The conflict in Ukraine and specifically the Russian invasion of its Crimea region is being portrayed as a return to the Cold War. It’s similar to a war all right, but pundits, too infatuated with the “checkerboard” imagery, have got the wrong one. The Cold War was a titanic 46-year conflict between two super powers vying for world hegemony. It included an arms race, client states, a blockade and missile crisis, proxy wars and the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation.
However, other than the primary adversaries, America and Russia, this smells a lot more like the war that began 100 years ago this July — World War I — than the Cold War. Once again, the conflict is arising from unintended consequences and mulish mistakes in that historic powder keg, southeastern Europe.
For centuries, the southeastern European land mass extending from the eastern Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea known as the Balkans has experienced numerous invasions, wars, genocides, shifting borders and the constant creation and extinction of nation states.
Although not in the Balkans, the Crimean Peninsula dangling off the southern belly of Ukraine lies just 800 miles from Bulgaria’s Black Sea beaches. It too is a historical orphan ruled over the centuries by Mongols, Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Russians and Ukrainians. The Crimean War of 1853-56 between Russia and the West was commemorated in Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
The fracas in 1914, as now, was over a resurgence of imperialism and long-term rivalries; would Serbia align itself with the Allies, France and England, or with Austria-Hungary? Now the question is will Ukraine tighten ties with Western Europe or maintain its traditional, ethnic and political links to Russia?
WWI went on to become a global conflict and the fifth deadliest war in history, ending in November 1918. More than 9 million people perished, including 117,000 Americans who entered the war on the side of the Allies in 1917. It was by every measure a stupid and needless war. But then most are.
The U.S. has limited capacity to prevent a Russian occupation and even annexation of Crimea, short of all-out war. Even with President Barack Obama’s vigorous response, without full European cooperation, economic and political sanctions are meaningless, and Western Europe is too heavily reliant on Russian trade and natural gas.
That reality, of course, will not prevent Republicans from gaining political points claiming Obama is spineless in the face of aggression while furtively acknowledging he has limited choices. Conservatives are gleefully comparing Obama unfavorably to Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, practically swooning over him as a decisive leader. You know it’s easy to be “decisive” when you’re an unhinged tyrant running a corrupt totalitarian regime with neither a care about international obligations nor lives.
One would hope the adversaries in Crimea have got more sense than their forerunners from WWI. Unfortunately, when it comes to geopolitical one-upmanship, national ego and domestic political theater, as demonstrated by Putin and many Republicans, stupidity still counts.
Marty Moore is a freelance writer living in Port Richey.