Any number of distinguished commentators–e.g. the National Interest’s Graham Allison–have taken the occasion of the anniversary of the First World War to warn that the crisis in eastern Ukraine might have catastrophic consequences comparable to 1914. That is silly. World War I did not occur because the European powers miscalculated, but because they each believed rationally that their interests were best served by fighting. I addressed this in a light-hearted take on the event that destroyed Western Civilization, “Musil and Meta-Musil,” at Asia Times Online (referring to the great novelist Robert Musil and the laxative). I summarized the motives of the warring powers as follows:
- With a stagnant population, France could not hope to win back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine it had lost to Germany in 1870 – or to win any future war-unless it fought soon. From parity in the middle of the 19th century, the German population had become half again as large as France’s by 1914.
- Germany could not concentrate its army on a crushing blow against France if it waited for Russia to build out its internal railway network.
- Austria could not keep its fractious ethnicities within the empire if it did not castigate Serbia. It could not grant equal rights to Serbs without provoking the Hungarians, who held a privileged position in the empire, so it could only suppress them.
- Russia could not maintain control over the industrialized western part of its empire – Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Finland – if Austria humiliated its Serbian ally, and Russia depended on these provinces for the bulk of its tax revenues.
- England could not maintain the balance of power in Europe if Germany crushed France.
Our universities tend to transform engaged, concerned and intelligent students into functional idiots by reducing all conflicts to the level of a schoolyard spat. Existential issues separated the powers of 1914. In 2014, there is nothing to fight over in Ukraine and no way to fight over it. That is because Russia already has what it wants, namely Crimea, and there is nothing that the West can to do take it away. It was moronic for the West to suggest that Russia would lose Crimea in a pro-Western coup in Ukraine; there was no way to get it. The West should have exacted a high price for Russia keeping Ukraine (missiles in Poland and Czech); instead it tried to punish Russia after the fact. Russia has responded by destabilization Ukraine; that is what I predicted Putin would do, and exactly what I would do if I were playing his side of the board.
It is all farcical. There is no way to have a war over Ukraine, no matter how hard we or the Russians tried.