Why Europe’s history is full of wars fought to enforce neutrality

BY GEORGE BODO

The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia is deeply rooted in the history of Europe. In the 19th Century, as Prussia, under Chancellor Otto von Bismark, began to seriously advance the idea of unification of Southern German states under one strong State (which later became Germany), France, then under Napoleon III, saw a stronger unified Germany as a threat to its own standing within Europe and war between France and Prussia was inevitable. 

Historians are still divided but the war was eventually triggered by the candidacy of Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Prussian prince, to the throne of Spain. An alliance between Prussia and Spain would encircle France in the middle and France could not stand that. France successfully sent a demand letter to King Wilhelm I of Prussia asking for a stand-down. Eventually, the prince’s candidacy was withdrawn but the French went further and demanded that the King sends an apology letter to Napoleon. Wilhelm refused and the demands of the French were published in Germany, albeit after little calculated editing by Otto von Bismark. 

The Prussian public were furious and demanded war, but Bismark waited until the French declared war. While the French lost, it is well known that it was a war fought to enforce Spain’s neutrality amidst Prussia’s territorial expansion. How did Britain get drawn into World War One? 

For most of the 18th century, armies had marched across the Habsburg territory in quest for domination of Europe. For Britain, as Henry Kissinger narrates, which was a naval superpower at the time, the Scheldt river estuary, at the mouth which lay the port of Antwerp across the English Channel (in the current Belgium), needed to be in the hands of a neutral country and under no control of a major European state. 

Indeed, having another European power across the English Channel threatened the security of the British empire. As a result, the congress of Vienna, a London conference of European powers (and a precursor to the United Nations), recognized Belgian independence while declaring the new nation neutral. 

In turn, Belgium agreed not to join any military alliance or permit the stationing of foreign troops inside its territory. This was in exchange for territorial protection by the European powers. This historical neutrality also explains why Belgium today hosts the headquarters of both the EU Parliament and the North Atlantic Alliance (or simply NATO). This security guarantee lasted for nearly a century. Its violation was the trigger that drew Britain into World War I, when German troops forced their way to France through Belgian territory. Essentially, Britain went to war in order to preserve Belgium’s neutrality. And what about the Cuban missile crisis of 1961? 

Suppose that America’s Southern neighboring countries, namely Cuba, Mexico, or even Puerto Rico, went into an alliance with Russia and agreed to host Russian missile launchers right across the South. Of course America would go ballistic. Which is exactly what happened with the Cuban missile crisis. After the failed 1961 coup in Cuba, orchestrated by the United States (of course), Cuba went in search of a new big brother in the stature of USSR. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was more than happy to ship nuclear missiles to Cuba to not only protect the island, but to also bring the cold war face-off right at the doorstep of Americans. By the time the US discovered the plan, the materials used to create the missiles were already in place. 

At an emergency meeting in October 1962, President JF Kennedy’s advisors urged him to invade the island and strike the missile sites. The President refused and instead declared a naval blockade to the island. This declaration set off a series of events within a span of just six days that nearly triggered another nuclear war. When it comes to Russia and Ukraine, the two countries have a long and winding history of being intertwined. They were part of USSR and Ukraine only got independence in 1992 after the Soviet collapse. 

For the longest time, Vladimir Putin, Russia Federation’s de facto President, has demanded Ukraine’s neutrality amidst NATO’s eastward expansion. At a Bucharest Summit in April 2008, NATO issued a declaration which welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s Euro Atlantic aspirations of membership in NATO. This has kept the Kremlin awake all night. Russia’s fears have been grounded on the fact upon ascension into NATO, Ukraine would host US’ lethal military assets and Putin cannot stand the idea of US nuclear missiles right at its doorsteps. 

Consequently, Kyiv has been a chessboard for both the West and Russian machinations. The current dispute traces back to 2004 when the West sponsored a revolution to remove Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych who had won a tightly contested Presidential election run-off. The West triumphed but they would again interfere in 2014 when Viktor Yanukovych, after winning elections, was forced to flee to Moscow. Meanwhile, a pro-West Ukraine continued to up its NATO membership aspirations. If Putin loses the war, Ukraine’s Euro Atlantic aspirations of membership in NATO will be more than emboldened. But while Putin’s invasion of Ukraine can be looked at as the Cuban missile crisis in reverse, he felt a broad urge to enforce neutrality, something which is not new in the West’s history.  

 – Callstreet Research and Analytics 

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