Maybe it's because I have just read Ruth Tzeko's excellent A Tale for the Time Being (time, culture, language, philosophy, suicide, Zen, quantum physics, the self, and an intriguing story beautifully written), but watching events unfurl in the Ukraine appears familiar.

Familiar not just because Russian media discussion reflects the rhetoric of the old Soviet years, but also because the impotent moral vacuity of western protestation conjures up spectres of the national trade-offs that were going on in Europe in the run up to what became the First World War. Maybe it's because I am reading Christopher Clark's excellent account of this period in his best-selling The Sleepwalkers

Listening to Russian apologists for Putin's imperial ambitions certainly raises the western hackles, but, getting beyond the intuitive distrust of Russian political integrity, we have to ask why they are doing what they are doing in Ukraine – and why are they doing it now?

The west has just fought two very unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is clear that neither politicians nor people have the stomach for further military interventions on our own continent. Secondly, we can't afford another military intervention. Thirdly, we don't have enough conviction to fight for anything anyway. And Putin knows this. European and US exhaustion (both military and economic) mean that we won't stop him taking the Crimea and anywhere else he fancies just now.

Economic sanctions against Russian individuals? Well, they worked in Zimbabwe, didn't they? (that was meant to be ironic.) So, why is it that when I am watching Russians defending Russia's actions in relation to the Ukraine I feel doubly uncomfortable? The answer, I fear, is that, as Clark puts it (in relation to relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in 1913): “There was a clash here not just of interests, but also of policy styles.” (p.288) In other words, we speak different languages.

An interesting exercise to go through, if opportunity ever arises, is to examine the language used by the Soviet Union to justify its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and then the language/rhetoric used by the west to oppose it. Then compare these with the language/rhetoric used by Britain and the USA for their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then the language of Russian opposition to it. (I had to do this professionally.) It's all a bit Alice in Wonderland.

What characterises the story told by Christopher Clark about the run up to the First World War is the short-termism of political alliances forged for limited ends – trade-offs by the Powers in order to maximise their own security by (a) securing territory and (b) balancing the negatives of multiple alliances. The latter became complex, if not sometimes even contradictory. The issue, however, has to do with political and military powers that lose sight of the big picture and, heads and eyes focused down to the bit of grass in front of their noses, nibble their way to destruction.

Back to the Ukraine, it is easy to see why Putin is not terribly bothered by the west's indignant rhetoric. Perhaps he has a longer view of history than we do – or at least broader one. Perhaps he has come up with a different answer to the question about when does history begin? Maybe. But, what is clear is that twenty five years of post-Soviet humiliation is a powerful motivator in current behaviour – a humiliation welcomed in the west after the collapse of Communism, but without any idea – other than the assumed victorious western free-market capitalist democracy – of what might emerge from the ruins. 'The end of history' indeed!

And twenty five years is not a long time in the grand sweep of history. The Crimea was handed by the old USSR to Ukraine just over half a century ago – and now the Russians have decided to restore the ethnic and territorial status quo. And if a popular revolution in Kiev was deemed legitimate to bring down a government, why should a partial referendum in Crimea not be legitimate in giving the democratic majority in this region what they want?

Of course, it is not as simple as this. But, there are some simple questions that are being brushed over in the coverage and interpretation of events in Ukraine. And it is clear that western celebration a quarter of a century ago at the demise of the Soviet Empire has not created a unipolar world – and was certainly premature. Clearly, it is unclear what will happen next and what Putin has in mind for Russia: what we might call expansion he might call restoration.

I don't quite know how to express this, but spending time in Switzerland, France and Germany recently (sabbatical) brought it home to me just how geographical liminality is alien to English experience. We don't cross borders other than Wales and Scotland, which aren't – yet – borders in the sense that Germany and France have them. Living on an island shapes a particular perception of national identity, but it is very different one grown on mainland Europe where borders of land, language, culture, history and ethnicity are so pronounced, delicate, vulnerable and steeped in blood. Reading about the First World War outside of Britain is very different from reading about it in Britain – just as reading about concentration camps in the Second World War feels different depending on whether you are doing the reading in Bristol or Berlin.

Every government needs to read history – although history tells us that each one will read the history that suits them according to the myths they need to reinforce (regardless of whether the myths are backed up by facts). Every teenager in Britain should be required to spend a week in Berlin, walking along 'borders' that introduce them – in curriculum terms – to geography, history, language, religion, theology, politics, philosophy, art, literature, science, economics, culture, etc. That way we might just begin to grow a generation that is able to glimpse (if not see) through the eyes of another culture with another history, and realise that our own – assumed or intuitive – way of 'seeing' is both limited and relative.

Back to The Sleepwalkers

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