US cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, Calvados, Normandy / Wikimedia
I will be leaving this week to visit a string of countries that are now on the front line between Russia and the European Peninsula: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Azerbaijan. A tour like that allows you to look at the details of history. But it is impossible to understand those details out of context. The more I think about recent events, the more I realize that what has happened in Ukraine can only be understood by considering European geopolitics since 1914 — a hundred years ago and the beginning of World War I.
In The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman wrote a superb and accurate story about how World War I began. For her it was a confluence of perception, misperception, personality and decisions. It was about the leaders, and implicit in her story was the idea that World War I was the result of miscalculation and misunderstanding. I suppose that if you focus on the details, then the war might seem unfortunate and avoidable. I take a different view: It was inevitable from the moment Germany united in 1871. When it happened and exactly how it happened was perhaps up to decision-makers. That it would happen was a geopolitical necessity. And understanding that geopolitical necessity gives us a framework for understanding what is happening in Ukraine, and what is likely to happen next.
The German Problem
The unification of Germany created a nation-state that was extraordinarily dynamic. By the turn of the 20th century, Germany had matched the British economy. However, the British economy pivoted on an empire that was enclosed and built around British interests. Germany had no such empire. It had achieved parity through internal growth and exports on a competitive basis. This was just one of the problems Germany had. The international economic system was based on a system of imperial holdings coupled with European industrialism. Germany lacked those holdings and had no politico-military control over its markets. While its economy was equal to Britain’s, its risks were much higher.
Economic risk was compounded by strategic risk. Germany was on the North European Plain, relatively flat, with only a few north-south rivers as barriers. The Germans had the Russians to the east and the French to the west. Moscow and Paris had become allies. If they were to simultaneously attack Germany at a time of their choosing, Germany would be hard-pressed to resist. The Germans did not know Russo-French intentions, but they did know their capabilities. If there was to be war, the Germans had to strike first in one direction, achieve victory there and then mass their forces on the other side.
When that war would be fought, which strategy the Germans chose and ultimately whether it would succeed were uncertainties. But unlike Tuchman’s view of the war, a war that began with a German strike was inevitable. The war was not the result of a misunderstanding. Rather, it was the result of economic and strategic realities.
The Germans struck against the French first but failed to defeat them. They were therefore trapped in the two-front war that they had dreaded, but they were at least fully mobilized and could resist. A second opportunity to implement their strategy occurred in the winter of 1917, when an uprising took place against the Russian czar, who abdicated on March 15, 1917. (Germany actually set the revolution in motion in March by repatriating Lenin back to Russia via the infamous sealed train car.) There was serious concern that the Russians might pull out of the war, and in any case, their military had deteriorated massively. A German victory there seemed not only possible, but likely. If that happened, and if German forces in Russia were transferred to France, it was likely that they could mass an offensive that would defeat the British and French.
In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. There were multiple reasons, including the threat that German submarines might close the Atlantic to American shipping, but also the fear that events in Russia might defeat the allies. The United States had a deep interest in making certain that the Eurasian landmass would not fall under the control of any single nation. The manpower, resources and technology under the control of the Germans would more than outmatch the United States. It could not live with a German victory, and therefore within a year it had sent more than a million men to Europe and helped counter the German offensive after the October 1917 Russian Revolution pulled Russia from the war. The peace treaty ceded Ukraine to the Germans, placing Russia in danger if the Germans defeated the Anglo-French alliance. Ultimately, the American intervention defeated the Germans, and the Russians regained Ukraine.
The American intervention was decisive and defined American strategy in Eurasia for a century. It would maintain the balance of power. As the balance shifted, Washington would increase aid and, if absolutely necessary, intervene decisively in the context of an existing and effective military alliance.
World War II was fought similarly. The Germans, again in a dangerous position, made an alliance with the Soviets, assuring a single-front war, and this time defeated France. In due course, Germany turned on Russia and attempted to dominate Eurasia decisively. The United States was first neutral, then provided aid to the British and Russians, and even after entering the war in December 1941 withheld its main thrust until the last possible moment. The United States did invade North Africa, Sicily and the rest of Italy, but these were marginal operations on the periphery of German power. The decisive strike did not occur until June 1944, after the German military had been significantly weakened by a Soviet army heavily supplied by the United States. The decisive campaign in northern Europe lasted less than a year, and was won with limited U.S. losses compared to the other combatants. It was an intervention in the context of a powerful military alliance.
In the Cold War, the Soviet Union positioned itself by creating deep buffers. It held the Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine as its first line of defense. Its second defensive tier consisted of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the Soviet buffer moved to the center of Germany on the North German Plain. Given history, the Soviets needed to create as deep a buffer as possible, and this line effectively precluded an attack on the Soviet Union.
The American response was more active than in the first two wars, but not as decisive. The United States positioned forces in West Germany in the context of a strong military alliance. This alliance was likely insufficient to block a Soviet attack. The United States promised the delivery of additional troops in the event of war and also guaranteed that if needed, it was prepared to use nuclear weapons to stop a Soviet attack.
The model was in that sense similar. The hope was to maintain the balance of power with minimal American exposure. In the event the balance broke, the United States was prepared to send substantially more troops. In the worst case, the United States claimed to be prepared to use decisive force. The important thing to note was that the United States retained the option to reinforce and go nuclear. The Soviets never attacked, in part because they didn’t need to — they were not at risk — and in part because the risk associated with an attack was too high.
Thus, the United States followed a consistent strategy in all three wars. First, it avoided overexposure, limiting its presence to the minimum needed. The United States wasn’t present in World War I until very late. In World War II, America’s presence consisted of peripheral operations at relatively low cost. In the Cold War, it positioned a force sufficient to convince the Soviets of American intent, but always under its control and always poised for full intervention at the latest opportune time, with minimal losses, in the context of an effective military alliance.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the revolutions of 1989 stripped away the buffers that the Soviets had captured in World War II. Their strategic position was worse than it was before the world wars or even since the 17th century. If the inner buffer, the Baltics, Belarus or Ukraine, were to become hostile and part of a Western alliance system, the threat to Russia would be overwhelming. The Baltics were admitted to NATO and the alliance was now less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg. If Ukraine and Belarus went the same route, then the city of Smolensk, once deep in the Soviet Union and the Russian empire, would be a border town, and the distance to Moscow from NATO territory would be 250 miles.
The mitigating factor was that NATO was weak and fragmented. This was not much of a consolation for the Russians, who had seen Germany transform from a weak and fragmented country in 1932 to a massive power by 1938. Where there is an industrial base, military capability can be rapidly generated and intentions can change overnight. Therefore, for Russia, preventing the Western alliance system from absorbing Ukraine was critical, as the events of previous months have shown.
The U.S. Approach
The American strategy in Europe remains the same as it was in 1914: to allow the European balance of power to manage itself. Public statements aside, the United States was comfortable with the weakness of European powers so long as the Russians were also weak. There was no threat of a hegemon emerging. The American strategy was, as always, to let the balance maintain itself, intervene with any aid needed to maintain the balance and intervene militarily in the context of a robust alliance at the decisive moment and not before.
It follows from this that the United States is not prepared to do more than engage in symbolic efforts right now. The Russian military may be able to capture Ukraine, although the logistical challenges are serious. But the United States is not in a position to deploy a decisive defensive force in Ukraine. The shift in the European balance of power is far from decisive, and the United States has time to watch the situation develop.
At this point, the United States is likely prepared to increase the availability of weapons to the countries I will visit, along with Bulgaria and the Baltics. But the United States’ problem is that its historical strategy relies on the existence of a significant military force, and where multiple countries are involved, a working alliance. It is pointless for the United States to provide weapons to countries that will not cooperate with each other and are incapable of fielding sufficient force to use these weapons.
Since the events in Ukraine, many European countries have discussed increased defense spending and cooperation. It is not clear that NATO is a vehicle for this cooperation. As we saw during the meetings between U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany’s willingness to engage in assertive action is limited. In southern Europe, the economic crisis still rages. The appetite of the British and French or the Iberians to become involved is limited. It is hard to see NATO playing an effective military role.
The United States looks at this as a situation where the exposed countries must take decisive steps. For the United States, there is no emergency. For Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Azerbaijan, along with the other countries along the buffer line, there is not yet an emergency. But one could materialize with surprising speed. The Russians are not intrinsically powerful, but they are more powerful than any of these countries alone, or even together. Given American strategy, the United States would be prepared to begin providing aid, but substantial aid requires substantial action on the part of the buffer countries.
The first and second world wars were about the status of Germany in Europe. That was what the Cold War was about as well, although framed in a different way. We are once again discussing the status of Germany. Today it has no western threat. The eastern threat is weak, far away and potentially more of an ally than a threat. The force that drove Germany in two world wars is not there now. Logically, it has little reason to take risks.
The American fear of a Eurasian hegemon is also a distant one. Russia is far from being able to pose that kind of threat. It is still struggling to regain its buffers. Just as Germany is not prepared to engage in aggressive actions, the United States will continue its century-old strategy of limiting its exposure for as long as possible. At the same time, the buffer countries face a potential threat that prudence requires they prepare for.
However, it is not clear that the Russian threat will materialize, and it is not clear that, rhetoric aside, the Russians have the political will to act decisively. The buffer states’ optimal solution would be a massive NATO intervention. That won’t happen. The second best would be a massive American intervention. That won’t happen either. The buffer states want to shift the cost of their defense to others — a rational strategy if they can achieve it.
The impersonal forces of geopolitics are driving Russia to try to retake its critical borderland. Having done that, the nations bordering Russian power will not know how far the Russians will try to go. For Russia, the deeper the buffer, the better. But the deeper the buffer, the higher the cost of maintaining it. The Russians are not ready for any such move. But over time, as their strength and confidence grow, their actions become less predictable. When facing a potential existential threat, the prudent action is to overreact.
The buffer states need to arm and ally. The United States will provide a degree of support, regardless of what the Germans, and therefore NATO, do. But the basic decision is in the hands of the Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbians and Azerbaijanis, along with those in the other buffer states. Some, like Azerbaijan, have already made the decision to arm and are looking for an alliance. Some, like Hungary, are watching and waiting. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” There is a rhyme that we can hear. It is in its early stages and few are yet locked into a course as Germany was in 1914. The forces are beginning to gather, and if they do, they will not be controlled by good will.
I will be listening for that rhyme on this trip. I need to see if it is there. And if it is, I need to see if those most at risk to its verses hear it too. I will let you know what I hear.
George Friedman is the founder and CEO of Stratfor, the global intelligence website. This article is republished with permission of Stratfor.