Blood and iron in Ukraine

As we run through the centenary of the events leading up to the First World War, it’s perhaps not inappropriate that we think of Otto von Bismarck, and his remarks to the budget commission of the Prussian diet in 1862:

Nicht durch Reden und Majoritätsbeschlüsse werden die großen Fragen der Zeit entschieden — das ist der große Fehler von 1848 und 1849 gewesen — sondern durch Eisen und Blut.

The great questions of the time will not be decided by speeches and majority decisions — that was the great error of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.

His words have traditionally been used to paint Bismarck as a warmonger, but “realist” would be a fairer description. He knew that force is the ultimate arbiter in international affairs, and that its importance can’t simply be wished away. As AJP Taylor glosses the above:

Who can deny that this is true as a statement of fact? What settled the question of Nazi domination of Europe – resolutions or the allied armies? … This is a very different matter from saying that principles and beliefs are ineffective. They can be extremely effective if translated into blood and iron and not simply into resolutions and majority votes.

This reflection is prompted by the news this morning that the Ukrainian government has scored a significant military victory by driving the pro-Russian rebels in its east out of their stronghold of Sloviansk. The city had been under heavy artillery fire and the rebels seem to have decided that it could not be held; they made a successful tactical withdrawal from Sloviansk and apparently from the rest of northern Donetsk province.

This is a major blow to the rebel position, but they still hold the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. An analyst with “close ties to the Ukrainian military,” quoted by the Guardian, warns that they will be harder nuts to crack: “It will be many times more difficult to fight in regional centres where there is a huge number of peaceful residents.”

For Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, in office less than a month, things are looking fairly promising. He has signed the association agreement with the European Union that his predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, backed away from last year (to his ultimate cost). And his ceasefire with the rebels last week, although it did not last, seems to have improved his diplomatic position: the rebels were seen to be the more unreasonable ones and Russian support for them looks more feeble than ever.

In purely military terms, there has never been any real doubt that the Ukrainian armed forces, creaky though they might be, would be able to prevail – provided the political will was there to use them, and the rebels were left to their own devices and not backed by Russian intervention.

Ideally, Poroshenko would like to avoid the need for force at all. But his next best option is for the rebels to be sufficiently isolated that they can be methodically overcome without causing an unacceptable level of civilian casualties – and without poisoning the opportunity for political reconciliation with the population of the eastern provinces.

Wars are sometimes ended by negotiation and compromise. But more often they are ended by victory: by one side gaining the upper hand in purely military terms and either destroying the forces arrayed against it or forcing its opponents to sue for peace. To pick just one topical example, that’s what happened in the civil war in Sri Lanka.

From the point of view of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the situation does not look so rosy. But there was never any real likelihood of a Russian military campaign in eastern Ukraine. Russian support for the rebels was more in the nature of a bluff, hoping that the Ukrainians would be weak enough to concede a large measure of autonomy – which perhaps in the future could be converted into secession – in the interests of peace.

That bluff, it would appear, has now been called. But in the meantime, Putin has consolidated his grip upon Crimea. And although Ukraine’s new defence minister may talk of holding of holding a victory parade in Sevastopol, the chance of it ever reverting to Ukraine seems remote indeed.

So the most likely outcome for the near future seems to be that Putin will continue ineffective protests about the Ukrainian reconquest of its rebel-held areas, and the Ukrainians will do the same about the continued Russian possession of Crimea. But neither will change the realist conclusion about the facts on the ground.


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