I am cautious when I write about things that extend beyond my immediate expertise. The situation in the Ukraine is one such case. When the crisis first broke, I took a relatively sanguine position: http://belshaw.blogspot.com.au/2014/03/musings-on-ukraine.html. Now I’m not so sure. My instinctive reaction at the time to suggestions that this was like Europe in 1938 was to say over-exaggeration. Again, now I am not so sure.
I don’t understand Mr Putin’s end game, but his comments about the need to protect Russians wherever they live, the way those comments are phrased, the apparent willingness to use force to bring Russians elsewhere within the embrace of Mother Russia, are actually very similar to views expresses by Nazi leaders in the context of Germans and Germany.
Mr Putin’s Russian Federation does not have the relative power of Hitler's Germany, notwithstanding nuclear weapons. For the moment, he is protected in the east, for China is unlikely to come to support of any Western attack in the West. He also faces Western communities that really do not want to fight, that will compromise. And yet, if push comes to shove, if Russia over-reaches, they will fight. And then Russia will lose. So Mr Putin’s tactical and strategic question is how far he can safely push.
The difficulty is that Mr Putin has already over-reached himself. Poland’s Foreign Minister said this:
We cannot let Putin get away with this,” says Radek Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister. His Oxford English is perfect, his tone decisive. “By annexing Crimea, Russia is forcing a major change of boundaries on Europe. It means the breaking of the post-Cold War consensus. That is verboten.”
Vladimir Putin, lacking Mr Sikorski’s linguistic skills, does not understand “verboten”. He has been taunting the west for days now, placing troops on Ukrainian soil to defend -- as he puts it -- ethnic Russians there from the “nationalist mob” who overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych. The annexation of Crimea, the southernmost region in Ukraine, looks inevitable to Sikorski: “The timetable for the Kremlin’s annexation of the region is accelerating daily.” Putin knows America and the EU are in thrall to Russia’s money, oil and gas. He reckons that with huge economic interests at stake, no one will fight for Ukraine’s sovereignity.
But Putin has underestimated EU unity, says Sikorski. “I’m seeing William Hague on Monday. We are as one on Ukraine. We cannot allow Putin to redraw the map of Europe along ethnic lines. Europe is based on the principle of overcoming borders rather than redrawing them. No one has the unilateral right to move borders in response to presumed ethnic grievances. We’ve seen what happened when a European leader tried to do that before: the peoples of the Soviet Union paid one of the biggest prices for this.”
I’m far from sure that this is an accurate reflection of EU views. I am sure, or at least reasonably so, that European countries would fight to protect Ukraine’s remaining territorial integrity.
There is a story, I have no idea whether it’s true, that the Russian General staff sent the Tsar off to play tennis so that he would not be in a position to cancel the mobilisation order for Russian Imperial forces.
The fact that wars often begin by accident is, in a way, is Mr Putin’s problem. Can he balance all this? Can he control the forces that he has now unleashed? I am far from certain. That is why, for the first time, I think that a major war may be inevitable.