Here are two good rules, confirmed by history, to bear in mind.
It is very dangerous to assume that any sort of alliance or diplomacy can deter or control a country that does not think it is defeated, or thinks it has been wronged. And powerful states do not always keep promises to defend small, weak countries against aggression.
For example, for 75 years from 1870, Germany was the main threat to peace in Europe.
In that year, the Prussian cynic Bismarck provoked France into starting a war that it duly lost. I have no doubt that German aggression also began the 1914 war that ruined Europe for ever.
Europe did not ‘sleepwalk’ into it. Berlin marched into it and very nearly won. The crushing Versailles treaty of 1919 was supposed to put an end to this, but made it worse.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky may get a membership pledge in Vilnius this week. But he and his countrymen should not (as Poland did in 1939) assume that it means his paper allies will actually sacrifice Chicago for Kiev.
People carry a giant Ukrainian flag to protest against the Russian invasion during a celebration of Lithuania’s independence in Vilnius
Britain and France then promised to defend Poland, in spring 1939. But they did not mean it.
When Germany attacked Poland in September of that year, Britain did nothing except drop propaganda leaflets on the German countryside (the RAF could not find German cities in the dark).
France briefly sent some troops into a western corner of Germany, bumbled around for a few weeks and then pulled out again. Poland was horribly crushed.
Alas, it was not until Berlin was barbarically occupied by Stalin’s Red Army and Germany’s eastern regions were pillaged and ruined by Soviet power, that Germany learned not do this sort of thing again. Nowadays, it uses peaceful methods, mainly the EU, to dominate Europe and thank heaven for that. I state these brutal facts because it seems to me that we often forget them.
For this coming week, Nato will hold a summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius – a city where, in January 1991, I watched the last bloody flailing of Soviet power in an episode overshadowed at the time by the First Gulf War and now almost wholly forgotten.
It is still amazing to me, as I recall those violent, terrifying days, that Nato has got this far east, and we shall see how that works out in the long term. Power and fear really exist, and drive men’s actions.
Zekensky speaking at a conference in Vilnius where this coming week Nato will hold a summit
Zelensky should recall just how anxious the Chairman of the US’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has been that the war should not expand beyond Ukraine’s borders
Both power and fear seethe in that part of Europe, as I have seen with my own eyes. They cannot be abolished by paper treaties. So what we have to grasp – as the Nato leadership considers admitting Ukraine later this week – is that Russia was never defeated by the West in war, and is still full of wounded pride over its largely forgotten and incredibly costly role in crushing Hitler.
Its state of mind reminds me a bit of Britain’s in 1956 when, deluded that we were still a major power, we launched the disastrous Suez adventure.
As I have written here, that resulted in the US Navy seriously considering opening fire on our fleet, a humiliating retreat by us and our French allies, and the biggest single loss of power and prestige by this country in modern times.
Well, it is perhaps possible that the West might now inflict a crushing lasting military defeat on Russia, which could permanently alter that country’s view of itself and make it as docile as modern Germany. But it might just as easily go wrong. Russia has nuclear weapons and might fall into the hands of ultra-nationalists who make Vladimir Putin look like the Liberal Democrats.
As for Nato, it is like Tinkerbell. It exists only if people believe in it. We are ceaselessly told of its noble and selfless Article 5, in which ‘an armed attack [against one or more Nato members in Europe or North America] shall be considered an attack against them all’. Few read on to find just how weak that pledge really is.
The US Senate in 1949 would never have ratified an open-ended commitment to go to war. So it says that each signatory ‘will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force’.
This is waffle. The member state remains free to choose whether to ‘deem’ force ‘necessary’, or to use force at all. Action not including force is clearly implied as a possible response.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky may get a membership pledge in Vilnius this week. But he and his countrymen should not (as Poland did in 1939) assume that it means his paper allies will actually sacrifice Chicago for Kiev.
He should recall just how anxious the Chairman of the US’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has been that the war should not expand beyond Ukraine’s borders. Nato membership will not change that, as Zelensky will find out.
Which brings us back to ask exactly what we are playing at in this high-explosive part of Europe. I no longer even try to ask anyone to consider or adopt my own view of the war. The task is hopeless in the current atmosphere of gung-ho passion. But surely it is beginning to be clear that a negotiated peace would be better than all this blood and ruin. Ukraine, by its courageous and tenacious defence, has actually secured rather a strong position in any talks.
I listened on the radio last week to a description of a young Ukrainian soldier being brought, terribly wounded, from the front line to a casualty clearing station. I considered all the men and women in his life who would be grieving for decades to come over what had happened to him. And I cursed all the vain and foolish people from all sides who followed the gory path to war, when they did not have to.
If we do not turn away from it soon, we may find we have brought war here too.
King can keep a light on for Scots
Actually, I rather wish that King Charles had been properly crowned in Edinburgh last week, in a profoundly Scottish ceremony, instead of just wistfully touching the Crown of Scotland.
I love the differences between the two countries: the different law, the different religion, literature and music, the distinct landscape and history. Such a declaration that Scotland is a separate country, yet mysteriously shares the same king, might help to bind us together in a grown-up friendship.
PICTURED: The Crown of Scotland borne by The Duke of Hamilton and Brandon is presented to King Charles III during the National Service of Thanksgiving and Dedication for King Charles III and Queen Camilla, and the presentation of the Honours of Scotland, at St Giles’ Cathedral on July 5, 2023 in Edinburgh
As I’ve said before, if Scotland wants to leave us, then it is no business of ours to try to stop her. Who’d want to live in a union whose members were forced to stay? But I’d always leave the light on, in the hope that the Scots might one day return, of their own will. And a Scottish crown would be a good way of helping that happen.
The strange behaviour of banks, in closing some accounts for obscure and unclear reasons, is mainly alarming because we are heading so fast towards a cashless economy. How can anyone survive without a bank account? But if the banks cannot be talked out of this, then a simple measure will make it more bearable.
In sensible France, Article 642-3 of the penal code states that traders cannot refuse cash payments – as so many now do here. They can be fined more than £100 for doing so.
Parliament should enact such a law here, and quickly.