Step back: What WWI can teach us about Ukraine

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.