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A World In Crisis: Russia and Ukraine

Readers and friends will know that I was a foreign service officer and/or worked in the area of international relations for much of the 1970s and 80s. This domain has never ceased to be of interest to me, and I regularly follow evolving diplomatic crises and developments.

Today, we are confronted not only by a worldwide pandemic but also by events in and around Ukraine, especially the military build-up and possible invasion by its neighbor, Russia. On the day of writing this post, the latter continues to hold war games on the Ukrainian border, in concert with its close ally, Belarus. After the Crimean peninsula was invaded and annexed by Russia in Feb/March 2014 (Russia uses different terms for the event) and given border incursions since then, I’d say Ukraine has every right to feel apprehensive. NATO, meanwhile, led by the US, is taking every diplomatic step it can muster to prevent such an attack. One hopes that it will be resolved peacefully and the world can go back to its regular worries: inflation, escalating home prices and Covid-19.

With the December/January outbreak here of the hyper-contagious Omicron variant, I have been sheltering chez nous and avoiding most indoor public places. One of my favourites – the local library – is definitely off limits. As a result, I’ve resorted to rereading books in my own collection. This past week I turned to The Guns of August, the exceptional history of the first month of World War I.

New York, Macmillan, 1962

Barbara Tuchman (1912-78) won the Pulitzer Prize for this best-selling work. It was the first book of history I purchased and the first of many of hers that I subsequently owned and read (Stillwell and the American Experience in China, Bible and Sword, The Zimmerman Telegram, A Distant Mirror and The Proud Tower), all well worth reading.

New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1979
New York, New York University (Minerva) Press, 1956

Not having reread The Guns of August in over 50 years, I’d forgotten much about these initial weeks of conflict. As such, I was surprised to note a little recalled event (at least by me) in the first few days of the war – the unsuccessful pursuit by the British Mediterranean fleet of two German cruisers, the Goeben and Breslau. The long-term impact of their escape from the Strait of Messina (between Sicily and the boot of Italy) to the port of Constantinople had immense consequences, not just for the results of the war but also for the rest of twentieth century history.

It would take too long to describe in this post the entire chase and end result, which served to bring the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the two Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. I will just quote the key section, which resumes the conclusions and brings me back to my opening paragraphs on Russia and Ukraine:

“Thereafter the red edges of war spread over another half of the world. Turkey’s neighbours, Bulgaria, Rumania, Italy and Greece were eventually drawn in. Thereafter, with her exit to the Mediterranean closed, Russia was left dependent on Archangel, icebound half the year, and Vladivostok, 8,000 miles for the battlefront. With the Black Sea closed, her exports dropped by 98% and her imports by 95% (my italics). The cutting off of Russia with all its consequences, the vain and sanguinary tragedy of Gallipoli, the diversion of Allied strength in the campaigns of Mesopotamia, Suez and Palestine, the ultimate break-up of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent history of the Middle East, followed from the voyage of the Goeben.” (p. 161)

In my view, the Russian Revolution changed little for that country in terms of its international preoccupations. The Black Sea may not be so consequential today for Russia (compared to gas pipelines, for example), but if one has ever to wonder why President Putin is busying himself with Ukraine and Crimea, just think back to this summation.

Finally, I must add one footnote, a detail I’ve just come across in one of my favorite sources, Wikipedia:

“While she did not explicitly mention it in The Guns of August, Tuchman was present for one of the pivotal events of the book: the pursuit of the Goeben and Breslau. In her account of the pursuit (p.158) she wrote, “That morning [August 10, 1914] there arrived in Constantinople the small Italian passenger steamer which had witnessed the Gloucesters action against Goeben and Breslau. Among its passengers were the daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren of the American ambassador Mr. Henry Morgenthau.” As she was a grandchild of Henry Morgenthau, she is referring to herself, which is confirmed in her later book Practicing History, in which she tells the story of her father, Maurice Wertheim, traveling from Constantinople to Jerusalem on August 29, 1914, to deliver funds to the Jewish community there. Thus, at two, Tuchman was present during the pursuit of the two warships, which she documented 48 years later.”

Cover Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash