Remember the Battle of Tannenberg

The Graduate Record Exam in history I took at the end of college had trick questions about Canada--tricks because we knew nothing about Canadian history. A collective effort to come up with a list of great moments in Canadian history missed the mark.

Today looking at the situation in Ukraine, it strikes me that Americans are in the same factual fog. We know little about the historical or political forces at work in Ukraine. Our understanding of Russia and Putin is being made in the headlines. Europe's dilemma eludes us.

Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have been shuttling between Kiev, Moscow, Belarus and Washington dealing with a major EU crisis. The potential for continent-wide conflict may seem remote as long as the battle is beetween Kiev and Eastern Ukraine (with its unmarked Green Men and their tanks,etc). The European, especially the German, effort to keep the peace is rooted in a long history of conflict that the Germans may understand (and regret) more than most. One hundred years ago in the opening days of World War I, the Germans destroyed the Second Russian Army at the Battle of Tannenberg; not the first time or last time that Germany and Russia destroyed one another.

In the meantime, here in the U.S. our congressional foreign policy team of McCain and Graham call for arming Ukraine. President Obama has spoken of supplying defensive military equipment, which sounds benign enough until it becomes clear that this could include anti-tank weapons, etc. Those who have a handle on the bigger issues point to the danger of nuclear confrontation. At the recent Munich Security Conference (where McCain pooh-poohed Merkel's peace efforts) experts on the nuclear situation of Russia and the U.S. raised the alarm not only about the frayed relations between the two nuclear powers but about the fact that the "red phone," a staple of the Cold War, is no longer connected.

Spiegel Online has a report on the nuclear discussion at the Munich Conference.

If you have the time: A video of Ambassador Jack Matlock: "The Mistakes We Made with Russia and How to Stop Making Them. Matlock was ambassador to Soviet Union, 1987-1991 during critical moments in the agreements between the U.S. and Russia over the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sobering.

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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