WAMC FOR MARCH 6 2014
DR STEVEN LEIBO IS THE SAGE COLLEGE’S PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL HISTORY & POLITICS
There is something eerily ironic that the Ukrainian crisis has broken out in 2014 exactly one hundred years after the beginning of the World War I. Now, I am not saying that World War III is likely to emerge from this crisis, though frankly for many the stakes — are just as high as those that set off the guns of August. Indeed almost the exact same nationalists emotions of identity that almost Destroyed the world in 1914 are playing out here in some ways eerily familiar.
A hundred years ago Russia was also worried about losing its place in the world if they did not mobilize to help Austria-Hungary Though at that point it was Serbians rather than Ukrainians who were trying to work out their future nationalist aspirations.
But more importantly, what became especially obvious after World War I Is that when empires collapse the rubble takes generations to settle. Indeed, The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire set off battles over who inherited its lands From Hitler’s claims to Austria in the 1930s to the Yugoslavian collapse of the 1990s.
While the collapse of the Ottoman Empire sees us even today still watching a pitched battle over who ultimately will inherit previous Ottoman territory From Jews and Palestinians, to Lebanese, Syrians, Kurds and Iraqi Arabs.
And those two empires broke up almost a hundred years ago! So how could anyone have imagined that the dust from the collapse of the Soviet Union would settle any faster? Sure, the old USSR might have had few supporters but national identity is quite another thing. And when the Soviet Union went down in 1991, It took with it, the old Russian Empire, an identity with infinitely deeper psychic roots In the souls of those who call Russia home.
And yes, it is hardly a surprise that in the chaos of the 1990s Russia itself was too deeply wounded to do much about the loss of empire. But the last fifteen years have seen the rebirth of Russia itself And that rebirth has predictably included a desire to repair some of the damage the 1990s did to Russia’s historical identity, something people from Georgia to Chechnya have come to understand, people who found their own nationalist identity driven emotions clashing with bloody results. Oh sure, Russia might have been willing to accept a loss of influence from Poland to Latvia where the historic and emotional links run less deep in the Russian soul.
But the Ukraine is something entirely different. In fact, given that Russian history literally started in Kiev it is hardly surprising that the Ukraine is at the heart of the Russian historic memory and identity. Not forgetting that Putin’s role in crushing Chechen separatism is at the heart of his current political power over a nation that no doubt experiences the loss of the Ukraine in a fashion similar to the sensations amputees speak of phantom limbs.
And we are talking about a lot more than Russian identity here because the collapse of the old Soviet Union has also allowed the Ukrainian people to more deeply mourn and remember the horrors done to them by Stalin’s henchmen in the early 20s horrors that rivaled some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. No, the politics of nationalist identity and memory run deep and dangerous in this struggle and while it is entirely appropriate that international economic power be employed With the hope of giving decision makers pause about the price of a violent breakdown of relations quite frankly when nationalist identity and communal aspirations are at stake respect for the oh mighty dollar or even the ruble fades away in a flood of emotion likely to turn the next few weeks into some of the most dangerous we have seen in a generation
Oh sure some will be convinced that human reason will prevail, that a close look at the potential dangers will slow all this but that would only be helpful if human beings were fundamentally driven by logic and reason an assumption only the most naive among really hold.