As Russia mobilises its young men to the war in Ukraine, Larry Attree warns that the ghosts of 1914 call on us to be wary of those who oversimplify the situation and glibly downplay the risks of confrontation and escalation. Navigating the dangers requires a more nuanced analysis and a more responsible strategy.

Anyone grappling with the Ukraine crisis would do well to read Chris Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers‘. It is a mesmerising account of how Europe went to war in 1914, which resonates with today’s situation in several ways. 

Fundamentally, the tragedy of the First World War resulted from the inherent instability of a world in which nations continually sought to advance their security-economic sphere of influence at each other’s expense. In such a world, once one nation is perceived as trying to strengthen and expand, the others feel as if any failure to hold that country back and to compete on the same terms could expose them to future defeat and humiliation. In its fine portraiture of the players in these empire games, Clark’s book offers a powerful reminder of how important it is to maintain the most valuable, and still largely intact, cornerstone of post-colonial multilateralism, the moratorium on changing borders by force. 

It is disturbing to recall the great powers’ failure to imagine a way of interacting that moved beyond the dog-eat-dog imperialism and colonialism that led them into the Great War and all the troubles that came in its wake. If we have stumbled back into such an era already, or fall further into it from this point, heaven help us. In this sense it appears that promoting peace does entail effectively opposing attempts – whether by Russia, China and indeed Western powers and their allies – to place unwilling lands and peoples under their dominion – while at the same time carefully navigating the self-evident dangers of doing so.

Provocation, misperception and the onset of Europe’s Great War

Another important element of the path to avertable tragedy in 1914 was the skewed way in which all the main players looked at the situation. Austria-Hungary, and behind it Germany, acted less unreasonably in pursuit of their interests than their rivals, and yet were persistently seen by the Russian, French and British governments as unreasonable and aggressive. 

Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been a key voice for peace and minority rights in a declining but somewhat benign empire. After his murder by Serbian irredentists – tacitly sponsored by Belgrade – Vienna had justly pushed Serbia to investigate and shutdown its violent nationalist networks. Serbia, at the time, was in some respects a nascent nation struggling to emerge from beneath the hegemony of two declining empires – the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Yet it was complicit in the Archduke’s assassination, was committed to a project of expanding into all lands where Serbs lived, and was brutal to non-Serbs when doing so.

The crisis that led to the war might have been settled by some far-sighted diplomacy to defuse the clash of Austro-Hungarian and Serbian interests. Yet efforts to keep the crisis local were doomed – not least by France’s role in pushing Russia to mobilise not only against Austria in defence of Serbia but also against Austria’s ally, Germany. 

Russia’s mobilisation to back an unjust and unstable client (Serbia) was, in its own view, something which it was forced into to protect its sphere of influence from the aggressive posturing of Austria, which had formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908. As they pulled one another into the disastrous conflict, the Entente powers distorted Austria’s perspective and dismissed its right to defend itself – as well as spuriously ascribing blame to Germany for escalating the crisis. Thus Russia mobilised its forces first, before Austria-Hungary or Germany, but saw itself as merely reacting to their aggression, with its back against the wall. 

For its part, France needed Russia to mobilise, and against Germany as well as Austria. Seeing Germany as a threat and aggrieved against it for past losses, France funded Russia’s military build-up and foisted on it an anti-German strategy. This was French President Raymond Poincaré’s strategy for the ‘Balkan inception’ of a war he wanted, with a Germany that was thereby forced to fight on two fronts. 

Britain’s fateful choice

A fascinating fact to reflect on is that, in spite of the Entente that British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey had negotiated with France, and Britain’s fraying pre-war alliance with Russia, Britain actually came close to sitting the conflict out. Indeed it is hard to see why Prime Minister Asquith, Grey and Churchill decided and managed to push for an intervention when this was a conflict in which Russia mobilised forces before Austria and Germany.

Beneath the fog of misperception, paranoia and bias, it was perceptible that Britain’s allies were the aggressors, and Britain arguably was not obligated to help them out of the quarrel they’d got themselves into. Yet the logic that apparently prevailed in London was that if France and Russia won, how would they then view a Britain that had left them for dead? But if Germany and Austria prevailed, what friends would Britain have on the continent? 

In retrospect it is heartbreaking to ponder the benefit to Britain had it indeed stayed neutral in a war which was – as Grey well knew – initiated in large part due to the misperceptions and aggression of its supposed ‘friends’ on the continent. What devastation and human tragedy could it have avoided? And, far from leaving Britain in any way vulnerable, how prosperous might its future have been had the pointless war exhausted all the other powers while Britain tended to its own affairs?

Yet voices for war prevailed with narrow accounts of the imperatives and moral obligations Britain had, a failure to weigh the dubious role of its allies in bringing about the war, and a refusal to acknowledge the elements of justice in Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia. More fundamentally, Britain’s leaders and press abjectly failed to identify the real cost of the war ahead to Britain’s people and future prospects. 

History, hubris and hindsight

When reading Clark’s masterful book, the horrors of the destruction ahead loom over the complacent and irresponsible assumptions and arguments made by the key players. As reckless politicians today confidently assert that Putin’s nuclear threats are a bluff, and that he can be faced down by military humiliation, one cannot help but wonder whether similar lessons will one day be drawn about this period, in which nuance in understanding and response strategy are all too easily drowned out by the self-seeking sabre-rattling of Western leaders and the over-confidence of a belligerent commentariat. 

‘The Sleepwalkers’ closes with scenes of astonished, mournful men assembling to calls for mobilisation in villages across Europe and Russia. Yet the incomprehension of many of those called to fight at the time didn’t give rise to armies that capitulated or gave in easily, or the short war that many predicted. Despite reports of the reluctance of many Russian men to join the fight in Ukraine, no one should assume that today’s crisis will not metastasize with a destructive force that we now find hard to contemplate.

Uncircumspect calls for holding nerve and accelerating the violence are dangerous, and debates about the war need to envisage pathways that, yes, reject forcible changes to borders and neo-imperialism, but which can also lead to de-escalation and, ultimately, coexistence, in spite of all the crimes and provocations that have brought us to this point. 

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Eva Puhova, via Shutterstock.

One thought on “Russia’s Mobilisation and the Ghosts of 1914

  1. I just read Sleepwalkers. Everyone in that story thinks that preventing war must be someone else’s responsibility, that their actions are not the ones triggering the conflict. I don’t think that’s the case with Ukraine. This is simpler, both politically and in terms of moral responsibility, although one can’t help thinking that NATO and the EU did not need to antagonise Russia as much as they apparently have. What do you see as pathways that “lead to de-escalation and co-existence”? It seems to me that unless the Ukrainians can throw the Russians out, as the Afghanis, with American help, threw them out in 1989, there won’t be any peace. As well as WW1 we have to look at WW2. Putin is the aggressor. He seized Crimea and the Donbas, just as Hitler seized Czechoslovakia. He invaded Ukraine, just as Hitler invaded Poland. He keeps pushing his luck, hoping his dire threats will keep everyone at bay. How do you stop someone like that? I am genuinely curious. I have a friend, Hugh Miall, whom you may know, and we argue about this. I’m not convinced that there is any alternative for the Ukrainians but to fight. And I don’t see how we can avoid supporting them in that fight, with everything they need, if we don’t want even more violence to ensue.

Leave a Reply