BRUSSELS — War was coming to Europe and the French president, Raymond Poincare, was literally at sea.
Poincare’s trip across the Baltic Sea to St. Petersburg to shore up France’s alliance with Russia in July 1914 cut him off from outside contact for days, adding one more layer of uncertainty to the chaotic, ultimately failed diplomacy that ended in World War I.
A century later, as Russian President Vladimir Putin menaces Ukraine, the world hasn’t banished the risks of the miscommunications, clumsy judgments and botched intelligence that blindsided Europe in 1914, said Max Hastings, a British military historian.
“There’s a huge risk of a miscalculation,” said Hastings, whose latest book, “Catastrophe,” covers the descent into World War I. “We don’t yet know what Putin’s real agenda is. Is he trying to restore Russia’s grip on the whole Ukraine, does he want to re-annex the Crimea?”
To be sure, Hastings said, there is no appetite for war in the West and Putin has a rational sense of Russia’s limits. The major powers of 100 years ago shared a willingness to use force that has since been bred out of Europe’s DNA, one of the reasons why the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
Historians are still puzzling out how a local act of terrorism — the assassination of the heir to the Austro- Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on June 28, 1914 — could set in motion a chain of events that led to the German army marching in to neutral Belgium six weeks later.
“I shall never be able to understand how it happened,” the novelist Rebecca West is quoted in “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,” by Christopher Clark, a history professor at Cambridge University.
Clark’s book, which counts German Chancellor Angela Merkel among its readers, blames murky, often undemocratic national decision-making in a European state system that was “opaque and unpredictable, feeding a pervasive mood of mutual distrust, even within the respective alliances.”
The wars of the 20th century gave birth to the academic field of conflict prevention and the arsenal of early-warning systems, fact-finding missions and confidence-building measures practiced by the likes of the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
So when Russian troops seized key installations in Ukraine’s southern Crimea region on March 1, Western governments didn’t have to rely on far-flung emissaries to decipher reports in politically slanted local newspapers or eavesdrop on the drawing-room conversations of princes and generals. All they had to do was pick up the phone.
President Barack Obama did just that, speaking to Putin for 90 minutes. Whatever the two sides’ takeaway from that conversation, it provided better intelligence than Europe’s leaders got in 1914. France, for example, was blanked out of news from Belgrade for 11 days because its ambassador was ill.
But even in the era of Wikileaks, the National Security Agency and the Washington-to-Moscow hotline made famous during the Cold War, there is wide latitude for garbled messaging and misunderstandings — with the added danger that they transpire in real time.
Putin may have exploited a U.S. lapse when Russia attacked Georgia in 2008. Aides to then-Vice President Dick Cheney fretted that President George W. Bush’s non-response to Putin’s threats against Georgia at an April 2008 meeting gave Russia a “green light” to invade four months later, according to “A Little War That Shook the World,” a 2010 book by the late Ronald D. Asmus.
Putin surrounds himself with “a very closed and quite small decision-making circle,” said Neil Melvin, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “It seems as though they know how far they can push this, and actually how difficult it is for the western powers to make a substantial response.”
Russia has spent hundreds of years pushing its western neighbors, heeding the dictum attributed to Catherine the Great in the 18th century that the only way to protect the country’s borders was to expand them. Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941 dramatized the weaknesses of Russia’s defenses.
“Russia has had, throughout the centuries, both the advantage and vulnerability of a vast contiguous territorial empire,” Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution, an independent public-policy research organization in Washington, said in a phone interview.
Russia’s security perimeter reached its widest extension after World War II when, under the Soviet Union’s ideological guise, Stalin’s empire stretched to the Elbe river, communist East Germany’s border with the West. Putin has mourned the Soviet Union’s implosion as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
“Putin is behaving like the Soviet Union,” Andrei Zubov, a historian and professor in the philosophy department at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, which is affiliated with the Russian Foreign Ministry, said by phone. “He’s practically continuing the Brezhnev Doctrine. The sense of the Brezhnev Doctrine was to say that there’s a certain space outside the Soviet borders which is ours. That’s what Putin is continuing.”
Ukraine occupies a special place in the Russian psyche. Home to the first organized eastern Slavic state, it ceded power to Moscow in the 14th century and remains the stuff of Russian myth. With much of eastern Europe now in the EU and NATO, Ukraine is both Putin’s last line of defense and the nucleus of his planned Eurasian economic union.
“It’s very, very hard for a lot of Russians to get used to the idea that Ukraine, of all of the former Soviet Republics, would be an independent state,” said Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state.
While the March 3 emergency session on Ukraine of the U.N. Security Council in New York or the hastily convened March 6 summit of EU leaders in Brussels grabbed the headlines, part of the 21st-century diplomacy industry is the web of non- governmental organizations operating on the grass-roots level.
Groups like the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict weren’t around in 1914. Based in The Hague, GPPAC is trying to bring together Ukrainians of all persuasions — from ethnic Russians to Crimean Tatars — and political stripes to keep people talking, not fighting.
Success is hard to measure, said Zahid Movlazadeh, the group’s coordinator for eastern Europe. “Peacebuilding in general is a long-term process,” he said. “We’re trying to decrease and de-escalate the tensions and there is some immediate evidence of that, but we have yet to assess to what degree they are effective.”
The future of Ukraine, Russia and East-West relations may hinge on those under-reported efforts. History is full of revolutions that careened out of control — most recently the uprising on Kiev’s Independence Square that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Crimea is under Russian military occupation and citizens there, 59 percent Russian, will vote March 16 on joining the bigger nation. A breakaway would add Ukraine to the list of countries on Russia’s periphery — already including Georgia and Moldova — which have territories partly under the Kremlin’s domination.
Such a “lasting conflict” with a Crimea loyal to Russia is the central scenario of Pal Dunay, in charge of international security courses at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
However, a pro-Russian revolt in other parts of eastern Ukraine would raise “the question whether Russia has a Plan B.”
With assistance from Nicole Gaouette in Washington and Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow.