For those trying to keep up with the fast-moving events in Ukraine, it may be helpful to consider some lessons of history. Mistakes made in the past week, added onto developments covering the last two or three centuries, have left the United States and its European allies — in particular the largest of them, Germany — unable to prevent President Vladimir Putin’s Russia from absorbing an as yet undetermined part of a theoretically independent Ukraine.
One lesson of history is contained in the aphorism, “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” It’s attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, who in fact took Vienna twice, and whose capacity to “surprise and outmaneuver his opponents,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russell Mead writes, came from a willingness “to assume risks they would never consider, and so to attack in times and ways they can neither imagine nor plan for.” Putin, another upstart from an obscure backwater, seems to share the same trait.
As for not taking Vienna, consider President Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 insistence that “Russia will be accountable if it invades.” Unhappily, Biden went on to say, “it’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion, and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do.” The White House press office lamely tried to walk back those words.
But after the Feb. 20 Olympic closing ceremonies, Putin’s Feb. 21 speech setting forth his version of history and recognizing the independence of the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, occupied by pro-Russian forces since 2014, the Western response was indeed feckless. Biden announced sanctions on (the presumably negligible) American investments there, and Germany announced (the easily revoked) suspension of certification of the completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running underwater directly from Russia to Germany.
Biden followed up with more sanctions the next day and ordered more troops to the NATO member Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. But that line in the sand leaves Ukraine on the other side, open to Russian attack and bereft of active military support. No one supposes the West will fight to uphold Ukraine.
The blame for this goes back to a failure to “take Vienna.” The George W. Bush administration rolled out the idea of NATO membership for the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia. But Bush was unable to stop Putin from seizing two breakaway provinces of Georgia in 2008.
Similarly, former President Barack Obama, despite his ridicule of Mitt Romney’s anti-Russia statements, was unable to stop Putin from annexing Crimea and effectively seizing Luhansk and Donetsk in 2014. Interestingly, the only president this century during whose term Putin hasn’t seized territory was Donald Trump, a Putin pawn according to the Russian collusion hoax.
Meanwhile, Europe and particularly Germany has become intertangled with Russia thanks to energy policy. Chancellor (1998-2005) Gerhard Schroeder negotiated the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, increasing European dependence on Russian gas. His successor Angela Merkel (2005-21) increased it much further, abruptly decreeing a phaseout of Germany’s nuclear power, scheduled to be completed later this year, and promoting Nord Stream 2.
What’s not widely appreciated is that their policy of strengthening ties with less-advanced but much larger Russia is in line with German tradition. Prussia and Austria, humiliated by Napoleon, defeated him only with hordes of Russian troops. Otto von Bismarck forged his Dreikaiserbund alliance with Austria-Hungary and Russia to prevent a vengeful France from finding an ally to Germany’s east.
Kaiser Wilhelm II ditched the Dreikaiserbund, and Germany was defeated in World War I. Afterward, Germany continued to look east. Weimar Germany spurned Western partners by making the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union in 1922. Nazi Germany and the Soviets signed the Hitler-Stalin pact in August 1939, and war followed eight days later.
Over the centuries, Russia has proved unconquerable (as Napoleon and Hitler found out) and its enormous army has overawed Europe. Tsar Alexander I’s troops dominated post-Napoleonic Europe and Josef Stalin seemed positioned to do so until adroit CIA electioneering defeated postwar Communist parties in France and Italy in 1946 and 1948.
The NATO alliance, as Lord Hastings Ismay said, was designed to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” Moreover, the German people have admirably acknowledged the horrors of the Nazi past and have been understandably reluctant to deploy a major military force again, despite American administrations’ insistence they meet their NATO commitment to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense.
There is plenty to criticize in Biden’s stumbling performance. But Ukraine’s unhappy situation is, once again, the product of much tragic history.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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