Though the now trite-sounding quote is often attributed to George Santayana, it was actually that old conservative Edmund Burke who first warned that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Whoever first said it, however, was on to something, as the unfolding drama in Ukraine and Europe demonstrates.
Some things don’t change and are ignored only at one’s peril. The United States and the European Union spent millions of dollars proselytizing inside Ukraine, urging those within that troubled nation who identify with the West rather than Russia to seek membership in the EU, with the hope that like other former possessions of the Soviet Union, she might not just gravitate toward the West but, eventually, even join the NATO alliance.
The problem with this enterprise is that those who stitched it together failed to take into account Moscow’s historic quest for a warm-water port, which she finally acquired in Crimea and was committed to holding, along with the Russian military’s belief that the defense of “Mother Russia” requires the maintenance of “buffer” states of the sort that had facilitated the sort of “defense in depth” that allowed czars and commissars to defeat Western invaders.
The consequences have been both tragic and predictable. Russian President Vladimir Putin was about a hundred times more committed to preventing Ukraine from moving west as the EU was to promoting it. First, he tried to protect Russia’s historic interests with petrodollars. When that failed, he exploited the inbred Russian nationalism of Russian minorities within Crimea and eastern Ukraine to take to the streets in support of his own forces.
The ethnic tension within Ukraine is mirrored in other nations on Russia’s periphery, and is generating angst if not paranoia among all who fear that Russia’s modern czar has found a formula that will allow him to re-create part of the empire they all thought had vanished forever with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Their angst is certainly justified, as it has become clear in recent weeks that neither the United States nor the nations of the EU have much stomach for standing up to a resurgent Russia.
In 1994, Ukraine surrendered not only her nuclear weapons, but many defensive small arms in exchange for a promise that the United States, the EU and Russia would respect and guarantee the integrity of her borders. Instead of providing aid today in the form of some of the arms Ukraine surrendered then, the United States apparently feels it has fulfilled its part of that agreement by providing a little food and a few sleeping bags to those who may be called upon to fight the Russian military. The EU has done even less, in part because they need Russia’s natural gas, in part because they spend so little on their own defense establishments that they probably don’t even have enough sleeping bags for their own troops, and in part because none of them care nearly as much about the people of Ukraine as they claimed while trying to entice them to join the EU.
It is clear that Mr. Putin understands his country’s history and the power of nationalism. He knows what he wants and that his goals are consistent with those of the leaders who came before him. The communists wanted more, of course, but every Russian leader — pre-communist, communist and post-communist — has shared Mr. Putin’s basic view of his country’s interests.
What Mr. Putin is discovering is that no one in the West these days is willing or able to do much either to check Russia’s aggression or to stand up for their friends. The United States under President Obama’s leadership is content to issue rhetorical denunciations, insult Mr. Putin by claiming he runs a second-rate country that doesn’t understand the times in which we live, and deny he and his friends visas to visit the United States.
For all the talk about the soft power of the European Union, Europe resembles and acts more like the old Habsburg Empire than a modern power. Poland looks to the EU for support in its time of need, but is finding it as reliable an ally as the Germans found Austria-Hungary in the lead up to the Great War. Germany then, like Poland now, feared the growing strength of Russia, but feared her ally might be less than steadfast in a crisis.
Indeed, the words of Germany’s foreign minister then sounds like what Poles, Latvians and others must be thinking today about their reliance on the EU. Historian Margaret McMillan quotes German Foreign Minister Bernard von Bulow warning his countrymen some years before the war began of his fear that in a real crisis, Austria-Hungary “would lose its nerve and fall into the clutches of Russia as the terrified dove falls to the snake.”
Historians are still debating the causes of the First World War, but most agree that a major contributing factor was the weakness rather than strength of the Habsburg Empire. It was rendered far less powerful than her leaders’ rhetoric because it wasn’t so much a country and reliable ally as a ragtag collection of peoples with different interests, who spoke different languages and didn’t really want to be part of a central enterprise. This description that might equally apply to the EU today, which cannot act in anything approaching a unified manner.
Today’s policies are being driven by people in the process of repeating a history of which they know little or who, like Mr. Obama, think history is irrelevant to today’s world.
We, like the people of Ukraine and other nations, can only hope that it is not all of us who will be doomed to repeat the past because of his naivete.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.