Rumours of Russian troop build-ups on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders have been circulating over the past week, although these scattered reports have by no means been reliably confirmed. Fears of another attempted Russian aggression, perhaps the occupation and annexation of the eastern part of the country, would probably be the last straw for the Ukrainian regime before the country would order a full-scale mobilization of its remaining military forces for war.
And that result would probably be an economic, social and military disaster for Eastern Europe — not to mention the tens of thousands of lives it would probably claim. That figure could easily reach into the millions if any prospective conflict spilled over Russian-Ukrainian borders and escalated into a more regional or global conflict.
It’s often how world wars are started. If someone had asked Gavrilo Princip if he thought he was about to be the catalyst for one of the worst conflicts in human history when he riddled Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand with bullets on a hot August day in Sarajevo in 1914, he would likely have answered in the negative. Actions, in other words, do not always have predictable reactions.
Would Princip have thought twice about his actions if he’d had the gift of foresight? Would the blood-soaked meatgrinder of the Western and Eastern fronts in the years that followed have sickened him into a change of heart? Perhaps — but it is best not to speculate about the could-have-beens of history. And Princip was only the spark. If it hadn’t have been him, it would have been someone else, somewhere else.
Still, Germany’s great 19th century empire builder and statesman Otto von Bismarck predicted it right, suggesting the next war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.
Interestingly, any study of past conflicts will illustrate that in many cases the statesmen, monarchs, presidents or prime ministers who made the decisions that led to war often succumbed to a false sense of inevitability about the coming conflict. Never was this more fully tragic than in the crisis-filled days before the outbreak of WWI, a conflict arguably more unnecessary than the world has seen before or since.
The intricate systems of alliance and counter-alliance, mobilization and counter-mobilization, extreme nationalism, decadent monarchy, and imperialist posturing that led to the first clashes of arms in that terrible conflict that began 100 years ago seemed at the time to be a towering burden from which there was no escape but war. In those days before “the guns of August” there were many times when leaders could have stepped back from the brink, but chose instead to charge headlong, as Shakespeare would have said, “once more into the breach”. The truest courage was shown by those with the heart to try to stop it, but in a sad epitaph for humanity much history teaches us that the hawks usually far outnumber the doves.
And so we come back to Russia’s present Ukrainian adventure. Political posturing, honour, extreme nationalism and an unwillingness to back down lest the country (and her president) lose face, seem to loom over the present conflict from Russia’s perspective. It is worth noting that many of these same questions were weighed by the doomed Tsar Nicholas II before he marched his empire’s armies to war in 1914. That conflict resulted in not only his abdication, the destruction of a 300-year royal dynasty and the rise of the Bolsheviks — but would eventually cost him his life and that of his family.
Different times, perhaps. But once a sense of inevitability begins to permeate the Russian leadership, it will only be a matter of time before the final orders are given and an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict begins.
For now, that doesn’t appear to be the case. But increasing Western pressure on Russia could have the opposite effect from what might be anticipated.
Although it is a favourite aphorism to call the Russians a “backward” nation, the shoe unfortunately often fits. Even their calendar was antiquated until well into the 20th century — the famous October Revolution of 1917 was actually in November if you follow the Gregorian calendar.
A land of violent contrasts, Russia has always harboured a pathological fear of foreign invasion, and that corresponds into present fears of Western encirclement. Moves by NATO in recent years to try to bring former Soviet satellites into the Western military fold have been met by seething disapproval in Moscow.
To be fair, the Russians have their reasons. When the rest of Europe was breathing a sigh of relief in the Middle Ages, Mongol hordes were busy subduing traditional Russian territory. In 1812, Napoleon led his Grand Armee all the way to Moscow before he was eventually turned back. In the 1850s, a coalition force of Great Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire attempted to seize — you guessed it — the Crimea from Russia. In WWI, it was the turn of the Germans, driving back poorly-trained and organized armies deep into the Russian heartland. And finally in WWII, it was the Nazis turn to roll into the Soviet Union before being defeated at the staggering cost of more than 27 million Russian lives. To say nothing of the Cold War, when it seemed to the average Muscovite that the entire world was ready to end their existence in the crimson sunrise of a hydrogen bomb.
Let’s just say Russian trust of those nations outside their borders doesn’t extend as far as it might have, had history not proven to be an unfortunate mistress. And to play devil’s advocate for a moment, Western condemnation of Russian actions in the Ukraine might seem cloyingly irritating to Russia and her leadership in a region they consider to be their natural sphere of influence. That being said, allowing Ukraine to fall firmly into the Western family — as the demise of the previous Yanukovych regime would seem to have foretold — was hardly what the Russians would consider an excellent development.
At the same time, Russia’s fondness for extreme solutions doesn’t seem to be winning them any friends on this side of the Atlantic at the moment. Employing 19th century military solutions to a 21st century problem isn’t helping. But twisting the screw of Western pressure — amping up the feelings of isolationism and the inevitability of conflict — could have some unpredictable results when considering Russia’s past. When backed into a corner, the Russian bear might choose to bite rather than running back to Moscow to balance a balloon on its nose.