Forget comparisons with 1914, or to Munich in 1938. Forget the war that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s and remember, instead, Schleswig-Holstein.  

A century and a half ago, it was the Crimea of its day,  a piece of disputed territory that caused international turmoil and confusion.  

Schleswig-Holstein was a Danish territory, next to what is now Germany, with a majority German-speaking population. The dispute over its control led to war between Denmark on one side and Prussia and the Austrian empire on the other.  The Danes lost.

So total was the confusion over the claims to Schleswig-Holstein that the British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, said, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort (Queen Victoria’s husband), who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it."

In the 1860s, both Britain and France tried repeatedly to prevent Prussia under Bismarck from expanding its power over Schleswig-Holstein and obtaining an important naval port, Kiel. Their efforts failed.

The parallels to the current situation are obvious, as are the perils for the European Union.  

Trying to use diplomacy and the threat of sanctions against a regime that relied on military clout didn’t work then, and it probably won't now.

But the Europeans press on, along with the U.S. There will be no G8 preparatory meeting with Russia in June, and there will be targeted sanctions against key members of Vladimir Putin’s regime if Russia recognizes Sunday’s referendum result, which it almost certainly will.

And if Russia undertakes to annex Crimea, there will probably be wider and stiffer sanctions against Russian companies.

Putin will probably just shrug all that off. He has dismissed international law and international treaties — notably the one his government signed in 1994 guaranteeing the sanctity of Ukraine's borders in return for the transfer of Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal to Russia — in favour of a higher "moral" calling to protect Russians living abroad, notably in Crimea.

This might be called the Palmerston doctrine.  

Yes, the same Lord Palmerston who forgot all he ever knew about Schleswig-Holstein, had earlier invoked ancient Rome ("civis Romanus sum," I am a Roman citizen) to defend Britain’s use of gunboat diplomacy.

Like the senate of Rome — like Putin today — Her Majesty’s British government would defend its subjects anywhere in the world.

More confusion

For his part, Putin seems completely dismissive of Western leaders and their efforts.  

"They sit there across the pond as if they're in a lab running all kinds of experiments on rats, without understanding consequences of what they're doing," he said earlier this month in a schoolmaster-meets-the-pupils encounter with selected Russian journalists.

Russia Ukraine

Gunboat diplomacy> Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to the press at the Russian Ambassador's residence in London, Friday, following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)

The "rats" are apparently Ukraine’s new leaders whom Putin and his lieutenants denounce as fascists, usurpers and illegitimate.

Western leaders, it should be said, are doing their best to live down to Putin’s evaluation of them as little better than lab apprentices.  

In Germany, for example, confusion reigns. While Chancellor Angela Merkel calls the Russian actions in Crimea a clear violation of international law and says Putin isn’t in touch with reality, her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, a friend of Putin’s and the head of a European subsidiary of the Russian giant Gazprom, blasted Western leaders.

Russia, Schroeder said, shouldn’t be excluded from the G8. And NATO shouldn’t be involved in any counter-play.  "NATO doesn’t create confidence, but merely stokes fears."

Adding to the confusion is the skepticism about Germany’s commitment to tough action by its own allies further to the east, notably Poland.  

Germany gets 35 per cent of its oil and gas from Russia, and the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, said, “Germany’s dependence on Russian gas can limit Europe’s sovereignty. I’m convinced of that.”  

With friends like that, don’t expect much beyond lip service to a tough, united front.

No stomach for tough sanctions

Speaking of friends, the Germans themselves are openly annoyed with the U.S. and particularly with Secretary of State John Kerry for his last-minute meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov two days before the Crimea referendum.  

Aides to the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, made it clear  to reporters that their man was only informed after the fact about the meeting and accused Washington of trying to grab the steering wheel at the last minute.

Meanwhile, in London, a senior government official walked into a meeting in the prime minister’s office holding a briefing paper that was photographed with a telephoto lens.  

The title said that the U.K. shouldn’t stop London from being a financial centre for Russian money. So no tough economic sanctions from Britain either.

Even more breathtaking is the French position. While denouncing Moscow, the French are readying the first of two sophisticated naval helicopter carriers for delivery later this year and next year to the Russian navy.

In fact, a Russian crew is supposed to start training off France on the first ship at the end of March.  

There is no question there of cancelling a contract worth $2 billion. The naval construction yards are in the French prime minister’s constituency.

After the contract was signed three years ago, the head of the Russian navy cracked that with one of those boats the Russians could have completed their rout of Georgia in the little war of 2008 in 40 minutes instead of 26 hours.  

At the time European leaders roundly denounced Russia’s aggression, but their words and anger soon evaporated. Putin is clearly expecting the same thing this time around.

After his schoolmasterly press conference, the Russian president has said almost nothing.  He is letting “the people” speak, by having them call for his help in a rigged referendum in Crimea and in clashes in eastern Ukraine.

But remember Schleswig-Holstein. That tidy little war took place in 1864, but it required another 56 years and a world war for the status of the territory to finally be settled by the Treaty of Versailles. The Danes got northern Schleswig, the Germans got the rest.

With that in mind, Crimea could run on and on.