The developments (as of Friday morning) have been both shocking and (at least over the past few months) predictable. Europe (even if the Russo-Ukraine border is about as far southeast as one could go and still call it “Europe”) has not seen a major war since the Soviets and the Americans met at the Elbe River in Germany in May, 1945. People in the former Yugoslavia, of course, would hasten to point out that their vicious series of wars in the 1990s were certainly “major” to them. But other acts of violence were either highly localized (e.g. the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland (1970s-1990s) or very brief. Even the demise of Communism across Central and Eastern Europe brought with it remarkably little military action.
As it happens, in my class on 19C International History this week, I have been lecturing on the ramifications of the post-Napoleonic peace settlements, generally referred to as the “Congress of Vienna,” which started a period of similarly (if also similarly qualified) peaceful European existence which lasted almost a century until the cataclysm of WWI. There are certainly some parallels which will be drawn by historians and pundits once the current conflict ends. Of course, how it ends will determine which parallels are thence drawn.
One trope which has already appeared is the narrative of lapsed progress. In the run-up to WWI, many Europeans congratulated themselves on achieving the pinnacle of human development, both in terms of material life (i.e., standards of living and technology) and morality (i.e., culture and civilization). War was seen as receding into the rear-view mirror (the automotive version of which was invented in 1911). Globalization and integration made it seem that because disruption and autarky were economically foolish, that they were impossible. All this, in the event, proved to be wrong. Similarly in the 21C, the commentariat has been wringing hands over our version of this lapse, with variations on a theme of “Gee, I thought we were past all this sort of thing.” Well, wrong again. Human (moral) progress (if it exists at all) has to be considered on an evolutionary time-scale; not the blip of our own lives and memories. And “Europeans” (and by extension, the rest of us in the “West,”) need to get over the idea that we are uniquely civilized and special. This war shows, again, that “Europe” isn’t so different from the wars and pains of the rest of the world.
There are dozens of other frameworks of historical comparison that will be trotted out during and after this war. But Putin is not Hitler, nor Stalin, nor Bonaparte, nor Bismarck (nor, for that matter, Ghengiz Khan or Attila or Julius Caesar). Analogies to WWI, WWII, the original “blitzkrieg” (of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War), Napoleon, Louis XIV, etc. etc. are thrown around, but are more about displaying the speaker’s erudition and promoting their current policy stance than a guide to what is actually happening. Technology and geography and geopolitics make these and other comparisons of limited value. If, as Mark Twain apocryphally said: “History doesn’t repeat itself; it rhymes,” then we still don’t know whether we’re seeing a sonnet or a haiku.
Historical analogies offered as the basis of the future course of events are worth even less.
It is worthwhile to observe Putin/Russia’s construction of a historical narrative has been used as a rationale for this invasion. Without taking the time here to puncture his ideas of the scope of the nation (coming soon to a blog near you!), the peculiar lens of his argument “we Russians and Ukrainians (and Byelorussians, for that matter) all actually one people” doesn’t begin to address why those in Moscow should be in charge. Since the modern polity of Russia originated in “Kievan Rus” (9-13C), then why shouldn’t the folks in Kiev still run the show? To run through all the specifics of his highly-selective and often-distorted view of history would require a book and, in the end, would merely demonstrate (again) the malleability of the historical imagination.
One of the most interesting global dimensions of the crisis is the stance of China. Putin was politic enough to wait until after the Olympics to start his war, so as not to rain on Xi’s parade. China has, so far, been pretty quiet on these events. Russia has to determine its position along the China-West axis, and China has to determine how to use Russia in terms of both materials/commodities and as a geopolitical offset to American dominance. Strictly on such terms, accommodating Putin’s land grab would make some sense. However, China is heavily constrained by the Taiwan analogy. Their comments on the war so far have made note of the importance of national territorial integrity (certainly not a Russia-friendly stance). If China argues that China and Taiwan alone should sort out their (intra-national) situation, then they should also endorse letting Ukraine and the Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine sort things out for themselves without Russian intervention. In other words, Russian intervention provides a precedent for US involvement in support of Taiwan, which China cannot tolerate.
War planners in many capitals have developed dozens of different scenarios for how things will evolve over the next weeks and months. If one of these scenarios occurs, then a year from now, pundits will talk about how the outcome was “predictable” and will criticize their policy target of choice (Biden, Trump, etc.) for their failure to foresee and steer us towards a better result. In the meantime, gallons of ink (and their video and electronic equivalents) will be spilled chewing over the developments, but, it’s just as likely that surprises await.
It will be a dire and deadly time for Ukrainians and the Russians engaged in this war. Destruction and refugee crises are highly likely. We can be (must be) sad for all this—at multiple levels, even as we hope things do not spin further out of control. Most aggressors ultimately fail. In the meantime, however, there is much pain. Declining states are not known for rational thinking. None of us is as far from atavism as we would like to think.