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History’s long shadow falls over Russia and Ukraine

Wars have rules, and those who ignore them are apt to achieve surprise, simply by being stupid.

By Lawrence Freedman

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Karl Marx, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”

When I was asked, after seven years of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War, what the major lesson for British policy was, my response was normally “don’t do it again”. To be frank, that was my response before the inquiry began. This was reflective of the limits to military power that have developed over time, based on a consideration of many instances rather than one or two specific cases. My views can be summed up in eight simple rules:

1. do not depend on the first military move being decisive. If it is not decisive, you will be fighting a very different war to the one envisaged;
2. a poor performance in the early stages of a war will prolong its length, if it does not lead to immediate defeat;
3. it is easier to start wars than to end them;
4. forces are more determined when defending their own territory than when invading somebody else’s;
5. resistance does not necessarily conclude with the defeat of defending forces, but can lead to insurgency. This is why it is always unwise to occupy countries in which you will not be welcome;
6. the longer wars go on, the more important non-military considerations (national resilience/ economic strength/ alliance and partnerships) become to their resolution;
7. during the course of a war, the political objectives for which it is being fought will change according to how the prospective gains can justify the actual costs, thereby making them harder to conclude;
8. the unintended consequences of wars are normally as important, if not more, than the intended.

These rules do not apply in all circumstances. There will always be exceptions. There have been wars with decisive first moves (the 1967 Six-Day War, for example) but not many. The post-1945 occupations of Germany and Japan were successful, but these were countries absolutely crushed by years of wars set in motion by their leaders. It is also fair to note that, taken individually, these rules are somewhat banal. They nonetheless have the advantage of generally being true. Taken together, they reinforce each other. By and large, those who start wars tend to end up with much more troublesome and damaging conflicts than anticipated. This happens sufficiently often that any leader tempted to start a war should really be wracked by doubt.

I was thinking of these rules during the first weeks of 2022 when assessing the likelihood of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ordering a full-blown invasion of Ukraine. I presumed Putin, who was clearly not risk-averse but also, I thought, capable of careful calculation, would have been aware of the dangers of becoming beguiled by the prospect of a quick win over Ukraine. Someone who spoke so often about the war against Nazi Germany would surely be aware of the impact of Hitler’s folly in launching Operation Barbarossa. He had seen the Soviet Union withdraw from Afghanistan because there seemed to be no satisfactory way to bring its campaign to an end, and then Nato do the same thing in the same country. Why would he make the same mistake in Ukraine?

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Well, I had forgotten my ninth rule:

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9. As Rules 1-8 are self-evident, those political leaders who ignore them and launch a war are apt to achieve surprise, simply by being stupid.

I was, therefore, wrong in assuming that Putin would see that a war designed to bring about regime change in Kyiv was a stupid idea, but right that it was a stupid idea. Putin’s blunder has confirmed the validity of the rules. Like so many before him, he was convinced that this case would be different. The prize of a subjugated Ukraine was just too sweet to be abandoned out of prudence. He must now deal with the logic of the situation.

[See also: Russia must be offered a way out]

This is a different war to the one Putin began on 24 February 2022. He has now presented himself as a reincarnation of Peter the Great and admitted that this is a war of conquest rather than liberation. It is territory now that he is after, having largely given up on the people of Donbas, whose supposed vulnerability to a Ukrainian attack provided the pretext for the war. The separatist armies from Donetsk and Luhansk have been used as cannon fodder, sent into battle unprepared and ill-equipped, to spare regular units. To gain this territory, he depends on the cover of Russia’s nuclear strength to deter others from giving direct support to Ukraine’s resistance while relying on the weight of its conventional firepower to batter Ukraine’s forces into submission. At some point, perhaps quite soon, he will hope that the combined exhaustion of Ukraine’s forces and the impatience of its supporters, not least because of the spreading impact of this war on the global economy and food supplies, will lead to a deal that turns these conquests into a permanent part of Russia. But he is in his own race against time. His forces, despite their local advantages, make progress only slowly, and Ukrainian forces are gradually introducing some of the most modern Western equipment to sustain their defences and prepare their counteroffensives.

Learning lessons

Trying to work out how this might end and what are the best (or least bad) outcomes is hard because of the patchy information coming from the front lines, but also because of the unprecedented nature of this conflict. With so much at stake and so many uncertainties, it is natural to look to history for guidance, whether in confidence that the good always win in the end (the “right side of history”), although sadly on occasion they don’t, or in the variety of lessons that history supposedly tells us, although it is not history that is speaking but historians, and their interpretations are often contested. Historians are professionally bound to warn against facile lesson-drawing, but where else can we go for guidance except to moments in the past that provide semblances of precedent?

The most popular moment, always invoked when warning about attempts to talk dictators out of their evil designs, is Munich in 1938. Those arguing that sometimes opponents must be offered a way out of a dangerous confrontation point to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Looking for a way to support a country at war without getting directly involved in the fighting? Then it’s the 1941 Lend-Lease Act used by Roosevelt to support Britain (and recalled by President Joe Biden when describing his $40bn assistance package for Ukraine). There will be a need to transfer large amounts of money to revive a desperate Ukrainian economy once the war is over, and already references are being made to the 1948 Marshall Plan. President Emmanuel Macron’s concern about the consequences of “humiliating” Russia provides an opportunity to return to the 1919 Versailles Treaty, also relevant to the topic of reparations.

Yet this business of learning and applying lessons is an exercise that requires care. Wars are not fought as pedagogical exercises. The lessons with which they become associated over time were not necessarily apparent then, and nor may they survive retrospective examination. In practice these are not really lessons, in the sense of being incontrovertible propositions that will be true in all circumstances. Single episodes, however momentous, cannot provide proofs. At most they demonstrate that a preferred policy (or at least some approximation) once worked in the past, or alternatively was tried and failed.

More careful lesson-drawing might compare similar cases that had different results (including those in which, say, appeasement worked, or when generous financial assistance was wasted by corruption and incompetence). Some academic students of international relations do search out multiple cases, but that can require taking individual cases so much out of context that the distinctive features that made the difference get overlooked. Context is always essential when trying to understand the range of options available to policymakers, and the effectiveness of those chosen. And we have the advantage of knowing what came next. We start with the effects and work back to identify possible causes. But when, as now, we look forward, we cannot be sure that similar causes will produce the same effects. Thus, these celebrated “lessons” are often no more than props for our speculations.

This is not an argument in favour of ignoring historical cases that bear a passable resemblance to the current situation. They can be suggestive of possibilities, of issues to look out for, of examples of what can go right and wrong. But they provide no substitute for a careful examination of the actual situation facing political leaders as they ponder their next steps. Whether or not it makes sense to keep open lines of diplomacy to Putin requires a careful reading of his goals and a view about how this conflict can develop. One does not need a reference to Munich to have doubts about his objectives or trustworthiness. Yet this is a war shaped by the past. For Putin, the imperatives for action and his strategy emerged out of his reading of history. Here lies the source of his blunder and the tragedy of this war.

The weight of history

Putin’s rhetoric is littered with historical references: recently, in his Peter the Great mode, to the start of the 18th century and Russia’s war with Sweden; to Catherine the Great’s acquisition of Novorussia, which includes much of the land that is now at the heart of the fighting; and then to the construction of the Soviet Union and its eventual collapse, with the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) always the highlight. For Putin, history describes a struggle for Russia to find the right shape, as its domain has expanded and contracted over the centuries, and, in his mind, must now expand again. There is a tension between his desire to include all Russian speakers in the same state, and a paranoid instinct that no border can ever be truly secure if non-Russians are on the other side of it. There is a continuity in enemies too, for the current opponents of Russia are presented as the heirs of those who opposed it in the past, so that by definition they are all ”Nazis” or, to be more specific in the case of Ukraine, followers of Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader who worked with the Nazis during the war. The fact that the families of those leading Ukraine, including of its president Volodymyr Zelensky, suffered under the Nazis and fought against them is irrelevant.

But it is important also to appreciate how much history informs the opposition to Russia. Ukraine has memories of maltreatment, including famine, under the Bolsheviks, and its borders being regularly chopped and changed by Europe’s great powers. Those countries bordering Russia remember not only Nazi atrocities but also the crimes of Stalinism. The Poles recall the Katyn massacre of 1940, when 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered by Stalin’s men. The Baltic states recall how they were incorporated against their will into the Soviet Union. The Czechs and Slovaks remember the crushing of their hopes for liberalising reforms in 1968 when they were invaded. For the states of this region, the narratives are as much of betrayal as of past glories – of Britain and France consigning them to their fate in 1938, or the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939, or the 1945 Yalta conference when Churchill and Roosevelt accepted that the countries they had worked to liberate from the Nazis were still going to end up in the Soviet bloc.

From this perspective, the debates elsewhere in the West about whether it was wise to allow Nato to enlarge after the end of the Cold War fail to understand why these countries insisted on the guarantees of formal alliance to enable them to feel secure. Their Russian neighbour still seemed disappointed that they had been allowed to slip out of its sphere of influence. Now this same sense of a precarious security, these same narratives of betrayals, including the fear of betrayals to come, are vital to any understanding of why these states are determined to see Russia defeated in Ukraine and their wariness of calls for continuing dialogue with Putin.

[See also: Vladimir the Great]

It also shapes their attitudes to German policy. It is obvious why all this history is awkward for Berlin. As West Germany was rehabilitated after 1945, it promised never again to become an aggressor state, or support other aggressors, and then to work to keep the peace in Europe as a responsible member of Nato, the EU and the UN. Chancellor Olaf Scholz inherits a Social Democrat tradition that was shaped by Willy Brandt in the 1970s, who used his readiness to acknowledge Germany’s past misdeeds to build diplomatic bridges to the Soviet Union, and the other countries of central and eastern Europe, and so forge a calming détente. From this perspective, the gas pipelines to Russia could be taken not as an awkward source of dependence but as symbols of cooperation. But as Putin’s policies acquired a harsher edge, evident from as early as 2007, Germany was not sure how to respond, too conscious of the past to contemplate a full break with Russia, and so ready to act as a mediator, always looking to ease tensions. The brazen nature of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which it had not expected, caught Berlin by surprise. It has struggled to catch up, with its hesitations and fine distinctions when discussing arms supplies to Ukraine feeding all those narratives of betrayal in northern and eastern Europe.

We should not underestimate the importance of these historical perspectives found in Russia’s neighbourhood, influencing not only Kyiv but also Warsaw, Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Prague, Bratislava and Helsinki. It is why, whatever weary geopoliticians might think in Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Rome, these are the countries that will push back on any attempt to wriggle out of sanctions or slow down the pace of arms deliveries. Note how badly Macron’s talk of the need to avoid humiliating Russia went down in this part of the world, and how quickly he has moved to demonstrate that he too is taking a strong stance against Russian aggression and is sending more weapons to Ukraine.

When it is over, this war will be studied for its lessons, whether about the impact of new weapons such as drones or old ones such as tanks, about the working of alliances and the value of sanctions, about the practice of diplomacy and whether there can ever be compromises between aggressors and the aggrieved. But most of all, it will reinforce many of the pre-existing narratives about how individual states respond to crises, whether they can see a wider interest beyond their short-term concerns, and how much they are prepared to accept hardships for the sake of their values.

Most of all, it will confirm a view of Russia as predatory, cynical and untrustworthy, however unfair this may seem to those who know the best of Russia and its potential to play a constructive role in international affairs. Instead of the cruelties of the Soviet years being allowed to fade from memory, they have now been revived in a vivid and painful form and, whatever the peacemakers hope, they will shape attitudes towards Russia for years to come.

When we want to forget embarrassing episodes from the past, we talk of the need to draw a line and move on. We seek “closure”. But without repentance, closure will not be possible. Can we be confident that the current leadership group in Moscow will abandon its claims on Ukraine or stop its instinctive attempts to bully those who refuse to bend to its will? Even assuming we get to the point in which it withdraws voluntarily, chastened by a campaign that has gone badly wrong and left the Russian Federation wounded, it is unlikely to apologise.

Because Russia is a major power, with a large nuclear arsenal, it would be for the best if forms of dialogue and cooperation could be resumed, and Moscow could be convinced that Nato countries are not seeking to pounce upon it and dismember the country. But the past cannot be so easily forgotten. Those who have suffered in the past from Russian behaviour, from the repression of the Soviet years, to the coercion of more recent decades, do not see what has happened over the past few months as aberrant behaviour. They will be urging their allies and partners to keep up their guard. The anger currently directed at Russia reinforces decades of mistrust. It will be a fact of European affairs for years to come. ​

George Santayana observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it is precisely because of the regular repetition that it is not forgotten, though it is often recalled with bitterness and without nuance. Marx famously opened his essay “The 18th Brumaire” by noting how, when history repeated itself, it did so “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Unfortunately it can come as tragedy the second time as well.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: Western fatigue over Ukraine war risks handing victory to Putin]