Why This Isn’t 1914

I’m currently working my way through Christopher Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which is about the conditions leading up to World War I and a very thorough delve into the tick-tock of the July Crisis that launched the war.  It has been lambasted as an apologia for the Central Powers, which I don’t think is particularly fair.  Most of the high-level decisionmakers are portrayed as rather hapless and confused, particularly the German Kaiser who comes off as a childish idiot.  However, he does seem to place the blame rather squarely on the bellicose French and Russians, particularly the Russian decision for general mobilization.  It’s been interesting to read this book against the background of the past few weeks, as a frightening international crisis looms.  This time the blame can unequivocally be laid at the foot of the Russians’ decision to take advantage of Ukrainian disorder to seize the Crimea.

Sometimes it truly seems that we have learned from history.  The Russians’ move was an obvious provocation, and provocation continues with the standoffs happening right now across Crimea.  Yet the discipline of the Ukrainian troops under siege has been incredibly impressive – presumably each are aware that a single stray bullet could cause a war.  Similarly, while the Ukrainian government has called up its reserves and is moving to a war footing, it has been careful to avoid any possible provocations of Russian forces.  And NATO has been very careful about over-committing to anything that might challenge its credibility.  As the Russian exchange rate and stock market start to crumble, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the cost of holding onto Crimea might not be worth it.  It’s not just economic – the cost of the peninsula is a permanently hostile Ukraine.

The shadow of WWI is hanging over this crisis, and the Western allies are acting with incredible caution and restraint.  The statesmen of 1914 were giddy with glee over finally getting the chance to go to war and work out their problems on the battlefield.  Today the leaders of the Western nations clearly view the prospect of war with unalloyed dread.  It may be too early to be hopeful about this crisis, as things could easily take a nasty turn.  And if Russia decides to open a wider conflict by invading eastern Ukraine, then the scenario could become very ugly very quickly.  But I can’t help feeling that the specter of 1914 is keeping this situation more under control than it might be otherwise.

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