PARIS – In her recent book on the origins of World War I, The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan concludes that the only thing one can say with certainty about its causes is that leadership matters. No one really wanted war, but no one knew how to oppose it, because great statesmen like Germany’s Otto von Bismarck, whose self-restraint preserved peace in Europe for decades, were missing in Europe in 1914. A similar leadership void has become palpable in recent behavior by Russia and China.
In the run-up to WWI, political and military leaders failed to grasp how industrial production and mass transportation had altered the character of warfare. The American Civil War should have served as a warning for Europeans. But a Europe that considered itself the center of the world, exporting its rivalries to Africa and Asia in the name of a “civilizing mission,” was utterly incapable of paying attention to the harsh lessons of the New World.
Today, neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Chinese President Xi Jinping seem to have learned those lessons, either. In Ukraine, Russia must choose what kind of relationship it wants to have with Europe. If Ukraine returns to the Kremlin’s orbit, whether through direct reintegration or some kind of “Finlandization,” Russia will end up reenacting an old European problem: like France from 1643 to 1815 and Wilhelmine Germany, it will be both “too much” for its neighbors and “not enough” for its ambitions.
Leaving aside why Russia should want to pay so much money to sustain a Ukrainian regime that is even more corrupt and dysfunctional than its own, Ukraine, with a territory greater than France and a population of 45 million, is the de facto linchpin of Europe’s geopolitical equilibrium. Unlike Poland three times in the eighteenth century, there can be no question of partition, with western Ukraine joining Europe and the country’s east returning to Russia. As a result, Ukraine’s civilizational choice – between a democratic European Union and an autocratic Russia – will necessarily have major strategic consequences for the entire European continent.