All of a sudden it’s the eighteenth century again

Stone the crows! History has well and truly re-started with a second crisis in the Crimea over similar issues as the first. In 1852, Moscow attacked the Ottoman Empire in Moldavia ostensibly to assist oppressed Russian speakers. This annoyed the British and the French who invaded the Crimean Peninsula, hoping to bottle up the Russian navy and keep it out of the Mediterranean.[i]

The Turks are gone, but Russian control of Crimea is back on the agenda. Unless, of course, the comparison is even older. Three centuries back in fact. In 1714, the Treaty of Rastatt ended the War of the Spanish Succession, which had to do with the usual swapping of provinces in the pursuit of royal prestige.[ii]

What we are seeing is diplomacy reverting to the long-term norm, with ordinary people finding they have different rulers overnight and soldiers lining up for fights started by the egos and ambitions of remote rulers. Certainly, history makes a considerable case for returning the Crimea to Russia. (Although try telling that to the Crimean Tartars who were there first)[iii]. But Russian president, Vladimir Putin is playing the nationalist card with bigger objectives in mind; remember how this stoush started with protestors pushing a Moscow puppet president out of Kiev?

The big difference now is that only some of the powers have dusted off the diplomatic playbooks.

The Europeans are attempting to appease, again, a leader with territorial demands – NATO’s response is all but non-existent.[iv] To an extent this is understandable. The Germans, for obvious reasons, are not really in a position to make threats against Russia especially over the Crimea – Sevastopol was besieged during World War II just like Leningrad.[v]  Even so, the collective European nerve has deteriorated since they lined up with the US and Britain in the Balkans crises of 15 years ago.

The US is acting as if the world order it oversaw from the end of the Soviet empire to Gulf War II still applies, when it manifestly doesn’t. It will not intervene to assist Ukraine against Russian ambitions to carve off provinces that appeal.

Understandably so. When George Bush removed the despicable Saddam Hussein in the hope that an Iraqi democracy would make the Middle East a safer, saner place he was howled done. Indeed the howling continues. Consider Brian Toohey’s comparison of Gulf War II with the Russian move back into the Crimea:

As invasions go, it’s been pretty mild – at least at the time of writing. There has been no massive “shock and awe” bombing of the capital, unlike the opening of the US-UK-Australian 2003 invasion of Iraq. Russia’s behaviour deserves to be condemned as illegal, but so did the much more destructive invasion of Iraq in clear defiance of the UN Security Council. But politicians in the US, the UK and Australia, who supported the invasion of Iraq, vent their outrage at this latest invasion.[vi]

You can guess what the usual political suspects all over the West would say if the US stood up for Ukraine.

No wonder that President Obama is acting as if he is above the great power diplomacy and contingent conflict that so appalled his predecessors – notably the third president who used his inaugural address to advocate “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”[vii]

Which means, unless the Russian economy takes a serious dive and President Putin backs off, Ukraine is on its own. This sends a signal to Jerusalem and Tehran, two towns where history never looked like ending.

In Tehran, the regime will notice that the West has no stomach for a fight – which means that, for Iran, sanctions against its nuclear program are as bad as it gets. Not that economic pressure isn’t a problem, especially when compounded by corruption and economic mismanagement.

Thanks to bans on Iran exporting oil and financial restrictions, the Iranian economy (not in strong shape to start with) shrank by 1.9 per cent in 2012 and 1.3 per cent last year. Government revenue has halved and inflation is running at 40 per cent.[viii] President Hassan Rouhani is prepared to slow the nuclear program, but just for six months, in return for a temporary lift in sanctions.[ix] But the Crimean crisis will confirm to harder heads that the US will not start bombing while the scars of the Iraq invasion are fresh. [x]

This is likely the reason conservatives, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are increasing criticism of President Rouhani’s nuclear slow down. [xi]

The way the West is leaving Russia to reoccupy Crimea will not be lost on the Israelis either. They will see it as what occurs to countries that abandon their ability to defend themselves. Ukraine inherited a nuclear arsenal when the USSR broke up but disarmed in the middle 1990s, in return for money and Western promises of security.[xii]

This was a good deal for the world, the fewer powers with nuclear weapons the better, but look where it has got Ukraine. As Walter Russell Mead puts it: “The choice here could not be more stark. Keep your nukes and keep your land. Give up your nukes and get raped.” [xiii]

There is nothing good about being back in diplomatic history. There were wars all over the world throughout the eighteenth century over who ruled bits of Spain and Austria, Poland and Bavaria. But it is where we are and where we stay until, or if, Europe ever recovers its courage and the US regains its confidence.

Which everybody in Asia, from Japan to Australia, should hope will be soon. Because China will also be watching what occurs in the Crimea

For bespoke policy campaigns call the Crows


Stephen Matchett



[i] (UK) National Archives, “Crimea, 1854” @ recovered on March 8

[ii] Elena Steingrad, “Louis XIV: War of Spanish Succession,” @ recovered on March 8

[iii] Peter Kenyon, “As Russians return, Crimean Tartars fear repeat of history,” National Public Radio March 3 @ recovered on March 8

[iv] Simon Tisdall, “West’s puny response to Ukraine crisis will not deter Vladimir Putin,” The Guardian March 2

[v] Steven Lee Meyers, David M Herszenhorn and Rick Gladstone. “For first time, Kremlin signals it is prepared to annex Crimea,” New York Times, March 7

[vi] Brian Toohey, “Media’s misleading take on potential problems in Ukraine,” Australian Financial Review, March 8

[vii] Thomas Jefferson, “First inaugural address,” March 4 1801 @ recovered on March 8

[viii] BBC News, “Q&A: Iran sanctions,” January 20 @ recovered on March 8

[ix] Rick Gladstone and Thomas Erdbrink, “Temporary nuclear deal with Iran takes effect,” New York Times, January 24,

[x] Colin H Kahl, “Not time to attack Iran,” Foreign Affairs, March/April @ recovered on March 8

[xi] Genevieve Abdo, “As nuclear talks progress, Rouhani’s critics grow bold,” Brookings Institute, March 6 @ recovered on March 8

[xii] Steven Pifer, “Ukraine’s nuclear nonproliferation example,” Brookings Institute May 31 2011 @ recovered on March 8

[xiii] Walter Russell Mead, “Putin invades Crimea: Obama hardest hit,” The American Interest, March 3 @ recovered on March 8