This summer is the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, the “great seminal catastrophe” of the last century, in the memorable phrase of the diplomatist-scholar George Kennan. As a historian who has spent much of his life studying the events of 1914, I had long looked forward to this centenary, and the necessary reexamination of the July Crisis of that fateful summer that the anniversary would bring. I did not expect it to include a second July Crisis.
Exactly one hundred years ago today, Vienna presented its fateful ultimatum to Belgrade, demanding that Serbia clarify its role in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo some three weeks before. Vienna expected their demands would be rebuffed, getting Austro-Hungarian generals the war against “Dog Serbia” that they had long craved, and so they did. That did not work out quite as planned, but then again practically nobody’s war plans did that terrible August.
Today Europe faces a new July Crisis, brought about by the Moscow-engineered Special War in Ukraine and particularly Vladimir Putin’s unwillingness to accept any responsibility for his side’s downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last week, killing 298 innocents. Instead, the Kremlin has given the world lies, obfuscations, tampering with evidence, and worse. Anyone expecting minimal decency from the Russians has been shocked to witness drunk “separatists” (who are actually under Moscow’s control) hiding mangled corpses and sawing apart wreckage. Those better acquainted with Putin and his ilk are less astonished.
Showing their intent, Russian proxies in southeastern Ukraine today shot down two Ukrainian Su-25 attack jets: there will be no backing down by the Kremlin, in the face of world pressure, rather the doubling-down that has worked well for Putin many times in the past. His tenure has faced numerous crises that might have cut short his drive to absolute power in Moscow — the Ryazan apartment bombings in 1999, the loss of the submarine Kursk in 2000, the Beslan terror atrocity in 2004, the death of the Polish government in an air crash at Smolensk in 2010, to name only a few — yet by pushing back and baldfaced lying, Putin and his retinue held on to power. So they are again.
Those who expected anything different now were uninformed or naive. It would be wholly in his Chekist character for Putin to engineer a distraction elsewhere (Moldova ought to be on alert), and the West should be prepared for it. It was evident last year, finally, that the post-Cold War era was firmly over, as the Poles realized first, as they know the Russians too well. The Dutch, having lost almost 200 citizens on the Malaysian Boeing, are talking tough today about firmer sanctions on Moscow. This is to be welcomed but the West must be prepared for more and worse.
Putin views the West with almost undisguised contempt, as ineffectual and weak decadents set on self-imposed decline. The Kremlin expects NATO and the EU to fold, and perhaps they will. But if Moscow’s proxy war in southeastern Ukraine waxes rather than wanes now, the trajectory of this conflict will soon become difficult to predict. Kyiv has made clear that it intends to liberate its territory, with consequences that the Kremlin will not approve of and will probably resist with greater force. There is no end of painful irony in the fact that Russian intelligence has brought about this July Crisis, just as it did the last one.
We have heard for decades that another “1914 scenario” has been rendered impossible for myriad reasons: interconnected economies, no more secret-yet-entangling alliances, people are so much smarter and more civilized now, and above all nuclear weapons mean nobody would be stupid enough to risk great power war. Let us hope that the optimists are as right today as they were wrong exactly a century ago, as Europe slipped into the abyss and ten million died. The consequences of failure now are unimaginable.