Menu Close


Does Ukraine herald the return of great power war?

EPA/Volodymyr Petrov

It is not without irony that we are pondering the consequences of armed conflict in Ukraine in the centenary of the war to end all wars. Few in 1914 appreciated the scale of the bloodshed about to be unleashed.

The early 1900s were years of apparent progress. A prevailing view was that war was becoming obsolete. International governance and law were the new faith. Intercultural exchanges flourished. And yet tiny sparks of obscure origin lit an almighty fire of great power war.

Is history repeating itself? In some ways, yes. Elements of the West now, as then, think peace is perpetual and can be engineered indefinitely.

Contemporary diplomatic discourse in the West, not least its study at university level, assumes we can all just get along; believers in international law think no difference cannot be talked or negotiated into a compromise. Australian academics are more affronted by Manus Island, for its supposed violation of international law, than by a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Has anyone been asked to sign a petition against Putin recently?

Very few of the several hundred thousand men and women who marched against the American war in Iraq 2003 will reassemble to do the same against Russia. Will the apparent urgency to keep Saddam Hussein in power then manifest itself in a defence of the beleaguered Ukrainian government now?

If 1914 and 2003 are any guide, aggression will not be stopped by the massed ranks of the progressive Left in London, Melbourne and Berlin. Proponents of international law, beginning with the US president himself, have become mute in the face of real war over ancient grievances.

President Obama appeared unwilling to face down President Putin in a region tangential to his interests – Syria. How much less likely will he be to do so in a country the ex-KGB man regards as part of Mother Russia – Ukraine?

If Western hesitancy obtains now as then, how about Russian certitude? Putin’s machismo is apparently endless. Unlike his western ‘opponents’ he believes in his historical mission. For Putin, the Soviet Union, a catastrophe for millions of people, is a model to be emulated if not recreated. What strength does the veneer of European Union soft power have when set against the vision which held the USSR together through seven turbulent decades?

Western opposition to Russian military adventurism in Ukraine will never be as strong as Putin’s defence of it. The invasion of Georgia by Russian troops in 2008 revealed the freedom of action Putin has in his own backyard.

Just as Soviet machinations in central America were met by a concerted response in Washington, so the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ will always illicit proportionate Russian counter moves.

Poland 1939? Let’s give Hitler one half and we’ll extinguish the other. Hungary 1956? Invade it. Czechoslovakia 1968? Spring? Let’s show America and France how to handle hippies.

Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Johnson, respectively, refused to counter each of these invasions. Should we really expect Obama to buck this trend? US Secretary of State John Kerry had wanted to stand with the gassed of Syria – before his boss told him to back down – will he be allowed to support the oppressed of Ukraine?

With a United States in military retreat globally, and a European Union incapable of decisive military action without US support (see Kosovo 1999 and Libya 2011), Russia is unlikely to be deterred by the threat of international lawyers. Indeed, its seat on the UN Security Council guarantees its arbitration of international legality, far above the US or EU power to add or detract.

The west has been complicit in affording the two great autocracies of the contemporary era – Russia and China – a veto over its soft power ambitions.

One can imagine the panicked discussions in assorted Russian government dachas this weekend:

Sergei: Артём.

Артём: Yes, Sergei.

Sergei: If we liberate the Crimea, Barack Obama and the EU are going to use soft power against us.

Артём: [Laughing] Oh no, Sergei, whatever will we do?!

So rather than a return to great power war – which needs at least two sides of roughly equal mass and charge – what we may be seeing unfold in the Ukrainian crisis is a tilt, perhaps decisive, toward the autocracies.

While Russia may lack the demographics to sustain a decades-long military conflict – its population will fall from 140 million today to 116 million by 2050 – it does have an interest in its backyard and the security it affords, even at the risk of another Russian civil war.

The United States and the European Union have placed significant faith in economic realities and sanctions to deter Russia aggression. In doing so, they forget how far Russian foreign policy of the last 100 years defied economic rationality, preferring ideological and nationalistic impulses, channelled through autocrats, to the profit motive.

War is always costly, in 1914 and today, but, tragically, never so costly that war is unthinkable.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 133,700 academics and researchers from 4,154 institutions.

Register now