This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Those who ignore history are damned to repeat it.
Looking back on the folly which preceded the catastrophe of August 1914, which led - to not one, but ultimately, two apocalyptic wars which defined the last century - it is easy to find oneself wondering how men could have been so blind, so foolish?
How could they have believed their own twisted propaganda? How could countries have abandoned their vital national interests to blindly follow purported allies with vastly different goals and capabilities?
After a disastrous engagement with Japan, and faced with severe social unrest, the Russian Empire was no more ready to fight a European war than to walk on the moon. The creaking Austro-Hungarian Empire, searching desperately for a raison d’être, was held together with sticky tape. The crumbling Ottomans were desperate for someone else to find a reason to renew their tenuous lease on life.
None were remotely up to fighting a global conflict. Yet politicians lie to journalists – then believe what they read in the press; the man in the street picked up the hue-and-cry, and the Old Europe stumbled toward its destruction.
What fools they were – seemingly not of another century but of another world. It is inconceivable that our modern democracies could ever do something so insane.
Perhaps - but before judging our predecessors too harshly, consider how the conflict in Ukraine - a geographical expression, the borders of which were defined by Stalin and which encompasses two very different nations; no more a unitary state than were Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia - is being used as a wedge to create a split across the European continent.
As is usual when drumming up support for a war, a great deal of make-believe is appearing. No sane person truly believes that Russia is about to invade the Baltics, neutralise Finland, or retake Poland. It is, however, convenient to publicly pretend to fear precisely these eventualities.
Europe too is an economic expression - increasingly devoid of sense. Much of the old continent has been in recession for the past 15 years, living off of accumulated wealth while selling down the family silverware. Although economic relations with Russia account for only a few percentage points of their GDP, at present, those few percentage points can mean the difference between muddle-through on the one hand, or an economic collapse bearing unforeseeable consequences.
With no vital interests at stake in Ukraine, in a rational world the Europeans would be even-handed, leaning on both sides to find an accommodation – federalisation, independence or unification with Russia – probably on the basis of an internationally supervised referendum in the Eastern provinces. Instead, the diplomacy of the founding EU states has been hijacked by Washington and the ex-Soviet Republics. It is Europe, not Washington, which stands to pay the price.
Declining empires are by far the most dangerous – sensing history snapping at their heels, they are apt to react impulsively, misjudging their own strength and the relative threats represented by their rising adversaries. Following a triumphant end to the millennium just past, the American Empire is once again wounded in its pride – having failed to redeem Saakashvilli’s desperate gamble in Georgia, and with its Middle-Eastern policy an utter shambles, they now find themselves incapable of reversing Russia’s reunification with Crimea.
Though they are faced with a far more dangerous adversary - a rising and revisionist China – any attempt to seriously confront China would be both expensive and risky – so, as men often do when faced with a painful dilemma, they take the easier path, ignoring the Dragon and goading the Bear. The result, as even the dimmest commentators are gradually realising, is a major geostrategic boost for Beijing.
The dawning of the nuclear era profoundly altered the nature of warfare – wars are now fought not with fighter planes and tanks, but with economic weapons – financial sanctions, investment flows, trade finance, and bank syndication. Despite a great deal of overheated rhetoric – in the nuclear era the likelihood of a military intervention in support of the Kiev Junta is precisely nil. Devoid of the military option, and unable to sit quietly and do nothing, the Western powers must develop a publically saleable justification for their sanctions regime.
Like poison gas, propaganda is a terribly dangerous weapon to deploy, since any shift in the wind will blow it back onto its own side. Just as successful drug dealers never consume their own stash, government must be alert to ensure that their propaganda remains an export commodity – failing that, the ability to set effective policy can be seriously impacted by incompetent analysis.
For the past several months, the West has been rolling out increasing economic sanctions against Russia, justified by the narrative that, by causing enough pain to the oligarchs and/or the Russian people, they will be encouraged to rise up and overthrow the Putin government. Needless to say, this policy, based upon a comical misunderstanding of the Russian political dynamic, has been an utter failure.
Mr Putin’s approval rating is in the high 80s, as the populace naturally rallies around the flag, whilst not a peep of protest has been heard from the oligarchs who – perhaps mindful of the example of Khodorkovsky’s severed head impaled outside the Kremlin wall – are disinclined to be seen to side with the foreign aggressor. Meanwhile, the WSJ – not usually considered to be close to the Kremlin – cites estimates that the sanctions will cost Russia about $1bn, while Russian countersanctions will cost Europe some $10bn.
With the memory of the repeated disasters of the 1990s still relatively fresh in minds, Russia is deeply resilient – Europe’s ability to tolerate economic chaos while retaining social stability is, at best, untested. Despite all the shrill headlines, there is no “New Cold War” – the Cold War was a war of ideologies. Instead, we are seeing a classical, 19th-Century style war for imperial domination.
We must hope that Kiev does not replace Sarajevo, for if it does, we shall indeed have attained “The End of History” – though not quite as intended.
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
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