For my entire life, war in Europe has been unthinkable. In the Cold War, conflict meant nuclear exchange and the end of the human race. Therefore, war with the Soviets was to be avoided at all costs. It was also assumed, correctly, that the Russians were not interested in war with the West, at least not a shooting war. Proxies such as Vietnam or various civil wars in the third world were as far as it could be allowed to go.
Once the Cold War ended, war was looking like a thing of the past. Hammering the provinces from time to time was as far as it would go. Europe was into the end of history stuff and racing toward one worldism. If you talked about the Russian threat ten years ago, you were considered a nut. Heck, in the 2012 election, Obama mocked Romney for talking up the threat of Russia. The liberal press corp roared with laughter when Obama said “The 80’s called and they want their foreign policy back” in one of the debates.
Now, here we are with the very liberal Slate posting article about the looming war with Russia.
Over and over again—throughout the entirety of my adult life, or so it feels—I have been shown Polish photographs from the beautiful summer of 1939: The children playing in the sunshine, the fashionable women on Krakow streets. I have even seen a picture of a family wedding that took place in June 1939, in the garden of a Polish country house I now own. All of these pictures convey a sense of doom, for we know what happened next. September 1939 brought invasion from both east and west, occupation, chaos, destruction, genocide. Most of the people who attended that June wedding were soon dead or in exile. None of them ever returned to the house.
When you start with a reference to the looming Nazi onslaught, you know the rest of the article is going to be seriously grim.
In retrospect, all of them now look naive. Instead of celebrating weddings, they should have dropped everything, mobilized, prepared for total war while it was still possible. And now I have to ask: Should Ukrainians, in the summer of 2014, do the same? Should central Europeans join them?
I realize that this question sounds hysterical, and foolishly apocalyptic, to American or Western European readers. But hear me out, if only because this is a conversation many people in the eastern half of Europe are having right now. In the past few days, Russian troops bearing the flag of a previously unknown country, Novorossiya, have marched across the border of southeastern Ukraine. The Russian Academy of Sciences recently announced it will publish a history of Novorossiya this autumn, presumably tracing its origins back to Catherine the Great. Various maps of Novorossiya are said to be circulating in Moscow. Some include Kharkov and Dnipropetrovsk, cities that are still hundreds of miles away from the fighting. Some place Novorossiya along the coast, so that it connects Russia to Crimea and eventually to Transnistria, the Russian-occupied province of Moldova. Even if it starts out as an unrecognized rump state—Abkhazia and South Ossetia, “states” that Russia carved out of Georgia, are the models here—Novorossiya can grow larger over time.
The thing about American politicians and strategists is they always assume the other guys think like they think. That’s been the problem with Ukraine since the start of this. My bet is exactly zero people in the American foreign policy bubble have heard of “Novorossiya” or what the “Wild Fields” means to Russian nationalists. Anne Applebaum is a smart woman and super connected to the deep state, yet this is the first time she has written about this. This suggests that the Western foreign policy elite knows next to nothing about what’s going on in Russia today.
That’s the scary part about this situation. It looks like the West is not just clueless about Russia, but almost in disbelief every time Putin makes a move. This story about Igor Strelkov is a good example. That part of the word has forever been dominated by out-sized and outlandish personalities. Just look at how the collapse of the Soviet Union unfolded. Boris Yeltsin was not a sober and cautious man, by any stretch of the imagination. Look at some of the characters in the “stans” or even in the Russian parliament.
Wars start for one of two reasons. One is the combatants don’t know what’s coming and blunder into war. The other is the combatants know exactly what is coming, but the stronger side will not be deterred. The American Civil War and the First World War are example of the former. If the participants had the benefit of foresight, they would have made different choices. The bloodbath may have happened under different conditions, I don’t know, but there’s no way people voluntarily submit to a mass kill-off.
That’s what’s scary about what’s unfolding with Russia and the West. The West has no idea what they are dealing with in Ukraine or with Putin. They think they can wage technological and financial war to force their preferred solution on Putin. On the other hand, Putin seems convinced the West is paralyzed by a lack of confidence. He can impose his preferred solution on the West with the force of arms. History says he is probably right in the short run, but the West is right in the long run.
What happens in between is the scary part.