On 25 October, 1854, a miscommunication in the chain of command caused the Light Brigade to charge into Russian guns at Balaklava. The unit was badly mauled, but that was just one battle lost in a war decisively won.
For the Crimean War achieved the strategic objective that had brought together Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia: barring the Russian navy from establishing a foothold in the Mediterranean.
The war wasn’t an isolated event. Ever since Russia acquired a navy in the early 18th century, the tsars, the Bolsheviks and the post-Bolsheviks have sought a Mediterranean base and, ideally, control of the Straits.
It’s in pursuit of this objective that Russia fought eight wars against Turkey between the reigns of Peter I and Nicholas II.
Hence Russian strategic doctrine has always incorporated a major southward thrust. And that’s why subversive Soviet activity was at its most febrile in Greece, Italy and France.
Conversely, Western European powers, and especially Britain, have historically made every effort to prevent such Russian expansion. They knew that allowing Russia a permanent presence in the Mediterranean would shift the strategic balance of power her way, and no Western country regarded Russia as a long-term friend.
In fact, this was one issue on which Europe was united long before the European Union was a twinkle in Jean Monnet’s eye.
Austria was allied with Turkey in the 1735-39 war against Russia, the three Western powers joined Turkey in the Crimean war, Britain more or less created the Turkish navy and so forth, all the way to the Second World War, after which Britain and the United States prevented the Soviets from turning Greece into another Romania.
Hundreds of thousands died in those gallant efforts to keep Russia in check, but the strategic objective was achieved, and no one could say those Turks, Greeks, Austrians, Sardinians, Brits and Frenchmen died in vain.
That is, no one could say it until now. For it has just been announced that the Cypriot government has granted Putin’s Russia the use of Cyprus ports. The construction of a permanent Russian naval base is just round the corner.
The piquancy of the situation is that it’s not immediately apparent how Russia is any less of a strategic threat now than she was two centuries ago.
Not only has Putin launched an open aggression first against Georgia and now the Ukraine, but every shrill message from the state-controlled Russian press leaves one in no doubt that the Russians see such conflicts in the broader context of war on the West.
Moreover, the current aggression has been sacralised, which is the time-honoured trick of modern tyrants.
If you read the Russian press, you’ll get the impression that the Ukraine doesn’t matter one way or the other. What is supposed to be currently under way is a clash between the Russian World and the Anglo-Saxon World (of which, if you believe the Russian press, the EU is but a stooge).
Unlike the materialistic, soulless Anglo-Saxons, Russia represents unbridled spirituality that must be imposed on the world by paradoxically physical military means. God is with Russia, preach Putin’s media, eerily evoking the memory of the SS slogan Gott mit uns.
This sort of stance has historically tended to create firm opposing alliances, such as the one put together in the Crimean War at a time when Russia sounded much more modest in her aspirations.
Hence we must get down on our knees and give thanks. There is no need to put together such an alliance. It already exists, and it’s called the European Union.
You know, the entity to which we supposedly owe the absence of a major European war in the last 70 years. The EU has brought Europe together to ensure lasting peace, prosperity and cultural cohesion.
That’s why, whenever a regional conflict brews anywhere Europe, the EU closes ranks, blows the bugle, beats the drum and… well, does nothing, if truth be told.
In all those conflicts, from Yugoslavia to the Ukraine, the EU has been at best a useless presence and at worst a malevolent one, adding to the bloodshed, rather than subtracting from it.
But surely this time it’ll be different. Surely the EU will draw the line at reversing three centuries’ worth of strategic policy…
Hold on a moment. The last I looked Cyprus was a member of the EU and even, since 2007, of the eurozone. Is it still? Let me see on my trusted Google… there it is. Well, what do you know, Cyprus indeed belongs to the united front Europe presents to the cold world out there.
Fair enough, Russia can bring pressure to bear on Cyprus, what with Russian Mafiosi favouring her beaches for relaxation and her banks for money laundering. But if the EU can tell Britain (Britain!) how to run her foreign and domestic affairs, can’t Angie say Nein to Cyprus (Cyprus!)?
In general, Putin is finding the EU unsportingly easy as a target for the old divide et impera strategy. His overtures to Greece, Hungary and now Cyprus are manifestly aimed at splitting the Union, and this recent development raises the question of how united the Union really is.
Not very, as you can find out by buying a glass of wine for a Greek, Spaniard, Italian or a Portuguese and asking him what he really thinks of the Germans. Or else you could buy a stein of beer for a German and ask him how he feels about those other chaps, and also the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and the French.
Unless the recipients of your largesse work for the European Commission, the illusion of a united Europe will vanish like a desert mirage. You’ll get a distinct impression that, contrary to its declared objectives, the EU promotes fractional enmity and consequently the possibility of a major war.
But ours not to reason why, ours but to do and… Well, let’s not end on a macabre note.