Magazine article The Spectator

Who Does He Remind Us Of?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Does He Remind Us Of?

Article excerpt

THE was the last prime minister to believe Britain was a great power and the first to confront a crisis that proved she was not.' These words first appeared in the Times's obituary of Anthony Eden. Boris Yeltsin must fear today that the same verdict will presently be delivered on his time as head of government. Like Eden in 1956 faced with Colonel Nasser's challenge, he knows that in deciding whether boldly to confront Nato in the Balkans, he will probably be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

So far Yeltsin, rhetoric apart, has responded with great restraint, doubtless hoping that the present conflict, like the Crimean war, will refuse to boil and that some variant on the Rambouillet formula will lead to a settlement which allows both Nato and Serbia to save face. But with each passing week such an outcome looks increasingly unlikely. With the bombing campaign losing credibility and the plight of the Kosovars visibly worsening, the chances are that Nato will have to use ground forces if it is to be able even to pretend to have achieved peace with honour. Nor is it certain that ground forces would be able to confine themselves to securing part or even all of Kosovo. For if in their advance they uncovered large numbers of massacred or starved corpses - as Allied forces did when they liberated the Nazi death camps during the last stages of the second world war - an irresistible demand could grow in the West for Milosevic and his henchmen to face a Nuremberg-style trial; and this in turn could require a Nato march on Belgrade.

If something of this kind were to unfold, and Russia simply stood idly by, she would, in her own eyes at least, be finished as a great power. Yet sending forces, even `volunteers', to assist the Serbs would be a hazardous enterprise indeed, and one that on the form shown in Chechnya could easily end in humiliation.

What does history tell us is the more likely Russian response if she is thus pushed into a corner? Unfortunately, it suggests that she will make the same fateful choice as Eden made in 1956. For whereas Britain has stumbled into only one 'Suez' in her modern history, Russia is in this respect an incorrigible recidivist. She overreached herself, for example, in the Crimean war and had to surrender many of her gains in the Balkans at the Congress of Paris in 1856 which ended that war. And, although this war had led her into a condition of virtual bankruptcy from which the tsars never really recovered, she came back for more humiliation in 1877-78. Inspired by Panslavism, Russia militarily 'liberated' Bulgaria from the Ottoman Turks, on whom they imposed the Treaty of San Stefano. But at the Congress of Berlin, isolated and threatened with war by Disraeli, she had to endure seeing Bulgaria broken up and the Turks even regaining some territory lost at San Stefano. Again, in 1914, after having been unbearably provoked six years earlier by Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia, Tsar Nicholas II felt bound in honour to protect Serbia from what he saw as bullying by the Central Powers following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The result was a catastrophic military defeat, the fall of the Romanov dynasty and much else. In more recent times Khrushchev revealed a similar propensity to behave recklessly, most notably in the Cuban missile crisis, which Mao memorably described as having started with `criminal adventurism' and ended with `criminal capitulationism'.

Nato leaders, however conscious they may be of Russia's unstable record, may not, alas, for much longer be able to do anything to shape Yeltsin's course. …

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