Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ukraine in 2014 is Bulgaria in 1878

The Historical Framework

When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to cajole Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to have a chat with his Ukrainian counterpart in Paris last week, everyone involved should have realized that Berlin would have been a better location. And, when planning seating arrangements, it should have been made clear that Ukraine would not be invited to the discussions. This is because what is playing out in Ukraine right now before incredulous reporters, boggled western analysts and a bewildered local population is a rerun of what took place in the same region 140 years ago. Unlike today, however, the great powers of 19th century Europe spoke the same language, understood the difference between long-term objectives and short term Pyrrhic gains and recognized that events cannot long persist in a vacuum.

In 1876, the Bulgarians led an uprising against a flagging Ottoman Empire, which had been in near constant territorial and economic retreat since the turn of the century. Pan-Slavic idealism swept across Russia as western reporters telegraphed every form of atrocity committed by the Turks, mostly hired irregulars and criminals sent by Constantinople to crush the revolt as the Ottomans fended off rebellions elsewhere. Russia had been humiliated in 1856 when Sevastopol (as important to Russia's prestige then as it is today) fell after an eleven month siege by British, French, Turkish and Sardinian forces in the Crimean War. The Russians lost two of their greatest naval heroes in the defense of the port, an estimated 100,000 killed and wounded and the Black Sea Fleet (Supreme Russian Commander Count Menshikov ordered it sunk to prevent the allied navy from gaining access to the harbor). 

Alexander II was moving haphazardly forward with restructuring Russia's economy and rebuilding its international reputation in the wake of the Crimean defeat and his emancipation of the Russian serfs in 1861. He vowed to Prince Gorchakov, his foreign minister, that any intervention against the Ottomans to "rescue" Russia's "Bulgarian brothers" must not be a repeat of 1856. 

It wasn't. Through a series of brilliantly executed land campaigns and amphibious assaults, the Russian-Romanian-Bulgarian alliance won a decisive victory over the Turks and pressed on to Adrianopole (today Edirne); this placed Russian forces within striking distance of Constantinople and a full-scale invasion of the Ottoman heartland. General Mikhail Skobelev urged the powers in St. Petersburg to give him the order to press the attack and secure for Russia the redemption dreamed by every Slav nationalist since Ivan IV (i.e., Constantinople back in Christian hands and a clear path for Russia into the Mediterranean).

But instead of moving forward, Alexander halted his forces in their tracks and foisted upon the Ottomans the humiliating Treaty of San Stefano. Romania had already gained its independence and this treaty would carve out a massive new Bulgarian/Russian-client state, while effectively pushing Turkey out of the Balkans.

Why did the Russians, flushed with victory, suddenly bring their forces to heel? The answer lay in the realities of 19th century European power politics. The Turks were beaten, but the ever ominous western powers (Britain, France and now, after 1871, united Germany) stood poised to check any Russian advance which threatened their overseas possessions and a dangerous reconfiguration of the European balance of power. In short, the West stood aside to let Russia have its war (a "small victorious war" as some would later call such conflicts) with Turkey, but acquiescence was conditional on Russia's not overplaying its hand.

When the western powers saw the draft hammered out at San Stefano, they were apoplectic. German Chancellor Bismarck oriented his European policy to keeping France isolated and Britain and Russia pacified. For a united Germany, not even a decade old, to have to deal with a potential second Crimea between Britain and Russia was something he was not prepared to allow. And so, Bismarck convened the powers to Berlin for a congress in June, 1878. Bulgaria, which was not invited, would have maximal autonomy (but not independence) from the Ottoman Empire and would be shrunk to half the size desired by Russia at San Stefano. Britain obtained Cyprus, Austria received Bosnia and Russia got token lands in the Caucasus. Turkey was beaten, but not allowed to be completely crushed.

The matter with Ukraine 

While the faces of the players have changed, the similarity of the situation in which the powers find themselves today when compared with 1878 is palpable.  The U.S. has eclipsed Britain, but Angela Merkel's Germany has thrust itself, for better or worse, into the role of mediator and agent of de-escalation with Moscow. As in 1878, the powers are squabbling over a territory torn along lingual, religious and ethnic lines in a conflict stretching back centuries (think 1648 and not 1991, as the official narrative holds).

Poland was partitioned three times and ceased to exist for over a century, but the Poles had a long history of not only independence, but status as a European great power. The Ukrainians no sooner obtained their independence form Poland than they concluded an agreement with Russia, which pressed Sweden and Poland out to become the regional hegemon of Eastern Europe by the middle-18th century. Add the painful legacies of the Russian Civil War, when Ukraine and the Crimea were centers of counter-revolutionary activity, WWII and the Soviet period to economic chaos, corruption and strong-man rule by Leonid Kuchma during most of its twenty years of actual independence and you have a "country" suffering from near schizophrenic disarray. And this before Crimea even enters the equation. Donetsk and Lviv share the same borders, but not much else. The people have not come to terms with what being a Ukrainian means, much less how to go about properly handling past fissures that most countries would never be able to overcome (the Belgians could not form a proper government for over a year because of the enmity between the Flemish and Walloon populations, and that is without everything just mentioned).

And yet, all of the above is completely irrelevant to what is happening in Ukraine and how to handle the situation in a durable fashion as far as the great powers are concerned, if all of the great powers accept their roles and responsibilities. Barack Obama is no Benjamin Disraeli, as is repeatedly demonstrated with his esoteric pronouncements about violations of the Ukrainian constitution and international law. The issue is not American hypocrisy and failed overseas interventions or how none of what is happening in Ukraine as far as the U.S. is concerned has anything to do with peoples or constitutions. The issue is that when one power speaks Russian and the other speaks English without an interpreter, nobody understands each other. The language that must be spoken in Ukraine is that of narrow national interest and power politics. Bismarck could not predict how successful Russia would be against Turkey, but intervened just as things seemed to get out of hand to prevent events from spiraling out of control.

Why is the West so insistent on preserving a quasi-legitimate government in Kiev backed by only half the population while ratcheting up pressure for Russia to accept a volatile border state which may well be flooded with NATO installations and EU investment? Moreover, if the objective is to undermine Putin and the current Russian government, why back a nationalist Ukrainian government borne out of street battles whose first order of business was to shelve a regional Russian-language law and grant ultra-nationalist factions control over the interior ministry and security services? Instead of the attention remaining on the astronomical cost of the Olympics in the subtropics (as Russian opposition leader and former governor Boris Nemtsov calls the Sochi spectacle) and the 2-4 year prison sentences handed down to twenty year olds protesting Putin's inauguration, the West has allowed Putin to paint himself as a protector of Russian identity and a gatherer of historical Russian lands. Where Yeltsin failed in Chechnya in 1994, Putin might well succeed in Ukraine in 2014. As has been reported, the developing situation on Russia's borders has pushed the Moscow government's popularity to its highest level in two years. Not only has the West completely botched the media narrative it wanted, but it now has a broke, unstable government to care for in Kiev without any real plan for what to do next.

Back to Berlin

What should they do in Washington, London and Moscow? My recommendation would be an extended lunch with Angela in Berlin to hammer out concessions and preserve the balance of power in Eastern and Central Europe before any more foolish mistakes are made (read former Secretary Clinton's comparison of Putin to Hitler last week). How would the outcome look like and will it last? Here are my suggestions:

1. Russia retains control of Crimea and the March 16 referendum as to the peninsula's political status is accepted a priori; 
2. The Kiev government allows a vote on greater autonomy (not independence) for the eastern portions of Ukraine with a guarantee that Russia keeps its forces in check after consolidating its final re-acquisition of Crimea; and
3. Russia accedes to the current Kiev government remaining in place with a guarantee of its not ascending to NATO and a commitment by the West to pressure the new authorities to neutralize increasingly influential nationalist factions.

The U.S. of 2014 is the Britain of 1878. What kept Britain dominant throughout the 19th century was its pursuing a limited, balance of power approach to diplomacy between the European powers. The U.S. is not now in a position for a major international adventure and nor should it seek one. Disraeli's threat to get on a train back to London and ask for war if Bismarck did not accede to his demands in Berlin made the difference in 1878. Nobody is saying the Mr. Kerry or Mr. Obama should do the same with Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Putin because matters should not even be allowed to get to this point. The aim must be to give Russia a hallow victory while not upending the delicate balance which presently exists in Eastern Europe. Speak the language of power politics, change the narrative and make Moscow understand the offer which is on the table. As for the Ukrainians, it is the duty of great powers to avoid war and shun the battles of the past. As with the Bulgarians, who were not invited to Berlin in 1878 at Russia's insistence, I think we should be the first to tell Kiev that the task of crisis-resolution has completely fallen to others.

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding background and relevance, it is much appreciated to see a careful review of previous historical events and tie them to current affairs.