Putin has complete dominance of Russia but the EU governments are unpopular
Published 01/08/2014 | 02:30
Exactly 100 years after the outbreak of World War One, an unlikely source has brought the question of World War Three into the public discourse. David Cameron says Britain will not start World War Three.
Is he joking? Nobody ever thought the unwarlike British prime minister would - or could - do anything of the kind. His country, though still important, is no longer a military giant. But the mere mention of the possibility of the ultimate catastrophe makes us look back at a daunting history and forward to issues which we might prefer to ignore.
For the last two generations we have lived under the shadow, but also under the protection, of nuclear weapons.
The "balance of terror" made world war impossible, or so we thought. No country could risk using its nuclear armoury for fear of retaliation leading, in all likelihood, to the collapse of civilisation.
The fall of the Soviet Union ended the confrontation between the two superpowers. Optimists forecast a new, peaceful and prosperous world order. The new order turned out to be worse than the old one, but at least Europe was safe.
The optimists forgot that Europe had blundered into war in 1914 and that all through history blunders were repeated, not corrected.
That is not to say that the Ukraine crisis will escalate into a disaster comparable with those of 1914 and 1939. Indeed, a little wisdom can prevent it from spreading outside the region now affected - the southern borders of Russia.
Russia holds the key to the crisis and the solution. There can be no solution without the participation of Vladimir Putin. Western policy, if one can call it a policy, can only delay or prevent a solution instead of promoting one.
Of course Putin has behaved badly. His annexation of Crimea could be defended because the Crimeans support union with Russia. Much worse have been his moves to destabilise parts of the Balkans and the Caucasus bordering his country. Within Ukraine, there can be little doubt that terrorists armed by him shot down Flight MK17 two weeks ago.
But the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and the United States - and strengthened this week by the G7 - will not bring peace to Ukraine, much less force him to abandon his ambition to restore his own country to the status of a superpower.
In fact, it is quite possible that the sanctions will hurt the countries that impose them (including, by the way, Ireland) more than they hurt Russia.
Putin has many advantages. He has the overwhelming support of the people he rules, which is not the case in the West. He has an abundance of oil and natural gas. Whatever else the sanctions may do, they will certainly force up energy prices, perhaps causing another recession.
Now we learn that the most powerful country in Western Europe has actually entered into negotiations with him, though they have been suspended since the shooting down of Flight MK17.
This is a most remarkable move by the German government. It breaks with EU policy - or supposed EU policy. It suggests thst Angela Merkel has taken note of the long-standing criticism of her country as an economic giant and a political pygmy.
It also points up some of the grave weaknesses of the European Union. Soon we expect to hear the conclusions of the stress tests to determine the viability of EU banks. These tests are a step along the road to banking and fiscal union and, ultimately, political union.
Can one imagine the populations of the EU member states agreeing to political union?
While Putin enjoys almost complete dominance over the Russian people, EU governments are mostly unpopular. Their peoples have little appetite for the sanctions. They would assuredly favour negotiations.
Moreover, the shape of a workable settlement is quite easy to imagine: Ukraine in the EU but not in Nato. Autonomy for the Russian-speaking part of the country. Free elections, and respect for their results. The present Ukrainian government came to power by means of a coup, not an election.
It can be done. It has to be done. We live in 2014, not 1914. The rulers of Europe will make as many blunders as their predecessors, but none of them will start World War Three. Instead, they will fumble their way through every crisis and cling to every wrong decision, but they will manage to maintain an uneasy peace. It's as much as we can hope for, and it could be a lot worse.