Echoes of 1914 characterize the Ukraine crisis

Has the Obama administration really found the famous “exit ramp” in Ukraine that will provide an eventual diplomatic resolution of the crisis?

It looked that way Thursday in Geneva, where seven hours of negotiations produced what Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called “a compromise, of sorts.”

President Barack Obama doubtless will get brickbats from congressional Republicans for making concessions they’ll claim ratify Moscow’s bullying in Ukraine. But this has always been a fight that mattered more to Russia than to the West. President Vladimir Putin showed in recent days that he was prepared to take Ukraine to the brink of civil war to get his way. Even if Obama had been ready for that confrontation, Europe wasn’t.

If the deal holds, it’s likely to open the way for what many U.S. strategists have seen as the most stable path for Ukraine – a country that looks east and west at the same time. The Euromaidan protests last winter showed that western Ukrainians want passionately to be part of Europe. The Russian-speaking protesters who massed in eastern Ukraine may have been orchestrated by Moscow, but they feel deep ties with Russia. What Thursday’s deal says is: stand down.

Compromise is always hard to swallow. President John Kennedy was so worried about public reaction to the secret deal he made with Moscow to avert the Cuban missile crisis that details were suppressed until long after his death. Yet that negotiation is remembered now as Kennedy’s finest moment. Obama will be lucky if Ukraine is remembered similarly, as a dangerous confrontation that was defused.

The consequences of the alternative path, of an ever-escalating crisis, were highlighted this week by Australian historian Christopher Clark, author of “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.” In a lecture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Clark compared the Ukraine crisis with the 1914 catastrophe.

Clark noted the similarities between 100 years ago and today. There was a “weary titan” then in Britain, just as some see in today’s United States. And in both cases, there was the shock of an unanticipated crisis in a fragile Eastern European country, which propelled nations toward the brink. The big difference is that despite Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine, Western nations responded with what Clark called “caution and circumspection,” rather than lockstep escalation.

Clark was asked about one of his book’s most interesting sub-themes, which is that the conflict a century ago was in part a “crisis of masculinity.” European leaders were so determined to be “firm” and “upright” about commitments that they drove straight into a wall. This got me to thinking about the central personalities in this drama, Putin and Obama.

There is something of the summer of 1914 about Putin. It’s not clear whether he sees himself as the tsar or the gamekeeper when he’s photographed hunting tigers, or shooting whales with a crossbow, or going bare-chested when fishing or riding horses. But he’s evidently a man with something to prove, confident and insecure at the same time.

Putin wants to be the bad boy. As Obama said memorably of him: “He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”

Obama, in contrast, has shown himself once more to be the opposite of a macho politician. He is reserved and analytical, occasionally caught shirtless on vacation but rarely photographed with the top buttons of his shirt undone. He’s the good boy in the class, sometimes to a fault.

Far from marching off the cliff, Obama stayed safely on the sidewalk. If he’d been guiding one of the major European nations in that summer of 1914, one senses that he might have avoided the reflexive mobilization for war that proved so disastrous. That sense of caution would have been derided as “weak” in 1914, as Obama is now. As Clark observes, hawkish arguments always tend to resonate better in crises than dovish ones.

“The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing ... blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world,” writes Clark in the book’s concluding passage.

Whatever his faults, Obama is no sleepwalker. He has been acutely aware of the dangers in Ukraine. He appealed for – and finally demanded – de-escalation by Putin. The macho bully seized Crimea and probably will gain effective control of eastern Ukraine. The wary diplomat averted war. Each side can reasonably claim success.

David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 19, 2014, on page 7.




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