Does Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea mark the outbreak of a new Cold War? Or are we witnessing the return to an earlier epoch: the period before 1939, perhaps, or even the pre-1914 era?
The earliest example of Putin’s strategy in modern European history was the resolution of the once-notorious Schleswig-Holstein Question by Bismarck in 1864. Its complexities exasperated the then British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, who is said to have remarked: “Only three people . . . have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it.” Bismarck deliberately complicated what should have been a clear-cut dynastic dispute, in which his own Prussian monarch had no claim at all, by provoking the ethnic Germans in these two Danish duchies to agitate for secession. The Iron Chancellor gloated in a private letter that “it seems to suit our purpose . . . to let loose against the Danes all the dogs that want to howl (forgive this hunting metaphor); the whole howling pack together has the effect of making it impossible for the foreigners to place the Duchies again under Denmark.” Palmerston had encouraged the Danes to rely on Britain, but when the Prussians and Austrians invaded, “Pam” and his foreign secretary Lord John Russell disagreed, so the Royal Navy did not intervene. The French concluded that the British “could not be relied upon when war was in the distance”. Spurred on by his successful annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, Bismarck fought wars against Austria and France, culminating in the proclamation of the German Reich at Versailles in 1871.
Hitler obviously learnt from Bismarck, and in the present Ukrainian crisis many have drawn comparisons with his use of the Sudeten Germans to destabilise Czechoslovakia in 1938. What should not be forgotten is that it was The Times, in a fatally influential leader written by its editor Geoffrey Dawson, that first mooted the idea that the Sudetenland, the borderlands of Bohemia where ethnic Germans were in a majority, might be detached from Czechoslovakia in order to “appease” Hitler. It was the British, in the incongruous form of Neville Chamberlain, who encouraged the world to think that with the worthless Munich Agreement he had not only secured Czechoslovakian sovereignty, but “peace in our time”. This impression of the British as unreliable allies was reinforced when the Poles, too, found themselves abandoned, first in 1939 and then in 1945 at Yalta. The Jews, the most vulnerable people in Europe, who had found a protector in Britain with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, were later cold-shouldered, with refugees turned away from Palestine and Britain. Only with Nato’s creation in 1948 did the British forge an alliance that has endured.
The 2014 crisis in Ukraine finds Britain’s reputation at risk yet again. With Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, Sir John Major signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity and also prohibiting the use of economic power (such as energy pipelines) to interfere in Ukraine. This “political agreement” may not have the legal status of a treaty, but it does impose a moral obligation on all the signatories. Putin’s decision to tear up the memorandum does not mean Cameron or Obama may abandon their obligations, in return for which we disarmed what was then the third largest nuclear power. Ukrainians feel betrayed, now that their expectations of Nato and EU membership are tantalisingly receding. Ben Judah writes from Kiev about the siege mentality there.
Yet the betrayal of Ukraine is only the latest chapter in the slow retreat of Western civilisation since the triumph of 1989. Unless something changes soon, that retreat now threatens to become a stampede. Having called our bluff over Georgia, Syria and Crimea, Putin may be tempted to keep pushing. So may others who wish the West ill, from Tehran to Pyongyang. If Obama was unwilling to use the Sixth Fleet to deter Russia from annexing Crimea, why would Beijing believe that he would use the Seventh Fleet to stop China annexing Taiwan — as Clinton did in 1996? Who will stop the Iranians making nuclear weapons — or indeed the Arabs and the Turks, the South Koreans and the Japanese? And what about the Atlantic alliance? If the Budapest Memorandum is just a scrap of paper, why should the Balts rely on Nato?
When Standpoint was launched in 2008 to defend Western civilisation, we could not have predicted the rout that has taken place, President Obama’s responsibility for which Alex Woolfson analyses in devastating detail. Europe in particular has been rudely awakened from its belief that the only things that matter are elite clubs like Davos and the G8 and other trophies of “soft power”. This is the reduction of politics to protocol.
After phoning the Kremlin, Angela Merkel is reported to have said that the Russian leader was “in another world” — in other words, mad. Yet it is the West — especially Obama and the EU elite — that is out of touch with reality. If his brutalisation of Ukraine shocks us out of acquiescence in decline, Putin may have done us all a favour.