Back in the mid fifties I clumped into my tutors study for the first time with several others for the first session on Modern European History. Although youngish he was a known man and on telephone list of certain high officials at the Foreign Office. He had an ability to analyse complex situations where the evidence was sketchy or problematical.
The reason for the clumping was that I was still wearing my Army Boots having been given my papers a week earlier. The only pair of shoes I had were not up to full civilian working life and for footwear rugby boots had a much higher priority. He grinned, he had done his time and his senior academic had been a sergeant in the First War.
It was an interesting situation. I certainly wanted to hear his take on how far Austria had been the most culpable element in the early 20th Century. He would have sold his grandmother to see some of the Army documents I had handled. There was a divergence between FO thinking and Army thinking on various matters that has still not emerged.
A thick grey mist had descended over Moscow's elite and their decision processes after the death of Stalin. He began by telling us that to understand the periods of the 19th Century and the early 20th Century we needed to understand Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Our problem in the West was that so many of the writers on the subject did not because of their essential perceptions and misconceptions.
We were looking at a map, the usual sort of map. Then he turned it upside down, skewed it slightly and asked us what we saw. The upshot of this was that we could not see The Russia's as a Nordic nation, a European nation in the conventional sense, it was beyond a simple Central European entity, nor was it Middle Eastern or Eastern or Pacific.
It was all of them. The Ukraine was West, East and South all at once. It's history and the history of All The Russia's is not the same as any other in the world and well removed from all our notions in the West about many areas of policy. Our thinking is not their thinking and our problems are as alien to them as theirs are alien to us.
We learned this the hard way in the 1850's with the Crimean War as well as a few other lessons in how not to fight wars against major powers. These were forgotten as the decades passed. This war started with a row over the Keys To The Holy Places in Jerusalem which was allowed to escalate into a crisis which that led to an unnecessary and very foolish war.
Just as the French, also involved with the UK, had forgotten that when Napoleon had marched into Russia in 1812 he lost half a million men. This dealt blows to France which cost him his Imperial throne, and severely damaged its economy for decades to come. If you calculate that half million against the total male adult population of France at the time you will understand the scale of the disaster.
More recently Hitler marched into Russia and the Ukraine and that ended with a Soviet presence in Berlin for over forty years. So what do we now have? The USA jumping up and down shouting. The hapless, helpless UK sticking its broken oar in. The EU is clodhopping around, ignorant, inexperienced and insane.
Our Foreign Office, having binned and rid itself of its corporate memory and archives in the Blair and Brown years is probably ringing round the four major accounting companies and their usual group of major companies hoping for a commercial angle and a marginal profit to justify their existence with a handful of juicy contracts meaning a few jobs here and there.
Among the 14,000 significant obligations taken on in recent decades is apparently a Convention signed in Budapest by Blair that might commit the West to some sort of support for one side or other in the Ukraine, most likely the non-Russian side. Budapest, we might recall was the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose bungling in The Balkans triggered World War One.
Russia in the meantime has its thumb on one of the arteries of the European economy and I do not mean just its sponsorship of the European Football Championship. It is the gas and oil supplies that are used. It might hurt Russia to turn off the taps for a while. It would hurt Europe a lot more. There are other ways it could cause endless trouble costs and damage.
In the modern media world it may be very hard to stand back and let matters unfold. Politicians are supposed to "do something". What our politicians in the West could best do is to stay well clear of what could be a very nasty mess and avoid making it a lot worse and making it crystal clear why.
If you want any examples, then think of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria among many other places. Each of these blunders has cost us dear in many ways.
The cost of fouling up in the Ukraine will be infinitely higher. Russia is Nordic, European, Middle Eastern, Central European, Asian and Pacific and do not forget it.