ON CHRISTMAS EVE 1991, Germany and Austria, without warning or consultation, recognised the independence of Slovenia and Croatia.
Six months earlier, on 25 June 1991, these hitherto constituent republics of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had declared themselves independent states. Naturally, the Yugoslav Government objected in the strongest terms and sent its army north. NATO’s Secretary-General, the former British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, attempted to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Sufficient progress was being made for the Yugoslav Government to order the army’s tanks back to their bases. Its consternation, when the newly re-united Germany recognised the breakaway republics’ independence, and Austria partially mobilised its armed forces along the Slovenian border, is readily imagined. The Americans, the EU, and the United Nations were equally non-plussed.
Yugoslavia may have been crumbling, but the unilateral recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence by Germany and Austria undoubtedly hastened its disintegration. The tragic consequences: civil war, murderous ethnic cleansing, NATO’s assault on Serbia (the largest of the Yugoslav successor states) cost tens-of-thousands of innocent lives.
Were Germany and Austria punished for their deliberate fracturing of another European state? Did the United States, the EU and NATO impose a devastating regime of sanctions upon them? Were massive supplies of weapons shipped to Yugoslavia in an attempt to keep its fragile constitutional architecture standing? Was the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, vilified across the Western news media as another Adolf Hitler? Did his neighbours manoeuvre hostile battle-groups along his country’s frontiers?
Of course not. Indeed, it is highly unlikely than more than one in ten of the people reading this post will even remember Germany’s and Austria’s flagrant breach of international law – or care.
Those belonging to the realist school of international diplomacy may have raised an eyebrow at the two German-speaking nation’s uncharacteristic departure from international diplomatic norms, but they didn’t engage in hysterical name-calling or fill the airwaves with dire predictions of European war. (Even if the more perspicacious among them, remembering the fraught history of the Balkan states, foresaw only bad things flowing from Germany’s and Austria’s rash decisions.)
It was clear to everyone that the Yugoslavia forged by Marshall Tito in the white heat of the Second World War and, while he lived, a remarkably successful experiment in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and socialist co-operation, was unravelling at an alarming rate. Old crimes were being remembered, vengeful ghosts were rising from the killing fields of the German occupation. Few international scholars, and even fewer experienced diplomats, were surprised that Catholic Slovenia and Croatia wanted out, or that they fell gratefully into the nearest pair of outstretched arms.
The contrast with the present hysterical condemnation of Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk could hardly be clearer. There is precious little evidence of hard-headed realism in the West’s diplomacy, only inchoate rage at Russia’s stubborn refusal to become the vassal of a declining American super-power and its dangerous kennel of NATO attack-dogs.
Vladimir Putin was absolutely correct to describe the break-up of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical catastrophe. The Russians had done the world an enormous favour in taking responsibility for the cutthroat nations of Eastern Europe and the Baltic littoral.
Few people in the West now recall how many of these states allied themselves with Nazi Germany during World War II. But the Russians have not forgotten whose soldiers were positioned on the flanks of Stalingrad as von Paulus’s Sixth Army closed in for the kill. Nor have they forgotten how eagerly the Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and, yes, the Ukrainians, helped the Einsatzgruppen murder two million of their Jewish neighbours.
Setting these bloodlands free was always a risky proposition.
Not that the NATO Alliance had many thoughts to spare for the recent history of Eastern Europe. As the Soviet Union fell apart and the elites of its constituent republics seized the moment to make their fortunes, the Americans and their European vassals could only look on in awe at the world of rich geopolitical pickings opening up before their eyes.
The wildest dreams of Western geopoliticians, dating all the way back to the end of the First World War, could now be realised. Georgia, the Caucasus, Moldova, Belarus, and the geopolitical jewel in the crown, Ukraine: all of them were up for grabs – daggers pointed directly at the heart of Mother Russia. “Come one, come all!” cried Washington and Brussels – “NATO’s door is always open!”
Poor, deluded Mikhail Gorbachev: how could he possibly have been so innocent as to take on trust George H. W. Bush’s pledge that NATO would not advance “one inch” beyond the River Elbe? Had the combat boot been on the other foot, would the Soviet Union have given such a pledge? Or, if it did, would it have felt bound to honour it?
Some have laughed at Putin’s rambling history lesson of 22 February, preliminary to his signing of the documents recognising the breakaway Donbass republics. He was not, however, joking. His criticism of Lenin and the Bolsheviks was entirely serious.
As good socialists they were determined to honour the principles of national self-determination. Putin’s argument is that by doing so they made the later disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics a great deal easier than it should have been. Had the Bolsheviks treated Ukraine and the other constituent republics in the same way as the Tsarist regime: beloved provinces of one great, indissoluble nation – Russia – then the almost casual agreement of December 1991 to break up the Soviet Union might have been averted.
But, we are where we are. Like a baited bear, the Russian Federation has watched through small, black eyes as NATO’s attack-dogs crept closer and closer. Unlike the doomed creatures chained by neck and ankle in the bear-pits of yesteryear, however, the Russian Bear is constrained only by how many of these slavering curs it is willing to kill, and when.
Putin’s weary anger said it all. The Ukraine and Russia are one. The West cannot have her. If NATO is determined to fight, then Russia will fight back. But, if she falls, she will not fall alone.
This Russian Bear has nuclear teeth.