest of the country, let alone absorbing them into Russia itself, would be formidable, and Russia would have to bear the cost. At best, Moscow would thereby install another corrupt and repressive kleptocracy on its borders, with an uncertain future, dependent on continued Russian dominance of a restive rump Ukraine.
Putin has been effectively in power for 15 years. He has over time become both dominant and isolated. There are those in the West who argue that it is only realistic to accept the inevitable, and to settle the Ukraine crisis pretty much on his evolving terms. It can be argued that this might be dishonourable – though of course one has, it is urged, to recognize the depth of Russian feeling – but it would be better than a further round of bloodshed. It would not however in truth be a solution but the prelude to further trouble in Ukraine, and the further deepening of authoritarian rule in Russia itself.
Which is why this piece began by referring to the present tragedy as afflicting Russia as well as Ukraine. It is for question how far Putin, despite his force of will and perceived ability to out manoeuvre the West, is already out of his depth. Perhaps he could, as he is reported to have told EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, get to Kyiv in two weeks if he chose so to do. But he would have no idea what to do once he arrived. The cost of his actions so far would, if sustained, be more than Russia could bear for more than a few months, even without the sanctions which have hit it far harder than many in the West suppose. The longer-term future he is offering his country is dark, and his prospects commensurate with that. He has lied not just to the West, but to the Russian people as well.
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