When the writer Stefan Zweig was holidaying on the Belgian coast in July 1914, in the uncertain interlude between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War, he marvelled at the contrast between the multinational crowds of relaxed holidaymakers and the increasingly ominous newspaper headlines. “It seemed to me utterly absurd,” he wrote, “that while thousands and tens of thousands of Germans were enjoying the hospitality of this neutral little country, there could be a German army stationed on the frontier ready to invade.”
While 2022 is, of course, not 1914, something similar to the atmosphere of that historic summer is in the air now. “The giant wheel turns,” writes Andrew Marr on page 14. “Here we are again.” Once more it seems the world is at a turning point. Yet as Bruno Maçães writes in his report from Kyiv on page 20, life in the Ukrainian capital continues largely as usual. The same is true of Moscow and, for that matter, in cities across the continent. Most Europeans are more concerned with the long slog out of the Covid-19 pandemic than the risk of war. The gulf between that normality and the threatening headlines grows wider daily.
Earlier this month around 130,000 Russian soldiers were massed close to Ukraine’s borders, before Vladimir Putin confirmed a “partial” withdrawal on 15 February. The US and its allies are warning of an imminent invasion and Western embassies are urging their citizens to leave Ukraine while they still can. American officials quoted by the US broadcaster PBS fear a “horrific, bloody campaign that begins with two days of aerial bombardment and electronic warfare, followed by an invasion, with the possible goal of regime change”.
On 15 February Russia announced that it was withdrawing some of its troops from the Ukrainian border. This may suggest that instead of an immediate invasion, Vladimir Putin plans a longer campaign of coercive pressure on Ukraine in his quest to wrench the country back from its westwards course. But any withdrawal will have to be seen to be believed. And even then, it may merely postpone the hour of conflagration.
If not, and the Russian attack is swift, then all bets are off. Not because the balance of power is uncertain: Moscow’s military budget is about ten times that of Ukraine, and Nato will not intervene directly against Russian forces. US estimates suggest that Russia could decapitate the government in Kyiv within two days, cause up to 50,000 civilian casualties and make up to five million Ukrainians refugees. This would make such a conflict the biggest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War – presenting the West not only with a security emergency but also, as Jeremy Cliffe argues on page 19, a political and moral obligation to impose severe sanctions on Putin and his kleptocratic regime.
But in truth no one, not Putin nor Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky nor Joe Biden nor Boris Johnson, really knows where such a conflict would lead. How stable would any Kremlin puppet government in Kyiv prove? What sort of resistance and partisan warfare would Ukrainians mount? (Historical and anecdotal evidence suggests it would be substantial.) How would Western sanctions affect Putin’s position within Russia and globally? Might they even destabilise his regime?
Those are just the immediate questions. Others are yet wider and more potentially era-defining. How would Russia respond to the inevitable Nato troop reinforcements in eastern member states such as the Baltics, Poland and Romania? What sparks could fly from a Ukrainian warzone in the direction of other tinderboxes such as the Balkans, where a fragile peace already appears to be breaking down? What might be the knock-on effects of a huge movement of refugees into the EU? Would Russian subjugation of Ukraine encourage China in its own designs on Taiwan?
The year 2022 is not 1914. It is entirely conceivable, however, that it too will go down in history as a turning point – as one of those years that functions not just as a measure of time but also as a watershed between one era and another. A year mentioned in the same breath as not just 1914 but also 1789, 1848, 1939 and 1989. But a turning point preceding what? The domino chains of possibilities are as multitudinous as they are unsettling. Only a fool would answer that question with any confidence.
This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War