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