Parallels to 1914? What History Teaches Us About the Ukraine Crisis

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Christopher Clark, March 14, 2014.

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 … //

… Differing Geopolitical Constellations: … //

… An Unruly Dynamic of Revolution: … //

… 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 tumults.

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 fuelled 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.

(full text).

(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).

Ukrainian related Links:

Over 5,000 Kalashnikovs, other guns stolen from Ukrainian military bases – report, on Russia Today RT, March 15, 2014;

Attempt to jam Russian satellites carried out from Western Ukraine, on Russia Today RT, March 14, 2014;

Useful, but no breakthrough: Russia, US stalled after Ukraine crisis talks; on Russia Today RT, March 14, 2014;

Ukraine: If the Left Movements don’t unite, only the Far-Right will benefit from the social anger, on transform, by Maxime Benatoui, March 14, 2014;

Controlling the Lens: The Media War Being Fought Over Ukraine Between the Western Bloc and Russia, on Global, by Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, March 14, 2014;

Ukraine: 5 very important answers to 5 very important answers, on Russia Today RT, March 13, 2014;

The Sniper-Question:

U.S. Media Non-Coverage of the Urmas Paet – Catherine Ashton Sniper Revelation, on Information, by David Peterson, March 8, 2014;

Find about on en.wikipedia:

  • Estonian Foreign Ministry confirms authenticity of leaked phone call discussing how Kiev snipers who shot protesters were possibly hired by Ukraine’s new leaders, on Mail Online, by John Hall, March 5 / updated March 6, 2014 (with videos and images);
  • Urmas Paet (born 20 April 1974) is an Estonian politician who has been Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia since 2005. He is a member of the Estonian Reform Party. As of September 2010, Paet has been the longest serving minister since the re-establishment of Estonian independence …; (see also External Links);
  • 2014 Ukrainian revolution began with civil unrest in Kiev, Ukraine, as part of Ukraine’s ongoing Euromaidan protest movement against the government …; /Speculation on snipers: The IBTimes reported that a telephone call between Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton had been intercepted in which Paet claimed he was told about evidence concerning the sniper killings during the protests;
  • Catherine Ashton Baroness Ashton of Upholland, PC (born 20 March 1956) is a British Labour politician who in 2009 became the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union. Under the Treaty of Lisbon, this post is combined with the post of Vice-President of the European Commission …; /External Links.

Comments are closed.