'The Capturing of a Tank near Kakhovka'. By Ivan Vladimirov. Ukraine has a long history as a scene of conflict. Picture Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The curse of history

Campaign Diary: the war in Ukraine in context

Artillery Row

For the last thirty years, I have made my living as a defence analyst, academic war historian, and reserve military officer. Wearing these different hats in different 58 countries, I have witnessed modern strife unfold in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet even I have been shocked by the suddenness and violence of what is happening in Ukraine. 

My purpose here and while the fighting lasts, is to report for The Critic where I think we are, and where this war might go. To begin with, I examine why Russia has felt it necessary to reach for a military adventure that otherwise seems out of step with the twenty-first century.

Last week a 74-year-old hermit, who has spent decades living in isolation in the Scottish Highlands, temporarily left his log cabin to attend the film premiere of a documentary about his life. His journey yielded an interesting side effect. Ken Smith discovered that bloody combat had returned to Europe on a scale not seen since the Second World War. In 1984, when he voluntarily entered his off-grid life, without electricity or running water, war with Russia was a very real possibility. For citizen Smith, history had come full circle. 

Everyone, including hermits, now knows that an unchecked battle is riding roughshod through a region dubbed by some as “Europe’s bloodlands”. It has come as a surprise to many, including the Russian leader, that in 2022 Ukraine is not “a far-off land of which we know little”. 

This is a conflict where history is centre-stage

I know the country well, but it turns out that so do many others. Cheap holidays, business opportunities, sport and culture have lured many of us there. Social media is alive with those who have toured Odessa or Lviv, lamenting fine cities being pulverized by Russian shells. Then there is the Ukrainian diaspora: according to UN figures, twentieth century purges and post-World War II migration have scattered a network of 8-10 million, who identify as being of Ukrainian descent, around the world. So, many of us in the West have a personal stake in the outcome.

For nearly two weeks we have had to switch from squabbling over vaccinations and masks, to focus on the as-yet unknown consequences of a conflagration that threatens to spill beyond the frontiers of Ukraine. Germany’s foreign policy, of peace through trade with Russia, is contorting, Houdini-style. Britain’s defence ministers, at a time when infantry numbers were scheduled to drop to 19,400 in 2024, and tanks from 227 to 148, are searching for their magic wands. 

Full of half-remembered quotes about “fighting the last war” or “those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it”, decision makers and soldiers are normally wary of war historians. We cite the words of ancient Chinese philosophers (Sun Tzu) and dead Prussians (Clausewitz), but as neither has anything to say about cyber warfare, conflict in space or fighting campaigns in social media, we are left to our classrooms and books. I write and lecture on what has been and might be. We realise that without a road map of the past, there can be few signposts to the future. Today, my tribe is being encouraged to brush the chalk dust off our tweeds and emerge into the sunlight with our thoughts about now

A long time coming

Actually, this is a conflict where history is centre-stage. It is Mr Putin who has triggered this war, having laid out a very specific agenda over the last few years. As far back as 2005, he went on record as stating that “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. His agenda is a very private one. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact hit the then KGB lieutenant colonel personally. A powerful and important man in Dresden, East Germany, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989, Putin’s power and prestige was reduced to nothing. If he is to be believed, the colonel worked as a freelance taxi driver for a while to make ends meet. 

Since then, he has looked back wistfully to the era when Russia and 14 other Soviet Socialist Republics were forged under the hammer and sickle into one aggressive, dominating superpower. However, his analysis overlooks the absence of Communism, the doctrinal glue that held 15 sets of nationalism in check. Putin has replaced Marx and Lenin with a different adhesive. It is his view of the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union’s 1941-45 struggle against Nazi Germany. He has made “correct history” part of Russia’s National Security Strategy. He has ordered a war on “negative influences which attempt to revise perspectives on Russia’s past triumphs, and its role and place in world history.”

The Russian leader has gone further, in making it an offence to spread “improper interpretations” of that conflict. Since 2014, it has been illegal “to give false information concerning the activities of the USSR during the Second World War.” The 1939 dalliance with Hitler and subsequent invasion of Poland did not happen, is non-history. 

My colleague Sir Antony Beevor, author of masterful works on the battles for Stalingrad and Berlin, is now persona non grata in the Russian Federation. Why? Because his exhaustively researched truth runs counter to the official narrative. He has been told he faces five years’ imprisonment if he ever revisits the country. In Russia today there is only one man who decides what is an “improper interpretation” or “false information.” Yes, it is Professor Putin, purveyor of historical objectivity to Russia and the world.

It is now clear that Putin has invaded Ukraine to right the wrongs set out in his faux history

In July 2021, an extraordinary 6,000-word essay was submitted to planet Earth for approval. It was a history of Russia and Ukraine through more than 1,000 years of history. It alleged the two were “one people, a single whole,” speaking variants of one language, professing a common faith, and sharing a common culture. Their separation in 1991 was the result of strategies pursued for centuries by their enemies, who had long conspired to pull apart the “single economic system” of Moscow and Kyiv. 

This gathered pace after the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in 2014, when “illegal elements” forced Ukraine to adopt a pro-western orientation against the will of its people. This “inevitably” provoked “civil war” in the Donetsk region. Since then, an “illegal neo-Nazi coup” has further pulled Ukraine away from Russia and towards the aggressive, imperialist West, and its military arm, NATO. While the Russian Federation feted this insightful masterpiece, the rest of the world awarded its author, one V. Putin, ноль баллов (zero points).

It is now clear that Putin has invaded Ukraine to right the wrongs set out in his faux history. He claims it is “a special military operation in the Eastern Donbas region”, though the campaigning of his forces suggest Russia intends to absorb all of the “illegal non-state”. It remains to be seen where his true aspirations lie. Does he wish to return to the borders of the old USSR? In which case watch out, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Or does Putin reflect the views of some nationalists who wish to revisit the Empire of the Tsars, including Czechia, Slovakia and Poland?

In this sense, Russia’s attempts to reclaim Georgia in 2008, where it still supports two breakaway regions, its annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the invasion of Donetsk and Lugansk later the same year, and direct military intervention in Syria since 2015, advertise Putin’s path of opportunist conquest and aggressive endeavour. Syria is seen as a testing ground of his troops and their weapons, in the way the Spanish Civil War afforded similar opportunities for Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. 

Putin has given us his map. There is a possibility (though not yet a likelihood) of overspill into neighbouring countries. I am inundated with messages pointing out that Ukraine is only the beginning. They liken its fate to the Sudetenland, the land grab in Czechoslovakia that heralded the Second World War. Others are wondering if the sabre-rattling in Moscow and Washington, Berlin and Brussels, is the equivalent of a July 1914 prelude to a wider conflagration. There are certainly parallels in the way the world believed then that international trade would negate the possibility of war. 

Historians look to the bigger wheels of history. Throughout time, siren voices in every century have lured politicians into spending less on defence, by spending more on technology. Roman infantry weapons, stone castles, cannon and muskets, steam power and railroads, the telegraph and machine-guns, Maginot Lines, tanks and guided missiles have all been swamped by the dictator, hell-bent on domination. In every case, small professional armies, equipped with cutting edge technology, eventually gave way to the need for large conscript ones. Nuclear weapons have so far been the exception to this long-term historical norm. 

However, nuclear deterrence has always been achieved by negotiation, telephone hotlines and international debate. The Western world has come up against an old-school tyrant, armed with nuclear weapons, who has set aside all the norms of diplomacy and decency, established since 1945. With Vladimir Putin, the world is out of the textbook of international relations and treading carefully. However, we have to remember, so is he.

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