The combination of contrasting historical narratives and an explosive political and demographic mix in Ukraine requires a lasting solution. This should include a unified federal Ukraine with meaningful autonomy for its regions and the right to select its own direction, though Kiev would not be able to enter NATO in the foreseeable future. With a modicum of goodwill and common sense, plus a genuine desire on all sides for a mutually acceptable solution, this is almost certainly within reach. The alternative is for Ukraine to lurch from one crisis to the next, never quite knowing exactly which specific event might trigger a full-scale confrontation between NATO and Russia in which military leaders on both sides would demand immediate and drastic measures to avoid being hit first.
One more look at the past is thus in order: Europeans were relieved when Austria’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia did not lead to war because Russia was still weak after its disastrous conflict with Japan and chose to retreat. New crises flared up in the Balkans over the next few years, but ended without general conflagration. Unfortunately, the brief periods between crises were misleading pauses in an ongoing struggle rather than times of peace. Like today, the forces at work extended far beyond the narrow disputes that erupted in the Balkans and elsewhere and few connected the dots—including to the second Morocco crisis in 1911, when Russia opted to support France after Paris promised loans that Berlin refused. As before World War I, there is much more than one point of friction that could produce a devastating conflict.
This drawn-out prelude to war gave Russia an opportunity to strengthen its military and build an alliance with its traditional nemesis, England. By the time of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in June 1914, the Russian Empire was prepared to stand its ground. The assassination was the catalyst for war, not the cause.
To the last moment, Nicholas II and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm each thought that he could avoid war. When that moment came, however, Helmuth von Moltke, chief of Germany’s General Staff, persuaded the kaiser that Berlin had no choice but to order full and immediate mobilization—something Graham Allison recently described in The National Interest. Meanwhile, Russia’s military leaders persuaded a reluctant Nicholas II to take a similar decision, as otherwise the Germans—with their superior railroad network—could mobilize and attack first. As they say, the rest is history.
Dimitri K. Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest.