All entries for Monday 24 February 2014

February 24, 2014

Kiev, Europe's Dangerous Crossroads

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26312008

Europe has been at this crossroads before. An ancient multi-national empire creaks dangerously under the strains of modern nationalism and separatism. Its rulers fear the mob, and fast-moving events. It fears especially the example of a neighbouring independent state, once its colony. Above all, it fears the future.

A century ago this was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the Hohenzollern dynasty, ruling in Vienna, determined to crush the rising challenge of Serbian nationalism. In planning war on Serbia, the Austrian government knew that Serbia had a powerful ally, Imperial Russia. The Austrians knew they would face strong resistance. They feared their enemies, but they feared the future more. They gambled on war.

Austria was encouraged in its war aims by the rising power of Germany, which expected to take advantage of the resulting conflict to settle accounts with its own rivals and shift the balance decisively in its own favour. This too was a gamble.

Today the ancient, creaking multi-national empire is Russia itself, where the Kremlin looks to events in the neighbouring Ukraine, once ruled from Moscow, with mounting anxiety.

Note what I am not saying. I'm not saying that history repeats itself. It doesn't repeat itself at all, never mind exactly one hundred years later. Over a century the world has changed in too many ways for this to be a nice laboratory experiment with controlled conditions under which similar reagents reliably produce a similar result. All that history can tell us is some of the risks in the situation -- and not all of them, because there is always something latent or new that did not happen before.

But I am saying that Europe is at a dangerous crossroads. A popular uprising has rid Kiev of the corrupt Yanukovych regime. In this moment, 45 million Ukrainians face an unknown future. That's their problem. It's not an easy problem. If it had been easy, former president Yushchenko and former PM Tymoshenko would have solved their first time around, in 2005. They would not have fallen out and Yanukovych would not have been elected president in 2010.

The one thing that Ukrainians cannot change is their location. Russia was, is, and will remain their powerful neighbour. Many Ukrainians speak Russian and feel Russian. Whether the reformers like it or not, they have to take this into account.

The problem for Russia's president Putin begins with the fact that events in Kiev look set to put an end to his dream of uniting Ukraine with Russia and Belarus in a Eurasian Union. Worse than that, Ukraine in this moment embodies an existential threat to his rule. If the people can get rid of Yanukovych, they can get rid of Putin.

The problem for 700 million Europeans in this moment is: What will Russia do now? Does Russia have the will and the capability intervene in Ukraine by whatever means present themselves -- openly or under cover, by inducements, threats, or force? Financial inducements have been tried. Repression from within has been tried. Both have failed. What else can Russia do?

When rulers feel their survival is at stake, the normal restraints and inhibitions can melt away. They may not act rashly or precipitately; they will still calculate and if calculation suggests waiting they will wait. But what enters the calculation and with what weight may change. And pessimism is a dangerous element, because fear of the future may tilt the calculation in favour of taking a gamble on precipitate action today.

If the alternative is to be chased out of the presidential palace, the resort to violence may no longer look so bad. That's what Yanukovych showed us last week. I wonder what Putin is thinking about this morning.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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