Do dates matter? I got into a bit of a debate with a colleague about this the other day concerning Canadian history. I, as a Canuck, was roped into doing some lectures on the topic – despite having little but the most obvious qualification – and, observing that I had gone beyond the period I had promised to cover, I made a throwaway comment about tricking myself into thinking that dates matter. My colleague, more of a stickler for dates, went into a little rant about how dates did matter and I, arguing silently back, kept thinking that for, at least what I do, dates can be misleading, suggesting beginnings or endings that really aren’t that at all.
Anyway, that was before the crisis in the Ukraine erupted. I can’t have been the only person to recognise that Russia’s forays into the Crimea are 100 years after the start of another conflict, which began with a squabble over a small(ish) country on the periphery of Europe. Now, God willing, this won’t amount to that, but the neatness of those 100 years are frightening nonetheless. Sure, much more terrible things have been going on elsewhere not too much further than Ukraine – Syria, to name the worst calamity – but the stakes in Ukraine are higher, partly because of all the other former Soviet republics that might also look tempting (including ones that are members of NATO), but also because Ukraine is – or, at least, could be – European. And the two world wars, if anything positive came out of them, was the sense that Europe was past nineteenth-century style wars. Let’s hope so.
But as much as Putin is behaving irresponsibly in all of this, and possibly forgetting his history (I do hope Russia’s poor performance in the Olympic hockey hasn’t anything to do with it), it does strike me that the two wars that characterised the first ten years of the twenty-first century don’t do much for the West’s (broadly speaking) position when it comes to Ukraine. It’s all well and good decrying Russia for sabre-rattling and ‘protecting’ its brethren in foreign lands when your conscience is clear; it is quite another thing scarcely a decade after you have invaded two other countries, resulting in wars that have killed tens and tens of thousands of lives.
If anything, the current crisis tells me three things. First, war remains good for nothing. Second, this is why we need a strong unified Europe with the UK as a member state (or Scotland and the UK, as the case may be). And three, self determination, for all its warts, needs to be a democratic possibility for all nations within nations. If the Crimea wants independence, there should be a way for them to vote for it without having the bully of the neighbourhood weigh in with guns blazing. In an increasingly interconnected, federalised world, that sort of independence doesn’t cost anyone all that much. Certainly less than the cost of fighting for it.