Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Could the Ukraine Crisis Spark a World War?

| May 7, 2014

The rapid slide from lawlessness to violence that has claimed the lives of more than sixty people in the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Slovyansk, and Odessa in the past week sounds alarms that should be heard more clearly in Western capitals. The strategy Washington and the Europeans have chosen that focuses on the villainization of Putin (much as he deserves it), calls on him to withdraw support for the separatists, and threatens further sanctions if he does not is bound to fail. It will not stop the killing. It will not prevent the de facto dismemberment of Ukraine. It will not deter Putin from continuing whatever role he and Russia are playing in this process. And it fails to address the risk that what happens in Ukraine does not end in Ukraine.

Mark Twain observed that while history never repeats itself, it does sometimes rhyme. In the combination of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the collapse of authority that is destabilizing Ukraine, can we hear echoes from a century earlier when the murder of an Austrian Archduke sparked a great European war?

The thought that what we are now witnessing in Ukraine could trigger a cascade of actions and reactions that end in war will strike most readers as fanciful. Fortunately, it is. But we should not forget that in May 1914, the possibility that the assassination of an Archduke could produce a world war seemed almost inconceivable. History teaches that unlikely, even unimaginable events do happen.

If those making fateful choices in Washington, Berlin, and Moscow today were to pause to reflect on what was done—and not done—in 1914, they would recognize that the current crisis poses much greater danger than they now imagine. This would stir them to think well beyond their current conceptions of events and to stretch to much bolder, preventative initiatives than we have seen thus far.

For the complete oped, see here.

WATCH: Graham Allison on World War I Ukraine and Realism

Graham Allison discusses the Ukraine Crisis and its relationship to World War I as well as the triangular relationship between the United States, Russia, and China with Jacob Heilbrunn, Editor of The National Interest.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Could the Ukraine Crisis Spark a World War?.” The National Interest, May 7, 2014.