Does WWI explain the Ukraine situation?
George Friedman thinks it does. He looks at WWI, WWII and the cold war and manages to find similarities in them which he also believes apply to the Ukraine situation today.
Such vast simplifications are always popular. They offer a shortcut to understanding. But I think this one falls at the first hurdle.
Friedman's basic point is that nations feel threatened if they are bordered by other hostile nations. That seems commonsense on the face of it but what defines "hostile"? We can see that Canada and Mexico do not feel threatened by the vastness of the USA on their borders because the USA is not hostile. The USA is in fact probably the most benevolent nation the world has ever seen. But in Europe it is not so clear. The Northern European countries, including Germany, tended in history to be friendly with Britain. The Anglo-German defeat of Napoleon may be remembered. But for Gneisenau, Napoleon would have won at Waterloo.
Yet in two world wars Britain and Germany fought one another. So were Germany and Britain hostile or friendly to one-another? From a 19th century perspective one would say friendly but from an early 20th century perspective, one would tend to say hostile.
But even there we have problems. The German Kaiser was in fact part of the British Royal family and he spent a lot of time in their company. He spoke perfect English and Queen Victoria died in his arms. And after the death of the Queen, the British King, Edward VII was widely esteemed to be the only person who could calm the Kaiser down when he got angry. In a great loss for British diplomacy, however, Edward died in 1910. And given the prominent role of the Kaiser in Germany, how can we say that Germany and Britain were hostile? They were not. They were family. But they still fought a war.
So I think Friedman's thesis about national policy being dependant on borders is badly flawed. One thing Britain and Germany did NOT have was a border!
What Friedman says is that after the defeat of the French at Sedan in 1870, the freshly united Germany was such a militarily powerful entity that the rest of Europe was in fear of it and German diplomacy had to deal with the possibility that nervous neighbors would "gang up" on Germany and attack it from all sides in order to pre-empt a threat from Germany. Friedman is not alone in that view. None other than the German Chancellor of the day, Otto von Bismarck saw it similarly. And Bismarck put into place two measures to deal with it.
The first was his own diplomacy. By a bewildering series of diplomatic maneuvers, he kept everyone off balance and confused. So nobody really knew where Germany stood and hence could not muster the clarity needed to initiate armed conflict. So as long as Bismarck was in charge, Germany was safe. But Bismarck resigned in 1890 and the diplomatic picture became much more stable after that.
But Bismarck's second measure remained in place and Friedman seems to have entirely overlooked its role. Bismarck was from early on protective of the integrity of Austria/Hungary, seeing it from early days as an important potential ally, first to Prussia and later to Germany as a whole. And indeed it was. It was a very large political entity on Germany's Southern border that had impressive armies at its disposal. Not all the troops concerned were of first quality but they were not alone in that and most did eventually perform quite well under Austrian leadership.
So, contrary to Friedman, Germany had no need to fear anyone. The alliance of Germany with Austria was essentially uncrackable and no-one in their right mind would attack such powerful allies. So Germany had no reason to anticipate war and no reason to prepare for it. So a stable peace should have prevailed in Europe. For over 40 years Germany had remained unthreatening and Germany had no need to feel threatened.
Unfortunately, there was someone who was NOT in his right mind. The Russian Tsar knew fully well the close alliance between Austria and Germany but mobilized his vast armies against Austria nonetheless. The Austrian leadership felt able to cope with that but Germany could not afford an Austrian failure so Germany mobilized too and the die was cast.
So I think it is fairly clear that a foolish Russian despot was the cause of WWI. But to infer from that that a popular Russian leader is about to ignite a new conflagration would be reasoning of the shallowest kind.
But WHY did the Tsar mobilize? Contrary to Friedman, it was not over any concern with his borders. It was because of sentimental racism. As many Russians did and still do, he saw the Serbs as racial and linguistic brethren to Russians -- and indeed they were and are. And since Austria and Serbia were in conflict, the Tsar intervened to protect little Serbia against big bully Austria. It was a very ill-judged intervention -- leading the Tsar to lose both his throne and his life.
And once the armies were mobilized, a variety of factors ensured that there would be no turning back for any of the nations involved -- but I have written at length on those factors elsewhere. Borders don't come into it.
So what of Ukraine? Mr Putin has no need to fear anyone, on his borders or not. So what is motivating him?
It is very clear. Russia is staring down the barrel of a demographic disaster. The birthrate is so low that the Russian population is steadily shrinking. So Mr Putin wants to regather all Russians into Russia to postpone the disaster. And because he values Russian lives he has proceeded with great caution.
There was no invasion of Crimea and there has been no invasion of Western Ukraine. Mr Putin cleverly relied on Russian sentimentality for him to be INVITED by the Crimean parliament to take them into his fold. And he is clearly waiting for the same thing to happen in Western Ukraine. Russia will expand but by largely peaceful means only.
The same thing happened in the Russian bits of Georgia. They had declared their independence of Georgia and were well on their way to an engagement with Russia when the Georgians invaded and endeavoured to reassert their control. Faced with a blocking of a peaceful constitutional evolution, Putin kicked the Georgians out by military force. But it was not Putin who initiated the military action and the action ceased once its very limited aims had been achieved.
So let the Eastern Europeans reorganize themselves as best they can. They will only be a threat if the West tries to meddle in the process.
Just a footnote on Crimea: The received Western view seems to be that the independence vote in Crimea was a put-up job, a fraud, a fake. It was not. There were many international observers present who warranted it as fair. See here.