In contrast to the posturing and empty rhetoric in London and Washington is the calm voice of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. We hear that she and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, an analysis of the countdown to the Great War. Steinmeier invited Clark to Berlin to debate the topic. Imagine a British politician reading such a book, let alone acting on it.
Clark traces the way highly charged relations between states trap players into losing room for maneuver. They caricature their foes and turn their backs on compromise.
Merkel grew up in East Germany under the KGB’s lash and has tried to see Putin through Russian eyes. She sees the absurdity of US President Barack Obama preaching international law to Russia, punishing it over Crimea, while scheming to bring Ukraine into the Western camp. She sees the 1914 danger of vague ultimatums, unenforcible red lines and ill-considered alliances.
Putin emerges from this crisis not as clever and calculating, but as an emotional, scary figure, lonely and alarmingly bereft of checks or balances. His seizure of Crimea has been popular and, in the scheme of things, no big outrage against international order, but the saber-rattling along NATO’s eastern border is as provocative as the careless antics of NATO and the EU in Kiev over recent years. Putin also needs a bridge over which to retreat.
The Cold War dinosaurs who still tramp the corridors and editorial columns of London and Washington seem to almost pine for the virile certainties of 1945 to 1989. Russia must “pay a heavy price” for Crimea, if only to make cold-war warriors feel good. That is unlikely to incline the bear to slink back into its cave.
Crimea must be a classic instance of a great power wrestling inside the shrunken straitjacket of imperial retreat, as Britain did, far more violently, half a century ago. As the Russian expert Susan Richards points out in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Crimea is the most painful and potent symbol of Russia’s lost glory.
“It was backdrop for more great scenes of Russian culture than anywhere outside Moscow or St Petersburg,” the resort and inspiration of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov and others. Its donation to Ukraine in 1954 was never likely to last.