History is my passion so my thoughts are constantly going back to what people were thinking and doing as the summer of 1914 started.
They certainly weren’t thinking that an a world war would be under way before the leaves fell. The conflict they were worried about was in Ulster where the loyalists were threatening rebellion over Irish independence. At home the suffragettes battle for the vote commanded the headlines.
Very few saw the danger presented by an interlocking series of treaties between the Great Powers. There hadn’t been a general war for a hundred years since Napoleon’s time.
Now let’s come forward to this summer. Once again there is tension in a part of Europe most people know little about. We are focused on the economic recovery, the rise of UKIP or just running our lives. We have had peace for 70 years, partly because of NATO, an interlocking treaty that guarantees mutual support for the Baltic States and Poland should they be attacked.
Where is our Gavrilo Princip, the obscure Serb who’s assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne triggered the huge conflict? He may be found amongst the pro Russian militias currently destabilising East Ukraine. One of them bragged on TV the other day about not only taking East Ukraine but eventually taking Brussels.
A foolish and ludicrous piece of bravura of course but it made me wonder if we are fully aware of the potential danger we are in a hundred summers on from 1914.
Russia wouldn’t be reckless enough to invade East Ukraine would it? Well don’t be so sure. The Ukrainian army is showing signs of getting off its knees. If it inflicts serious casualties on the pro Russian militias, will Russia stand back?
Well Vladimir Putin has already annexed the Ukraine and lost his place at the table of the G8 world leaders.
Most significantly of all he is leading a country that is relying on military shows of strength to mask economic weakness at home. It is the classic formula for recklessness.
So suppose he seized East Ukraine. NATO would not react because Ukraine is not a member. What might well happen is a destabilisation of the Baltic States. Russian minorities in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia could well start clamouring to be reunited with Mother Russia. What happens if those revolts are put down by force. Would Putin be deterred from intervening by the fact that they are members of NATO? Probably, but only if America, Britain and France made it clear we would be prepared to start World War 3. Would our politicians have the mandate from the people to make such a threat? Can you see St Peter’s Square in Manchester or St George’s Plateau in Liverpool full of people singing “We don’t want to fight them, but by jingo if we do?”
No, me neither. After all this is 2014 the age of the computer, social media and comfortable living. The army does our fighting. The days of mass mobilisation are over. But if Putin truly believes this, then we would be in great peril. The dangers of miscalculation that were present in that summer a hundred years ago are present this summer.