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Last thoughts before the world ends (or maybe not)

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, shortly before they were assassinated on June 28, 1914

I was down at Possum Point, which is not far from Batemans Bay, taking a few days off with Joadja and Jesse Dingo when the news filtered through that the Russians had invaded Ukraine. Or The Ukraine, as the world used to say until a few short years ago. Maybe “invade” isn’t quite the right term. Yet. At the moment it seems to be more of an intervention in support of a series of local coups launched by the pro-Russian folk in the western part of the country, especially the Crimean peninsula, where Russia’s critical naval base at Sevastopol has been leased from the new state of Ukraine since 1994.

If Melbourne was in Ava Gardener’s (probably apocryphal) words about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, “a great place to film the end of the world”, Possum Point is probably as good a place as any to sit it out. The sun was glinting off a lilting ocean when I drove to Batemans to lay in a stock of dog kibble, batteries, rice, and tinned food, just in case. Probably things won’t escalate, but you can never be sure.

In August this year it will be a whole hundred years since the start of the First World War. That one began in a very small way with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne, who was generally loathed by the Austrian royals and not much liked in the rest of Europe. Many in the establishment had good reason to celebrate his passing. Across Europe, most articulate people thought the affair was unlikely to lead to anything much.

But the big wheels of history ground relentlessly on. Although they were pleased to see Franz Ferdinand and his wife out of the way, Austria’s rulers seized on his assassination by bona fide Serb terrorists as an unmissable opportunity to knock Serbian nationalism on the head, once and for all.

The way things were developing, the argument went, if they passed up this opportunity, Serbian expansionism would grow stronger and backed by the threat of a reformed, revitalised and enlarged Imperial Russian army, all the minorities in the polyglot empire would want out, and the whole edifice would come crashing down. Better to fight now, when Austria was militarily strong and prepared, rally the minorities behind the Empire’s brief war and inevitable glorious victory over Serbia, the argument went.

But the move also depended on the support of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany to prevent the aforementioned Russians –  who regarded themselves as the protector of the southern Slavs – from intervening against Austria, and that’s where the argument got very adventurous. The argument went that the Tsar wouldn’t intervene because of “Monarchical Solidarity” – which is to say, no monarch would intervene against another who was just punishing terrorists who killed monarchs. The argument turned out to be wrong. The pull of national strategic interest and the railway mobilisation schedules were far, far, stronger.

One of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s main Slav minorities was the Ruthenians, or Ukrainians, as we call them today. Mostly, they felt a pull towards Russia, which is sort of where they ended up  after the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war, except, of course, it was the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, not the Tsar’s imperial Russia, which wasn’t quite what the more conservative Ukrainian Slav nationalists had expected.

Geography matters. Russia isn’t an island like the UK or Australia or New Zealand, or, effectively, the US and Canada. It suffers from hugely long land borders that are horribly indefensible. Over centuries of bitter experience the Russians, regardless of economic system, ideology or politics, have come to rely on “trading space for time” as the generals say. They get very edgy if they don’t have a lot of padding around their core area – a protective belt of friendly border countries a few hundred kilometres wide. And if not friendly, at least subservient. Mess with that and you’re messing with the Russian psyche and the foundation stone of their policy and that’s why the aggressive push by the US, the EEC and NATO for gathering the small nations on Russia’s border into the Western orbit is very dangerous indeed. What makes it more dangerous at the present time, is that the other pillar of Russian security, an alliance with France against Germany, no longer exists. The French are, at least publicly, lining up with NATO.

It’ll be interesting to see how Tony Abbott fakes his way through this one. He’s probably praying that Putin will call the Yanks’ bluff. Jesus H Christ, what if Obama has a rush of blood to the head and decides to actually do something of a military nature? Tony would never have the balls to talk his way out of supporting NATO and the US. He’ll have to try John Howard’s trick and say, “Ah, mate, mate, ah, each of our special forces soldiers are worth ten of anybody else’s and we’ll send you both of them”.

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