Switzerland has managed to stay out of the war since Napoleon’s time. Their secret is simple. They are not worth the effort. Switzerland is a mountainous country with few natural resources. Every man in the country is trained as a soldier and has a weapon. Conquering Switzerland would not be worth the effort.
There are other countries that are likewise not worth the effort, although their enemies sometimes realize it only too late. Afghanistan has been the death of the British, Soviet and perhaps American empires. Napoleon and Hitler should have avoided war with Russia.
I like to think that is now true as well of Ukraine. Putin would be stupid to invade. Now, how stupid is he?
War has changed in several ways over the past century. The most obvious is the atomic bomb, the doomsday machine. Any country that truly feels that its back is against the wall could decide that it had nothing to lose by nuking its opponent. Once thinkable atrocities, such as the Nazi plan for a Ukrainian genocide to form “lebensraum,” or the Soviet’s actual murder of about six million in the Holodomor, have become unthinkable because of the possible retribution.
A more subtle change has been the vast growth of world trade. The Soviet Union could afford to ignore world opinion because it was entirely self-sufficient. Russia, on the other hand, depends on the export of natural resources. They import equipment, technology and even technologists to support their energy businesses. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has forced hard decisions in many places, first of all Russia, as countries reassess doing business with unreliable partners. Economic isolation will be expensive.
Information binds the world even more tightly than trade. Barbarism even in remotest Africa elicits worldwide condemnation. We not only hear about acts of savagery, we see them on film and see interviews with the perpetrators. Groups like Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army are international pariahs. The United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine, and China’s uprisings among the Uighur and Tibetans create significant PR headaches. Being perceived as a bad world citizen carries very real costs, among them a government’s reputation among its own people.
Unfortunately, not every despot is fully capable of assessing his own self-interest. Napoleon and Hitler’s miscalculations about Russia cost not just vast carnage, but their empires. Ukraine and the Baltics emphatically do not want to become Russian again. Lenin himself explained why back in the 1920s:
The proletariat cannot but fight against the forcible retention of the oppressed nations within the boundaries of a given state, and this is exactly what the struggle for the right of self-determination means. The proletariat must demand the right of political secession for the colonies and for the nations that ‘its own’ nation oppresses. Unless it does this, proletarian internationalism will remain a meaningless phrase; mutual confidence and class solidarity between the workers of the oppressing and oppressed nations will be impossible.
The Ukrainians have had enough of being “Little Russia” and “New Russia.” No, they want to be Ukraine. They demonstrated as much as they threw off Putin’s puppet Yanukovych in Maidan, and they defied Putin’s meddling in the recent elections. The evidence is that they will be more trouble than it is worth if Putin makes yet another attempt to make them Russian. Let’s hope he is smart enough to see that.