Are there parallels between 1914 and the Ukrainian Crisis?

September 9, 2014

It is currently fashionable to use the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War for all sorts of comparisons reaching from power dynamics in East Asia to the Euro Crisis. As the Ukrainian crisis coincides with the 100th anniversary of the First World War, there is also plenty of opportunity to think about differences and similarities of developments between the July Crisis in 1914 and the escalating situation in Ukraine. (See for instance Julian Lindley French’s analysis.)

For discounting any immediate parallel between now and 1914 (or 1939) it suffices to say that the nuclear revolution has made a direct clash between the United States and Russia unlikely and that there is no willingness whatsoever among “post-heroic” Western publics to “mourir pour Donetsk.” However, irrespective of the tenuous Russian-Ukrainian ceasefire last Friday, some attributes of the poisonous atmosphere in the run-up to the Great War can also be detected today:

1. Domestic weakness leads to foreign policy assertiveness

In the past decades it has been commonly said that one of the reasons why Germany risked being drawn into a war in 1914 was the precarious domestic situation of the German Emperor and the ruling elites. By escalating the European conflict, the argument goes, the German elites intended to rally popular support behind a regime that was unravelling. This line of argument has been refuted by recent scholarship. At the same time, the focus has widened towards looking at domestic crises in other states, in particular Russia, and at how far the domestic situation in the precarious Tsarist regime affected a more assertive foreign policy stance.

Currently, Russian commentators routinely make analogous arguments about their rivals: The West, and in particular the European Union, is in an existential crisis and therefore aggressively tries to expand its sphere of influence. Whilst it is true that the West is losing its relative economic and military power share on a global basis, the domestic situation has actually been much more precarious in Russia. Since Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012, the Russian president has been criticized from multiple angles for his authoritarian impulses. The Russian president has primarily reacted through tightening media censorship and the rights of NGOs, but there was also a foreign policy side to it. Scholars such as Angela Stent argue that Russia’s assertiveness towards the United States is explained partly by Putin’s need to draw the large majority of Russians behind him.

2. Crisis narratives lead to self-righteousness

As the July Crisis in 1914 unfolded, policy makers on both sides were quick to accuse the other side of fostering aggression. Germany accused the other major powers of undermining the European order by refusing to account for Austrian-Hungarian interests in thwarting state-sponsored terrorism in Serbia. Russia and Western powers, on the other hand, treated Serbian sovereignty as something that simply must not be threatened by outside states (at a time in which more than half of the world was colonized by Britain and France). Rational exchanges of arguments were often undermined by one-sided accounts of the crisis.

In the current crisis, the overtly narrow narrative in Russia is based on the idea of a “fascist coup d’état with Western help,” and the notion that Ukraine’s sovereignty is worth less than that of older nation states in Europe. The West, on the other hand, has downplayed the significance of some neo-fascist groups in the civil war in Ukraine. It has instead focused on Russia as the major actor in escalating the violence between Kiev and the breakaway regions without comprehending that Eastern Ukrainians might reasonably reject the pro-Western government in Kiev. Whereas Western powers openly questioned the Yanukovich administration, the West now acts as if the protection of state sovereignty has always been the single most important driver of Western policies (see below). By rightfully criticising Russia’s blackmailing strategies towards Ukraine prior to the overthrow of the Yanukovich administration, the West at the same time downplays that it has itself accelerated divisions in Ukraine by seeking to draw Kiev into its sphere of influence.

Both crisis narratives are simplistic in that they fail to account for the diverging regional mentalities inside Ukraine (In his famous “Clash of Civilizations” article in 1993, Samuel Huntington identified Ukraine as a state in which two divergent cultures could soon clash and spark a major war), disregard the use of force on both sides, and overlook their own divisive policies that have contributed to pushing Ukraine into an “either-or” position. These narratives also ignore the fact that this crisis might well have occurred without Western and Russian intervention.

3. Alliance coherence can lead to hardening confrontation

In the run-up to the Great War, Germany’s persistent failures to split the Triple Alliance fostered a cynical mentality that war would be unavoidable in any circumstances and pushed it into the arms of Austria-Hungary. In 1914, both alliance systems (apart from Italy as a free rider) had reached a point in which the cohesion of the alliance itself seemed more important than any potential consequence of continuous re-assurances on the adversarial state.

Today, many Western opinion-makers and policymakers celebrate the introduction of a sanctions regime and the push towards a greater NATO military presence in Poland and the Baltic States as a sign of “NATO unity” in the face of an external threat. The potential downside is that promoting the unity of a military bloc feeds the isolation of the outsider. This was one of the fears of George Kennan, when he called attempts of NATO’s expansion into the territory of the former Soviet Union a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” Instead of seeing the conflict as a disagreement over the conceptualization of Euro-Atlantic security, Andrew Monaghan from Chatham House maintains that the “return to Cold War […] policies dazzles rather than illuminates. It emphasises a simplistic binary approach of […] deterrence […] that inflames the situation.” As such, the current celebration of the prolongation of the purpose of the Western alliance fails to comprehend the failure of implementing original post-Cold War order plans.

4. Ad-hoc reactions lead to strategic short sightedness

Short-term zero-sum thinking and the lack of clear long-term strategies have been identified as major causes for the outbreak of the Great War. Today, there is strategic confusion on what the sanctions on Russia will mean in the future and whether Moscow’s policies in Ukraine will serve its long-term interests. It is far from clear as to whether policies in the current crisis are informed by a broader view on potential implications. Fundamental questions, it appears, remain unanswered. What strategic purpose does the trade war against Russia serve from the Western viewpoint? Does the sanction regime foster a Sino-Russian rapprochement? What long-term purpose does the support of Ukrainian rebels serve from Russia’s perspective? “The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins,” according to Henry Kissinger. Western policymakers will argue that they cannot accept Russian behaviour as a matter of principle and therefore defy notions of long-term effects on the relationship. However, the truth about international relations is that the “blame game” is often based on selective interpretations of right and wrong (see point 1, 5 and 6).

5. Media Wars lead to simplistic readings of reality

Prior to 1914, the media propaganda on both sides had reached levels in which a sober discussion of mutual interests had become almost impossible. Today, rather than aiming at informing the public of the complicated picture in Ukraine and the failures of the post-Cold War order in Europe, the media on both sides have increased hostile attitudes among the populations in the West and in Russia. Instead of supplying the broader public with informed comments, opinion leaders who are aware of the intricacies of international relations add fuel to the fire of public opinion. Whilst it is almost impossible to start debates on neutral premises in Russia, the base of Western discussions has also become narrower. The worrying result is that both media and policymakers mutually influence their respective opinions and thereby accelerate superficial interpretations of the adversary (see Hillary Clinton’s Hitler-Putin comparison).

6. A tactical emphasis on values and international law hardens confrontation

Great Britain entered the Great War in 1914 with explicit reference to Germany’s disregard of Belgium’s territorial integrity. However, Britain’s interests in entering the war were rather strategic in nature (or, as Niall Ferguson has argued, Britain’s decision to enter the Great War was not even justifiable on the grounds of British interests). Later, no state eventually accepted President Woodrow Wilson’s principles. The apparent mismatch between aims and rhetoric (Britain entering the war on the premises of protecting Belgians), as well as rhetoric and reality (the disregard of Wilsonian ideals), increased the contempt among the losers of the war. Carl Schmitt, the German legal scholar, would later stress that the concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion, and in its ethical-humanitarian form it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism.” In the interwar period, Schmitt also maintained that “legality has become a poisonous dagger, with which one party stabs the other in the back.”

The current contempt of Russia and China towards the international order is partly based on the selective reading of international rules by the West. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Western commentators were quick to highlight that Russia has “fundamentally” undermined the post-1945 international order. This interpretation refrained from a discussion about the detailed aspects in how far the secession of Crimea from Ukraine has undermined international law (it has undermined it, but in less spectacular terms than is commonly alleged) and what the majority of the Crimean population thought about the repressive policies of the post-revolution government in Kiev. The waging of “lawfare” obscures that the United States itself has a poor record in adhering to the international order it once has helped to set up. Given the picture that the United States and other Western states have painted in the field of international law, the rhetorical promotion of “values” and positivist legalism can only heighten the contempt among non-Western states. NATO states have unravelled the United Nations Security Council in Iraq and — partially — in Libya. Western democracy promotion has only been used very selectively in the Middle East, often following a more opportunistic realist script that pursues regime change couched in liberal language. It continues to rely on highly dubious figures, such as Hashim Thaci, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, who has been accused of drug and weapons trafficking. Domestic pluralism is continuously undermined in states allied to the United States (for instance, the rate of detentions of journalists in Turkey, a long-standing NATO ally, is one of the highest worldwide).

In the current debate, it is remarkable that policy makers disregard the fact that states, especially powerful ones, have rarely adhered to self-restraining notions of international law, in particular when they faced obstacles in their immediate geopolitical sphere of interest. Russia, long a forceful defender of international law in the post-Cold War world, has violated the established principle of “territorial sovereignty” because of its immediate interests in its neighbourhood. As Stephen Walt has argued, Washington’s interventions in Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were not much different from Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

7. (Opaque) support for obscure and divisive political forces can lead to loss of control

In 1914, Russian and Western leaders tacitly backed the Pasic government in Serbia despite the close ties between the Serbian state and the secret Black Hand organization. France and in particular Russia interpreted the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as a pretext for Austria-Hungary to reverse its loss of influence in the Balkans through assertive means. With this came a worrying acceptance of collateral damage on both sides.

Today, both Russia and the West have tacitly supported groups and individuals with obscure backgrounds. Much has been written about the military equipment that Russia has transferred to violent rebels who did not refrain from terrorizing the population in Donetsk and Luhansk. Meanwhile, the (yet to be investigated) use of violence in Maidan Square in Kiev and the killing of pro-Russian protestors in Odessa are being downplayed by the West. Citing Germany’s intelligence service, German media also reported that Academi, a private U.S. security provider that has been engaged in Iraq, might have been involved in Ukraine’s civil war earlier this year. Whilst the latter charge remains speculative, the open support of former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and other oligarchs implies that the West has at least offered support to personalities and networks that do not necessarily share the values of Western institutions. By granting direct or tacit support to divisive political forces in Ukraine (in particular ultra-nationalists on both sides), both Russia and the West have made themselves dependent on untrustworthy networks with their own agendas that might be interested in further escalating rather than containing the conflict.

Lessons learned?

Despite all the talk about “learning from history,” the Ukrainian crisis reveals that fundamental mechanisms in international crises remain as they were one hundred years ago. Whilst this tells us something about the lack of willingness to learn from the past, are there lessons to learn from both crises? I think there are.

First, knowledge about domestic policies of the potential adversary helps provide a clearer picture of the overall constitution of the state or actor in question. Both crises reveal a lack of understanding of the respective other side. Deeper knowledge about the nature and incentives of the adversary will help to identify important drivers of crisis responses when the actual crisis occurs. Second, for comprehensive crisis management to occur, events should not be represented in oversimplified ways. Simplifying developments might gain policymakers short-term leverage, but it runs the risks of hardening the stances of the other side. Third, “humanitarian values” and “international law” should be used more carefully as rhetorical tools as it again increases rather than decreases tensions as hypocrisy is always rife on all sides. Fourth, rather than using media outlets for propagandistic purposes, political leaders should restrain the poisonous power of the media by choosing more carefully crafted statements. Fifth, crisis responses need to be conducted under consideration of potential long-term effects and concrete aims regarding the post-crisis situation. This would also include a weighing between benefits of alliance coherence and potential effects on the adversary that the focus on alliance unity might cause. Lastly, and most importantly, the use of violence in any crisis-ridden country must at least be condemned, even if the supported party uses force. The open or tacit approval of violence only fosters a mentality in which the actors involved will be prone to further escalate the situation.


Daniel Grandet is the pseudonym for a UK-based scholar of post-Cold War history.


Photo credit: paukrus