The View From Olympus: The Summer of ’14

Events in Ukraine are sendingi a slight shudder down the spine of those who reflect on the summer of 1914. We appear to be a long way from war. Yet the New York Times reports the White House is considering providing targeting data to the Ukrainian armed forces.

President Obama does not want war, nor does Chancellor Merkel. The Kaiser did not want war in 1914 either, but he got it anyway. Part of the reason for the catastrophe of summer l9l4 was that no party made much effort to see the situation from their competitor’s viewpoint.

If we look at the present situation in Ukraine from Russia’s perspective, we see that Russia is on the strategic defensive. Her primary objective is to keep Ukraine out of NATO. NATO stupidly has made itself into a threat to Russia. When the Soviet Union was dissolving, Washington promised Gorbachev that if he dissolved the Warsaw Pact; NATO would not expand into central and eastern Europe. That proved to be a lie. NATO has pushed its boundary steadily eastward. It waged an aggressive and unprovoked war on Russia’s historic ally, Serbia. NATO continues to present itself to countries such as Poland as directed against Russia.

Quite reasonably, Russia sees now sees NATO as a danger and Ukrainian membership in NATO as a direct threat. American combat aircraft stationed in Ukraine would be uncomfortably close to Moscow–as they are now five minutes flying time from St. Petersburg¬† from airfields in the Baltics. The equivalent would be if Pennsylvania withdrew from the union, allied with Russia and invited Russia to station combat aircraft in Philadelphia. It is safe to say we would not take such a development lying down. Neither is Russia.

Operationally, Russia is on the offensive in Ukraine, using (unreliable) proxies to create strategic depth by detaching eastern Ukraine from Kiev. So long as the West refuses to take account of Russia’s interests, it is what she must do. I doubt the Kremlin considers it an optimal course, but at the moment it is all that is on offer.

Tactically Russia is on the defensive, trying to keep her irregular allies in eastern Ukraine from being overrun. Ukraine, not the pro-Russian fighters, ended the cease-fire, and Kiev’s suddenly invigorated forces (dbwtedskyktheir new (their new competence probably came from outside help) are on the offensive, attempting to re-take all of eastern Ukraine. This is a flash point, because Russia cannot allow that to happen so long as there is a danger of Ukraine joining NATO. However reluctantly, Russia will have to do whatever is necessary to keep Kiev from reasserting control.

Were Washington and the E.U. to do what statesmen in 1914 refused to do and take account of the other side’s interests, a settlement of the Ukrainian crisis would not be difficult. The basic shape of an agreement would cover four points:

  1. NATO will not invite Ukraine to join.
  2. Ukraine agrees not to seek NATO membership.
  3. Following a cease-fire and a general pardon, Russian-speakers in Ukraine will have their rights guaranteed by all parties, those rights being similar to what Francophones have in Canada.
  4. Economically, Ukraine will belong to both east and west, serving as a bridge between the two, which could be a highly profitable role.

At present, it does not appear that events this summer will follow the course of those in l9l4. But they are moving in that direction. All parties need to communicate and cooperate to ensure that movement is stopped. The capital best placed to send events on a different course is Berlin. Kaiser Wilhelm II tried, desperately, in 1914, but he was too late. Berlin needs to act now. tr favicon