Sergei Grits | AP Photo
In February, noting events in Ukraine, we wrote in this space that history seemed to be stirring once again (if it had ever really slept). In Ukraine, at least, the observation “It’s about Russia” is not only accurate but thorough. When The New Criterion began publication, in September 1982, the Soviet colossus still cast its dismal, blighting shadow over Eastern Europe and the countries girdling the Black and Caspian Seas. The sudden disintegration of what Ronald Reagan aptly called “the evil empire” caught most pundits, and most Western politicians, entirely off guard. That eventuality was not part of the script they had been given. And yet it happened. And then a new script was substituted. Now, the power politics of yesteryear were outmoded. A new era of mutual interest, diplomacy, and “soft power” was the order of the day. What Secretary of State John Kerry derided as Russia’s “nineteenth-century” behavior in Ukraine—imagine, one country invading another and annexing part of it!—was so uncouth, so outmoded, so beyond what was supposed to happen in the early twenty-first century, that his first response was contemptuous incredulity. Perhaps partly because he lived in the nineteenth century, the essayist William Hazlitt would not have been surprised by Russia’s behavior. “Those who lack delicacy,” he observed, “hold us in their power.” So far, the West’s attitude towards Russia’s criminal adventures in Ukraine might be best described as impotent outrage. Russia’s attitude, on the contrary, has been one of swaggering belligerence, tinctured with minatory, narrowed-eyed amusement. The commentator Austin Bay, writing for StrategyPage.com, got it exactly right: the “referendum” handing over the Crimean peninsula to Russia was
a cover story concocted ex post facto. Russian rifles cast the votes that mattered. When he announced the annexation, Russian president Vladimir Putin touted Crimea’s three centuries of Russian control. Whatever the cover story or sphere of influence explanation, this is territorial expansion. The legacy of aggression, annexation and expansion by a major European power is mass slaughter across the Continent and, in the twentieth century, global war.
No one knows, at this juncture, how events in Ukraine will play out. But partisans of “soft power” are in for yet another jolt. It turns out that, pace Secretary Kerry, the nineteenth century is alive and well. The Roman historian Vegetius was right: Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 8, on page 3
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