Sanctions are an easy option when it comes to the West's anger against Russia's actions in Ukraine, but the lessons of our past suggest another course

For the past year I have been on the World War I Commemoration Panel. The members include people as diverse as Sir Peter Jackson, Dame Anne Salmond, and Sir Bob Harvey. One of the most interesting things I have done as a member of the panel is read up on the politics and intrigue that precipitated the war.

There have been some excellent books written in recent years that deal directly with this issue, including Clark, The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914; Hastings, Catastrophe, 1914 Europe Goes to War; and MacMillian, The War that Ended the Peace.

So it has been an eerie echo of the Sarajevo assassinations to see how the downing of MH17 is playing into the phobias of the various European nations, and these days much of the rest of the world. The tragedy is precipitating a seemingly inexorable chain of events.

The one compelling thing that comes through from 1914 is that no-one stepped back. That even though the participants were well aware of the potential scale of devastation that war would cause, this did not deter the mobilisations and the ultimatums that by August 1914 resulted in a global war.

Now I am not suggesting that a major war is imminent or likely; my comparison is not intended to be that bald. Nevertheless it certainly looks like some people are itching to impose a new swathe of sanctions against Russia, and to effectively restart the Cold War, as if that would be in anyone’s interests. Well, perhaps it might be for arms manufacturers.

Events like MH17 offer two approaches, double-down on sanctions and punishment of Russia, or use it as a circuit-breaker to stop the slaughter in eastern Ukraine. Already more civilians have died in this conflict than in the latest round of the Israel Palestine conflict. And yet, but for MH17, everyone has apparently been content to ignore a major civil war occurring on the edge of Europe; a war that has a great deal more risk to global peace that Gaza.

Sanctions and punishment are an easy option. They satisfy outrage. But they will do nothing to stop the war, they may even intensify it. Russia is too proud, and has too great a history with Ukraine to be swayed by the latest fulminating by Prime Minister Cameron among others.

My hope is that we don't repeat the mistakes of 100 years ago. Rather than go down the atavistic line of more sanctions, efforts should go into building dialogue. Perhaps this is what Chancellor Merkel is thinking. She has not joined in the immediate condemnation of Russia. There is still the opportunity to broker a peace in Ukraine. Germany has the power, the influence and the money to take an active role in such a task. By all accounts she has the trust of President Putin, at least in a relative sense.

The shape of a peace deal is apparent enough. It will inevitably require more autonomy in east Ukraine. And it will require massive reconstruction funds, much of which will be spent in the eastern towns and cities of the Ukraine. Germany has this money.

Russia will insist on a settlement along these lines. They now have too much invested in the separatists. Too many people have died in east Ukraine for Russia to abandon them. But the longer the civil war persists, the harder this will be to achieve. If the war runs on, the separatists will insist on independence, or at least the sort of independence that exists in Transnistria in Moldova, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Such an outcome will harden the divide between Russia and Europe.

Now is the time for the peacemakers to step up. To learn the lessons from 100 years ago, and to provide a moral lesson for the current generations.

Comments (9)

by william blake on July 24, 2014
william blake

Thanks for a very interesting post, it has had me reading up on the history of the area and like the Balkan States, the Crimea seem to have the borderlands propensity for conflict.

Commentators have variously mirrored this conflict as far back as 1654, with the Ottoman war of the mid 19Cth, WWI, WWII,the Cold War and for me,most pertinently the Yugoslavian conflict and the independence of Kosovo. The last conflict being most relevant due to it being the most recent and having the most similar geopolitical context.

Interestingly the support of an independent Kosovo by NATO forces in the 90's, gives weight Putins siding with the East Ukranian separatists, who are acting on a very slim democratic mandate.

like yourself I hope a peaceful and rapid solution can be found and, with freighted historical irony, can be brokered by a united Germany.

History is messy, complex and it seems that while the location of history is repetitive, the resolution needs to be unique.

by Chris de Lisle on July 24, 2014
Chris de Lisle

When people start seeing a historical situation in a present event, another group will see another. If Cameron and other world leaders bargain away eastern Ukraine a whole lot of people are going to call him Chamberlain - a historical situation that demands the opposite lesson. A drawn out inquest into the plane crash will suggest that lead up to Iraq I and II. People constantly understand Putin through Stalin (or Xerxes). Maybe the resurgence of Russia under Putin is the Hundred Days and best dealt with by quick action. Perhaps the break up of Yugoslavia or the Greco-Turkish population exchanges suggests the dangers of dividing Ukraine on ethnic lines. Meanwhile the Ukrainians are probably seeing a repeat of the Cossack Wars - will they accept another Andrusovo even if Russia and Germany author it?  

by mikesh on July 25, 2014

If the EU wishes to lend 15 billion to the Ukraine then they should make the loan unconditional. Making Ukraine's retention of the Eastern territories a condition of the loan is only inflaming the situation.

by Andrew P Nichols on July 25, 2014
Andrew P Nichols

What an excellent piece Dr Mapp. I'm always amazed at how ex politicians become human beings once they leave Parliament. If this type of thinking would characterise an NZ tenure at the UNSC, we woulds be makeing a truly vital contribution. Unfortunately, we are more likely toi  fall into the US Imperial group think which at the moment is a dangerous warlike willy wave characterised by endless ad hominem attacks on Vladimir Putin, who's usually  displayingmore diplomatic skills than anyone else on the planet at the moment despite the provocation.

by Rich on July 25, 2014

I don't understand Putin's motivation.

The Russian ogligarchy, who are presumably foremost in his concerns, depend for their wealth on Russia's success as a primary exporter. The worse Russia's relations with the world, the more difficult it will be for the ogligarchs to make money.

Russia today produces little more than the former Soviet Union did, whilst having to support lifestyles than no-one aspired to before 1989, obkom first secrataries did not have yachts.

If Russia chooses confrontation, in addition to worsening its terms of trade, it will be back to spending a huge portion of GDP on an escalating arms race, which is what bankrupted them pre-Gorbachev.

"Upper Volta with rockets"


by mikesh on July 25, 2014


"If Russia chooses confrontation, in addition to worsening its terms of trade, it will be back to spending a huge portion of GDP on an escalating arms race, which is what bankrupted them pre-Gorbachev."

Far from choosing confrontation, Russia seems to be bending over backwards to avoid confrontation. Putin has consistently called for negotiations to take place.






by Andrew Osborn on July 27, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Rich: I don't understand Putin's motivation.

You're right - There is little monetary value in stealing a piece of Ukraine territory and an awful lot to lose if things spin out of control.

My thinking is that this is more about pride. National pride. Russia has a chip on it's shoulder over its loss of empire and status in the world. Putin's actions in the Ukraine are very popular back home and despite the fact that he rigs the elections, he still has to conjur up support and the best way to do this is to pull at nationalist emotional heart -strings by evoking past victories.

I think it was John Kerry that implied that Putin is still thinking like someone in the 19th century. 

(fact check: yes.  "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text," Kerry told the CBS program "Face the Nation.")





by mikesh on July 28, 2014

["You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text," Kerry told the CBS program "Face the Nation.")]

Do I detect a note of irony in the above?

by Peggy Klimenko on July 29, 2014
Peggy Klimenko

"(fact check: yes.  "You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text," Kerry told the CBS program "Face the Nation.")"

Indeed. Snorts of disbelief and derision on the part of those of us who haven't forgotten the history of US behaviour over the last 60 years or so, even if Kerry has. Or hopes that we have.

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