Ukraine Series: Ukraine in Perspective

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by Dr. Christine Contrada, Historian

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is cause for a collective historical lament.  With the 20th century’s advent of the second stage of the Industrial Revolution (think full mechanization built on the backs of steel and oil), industrialized nations assumed that war would be fundamentally improved when compared to the massive, protracted, and destructive battlefields which blanket human history.  Surely technology would make industrial war quick and decisive!  The calamitous trench warfare of WWI, and the Crimean War before it, would prove the opposite to be true.  Yet, here we are again. We are looking into the industrial mirror and not liking what we see.

War may be endemic in human civilization, but the method of waging war certainly changes over time.  Historians often lament the learning curve of war.  It takes time to adapt to new battlefield technology, and that lag in adaptation is often at the root of catastrophic loss of life.

What Stays the Same

Star Mountain DesignIn 2022 it was assumed by many, the West in particular, that nation states invading other sovereign nation states in an effort to grab territory and resources was a thing of the past.  While globalization certainly has not pointed toward a peaceful social and economic leveling, with increased communication and the Cold War being a distant memory we have a false sense that diplomacy replaces war.

This is the lament of a historian.  But historians, as a fundamental rule of the discipline, don’t predict the future.  Don’t ask us what the end game of this conflict will be.  Try the political scientists.  What historians can say clearly is that this war won’t be the same as WWII.  It seems like a clear comparison because appeasing Putin in Ukraine sounds like appeasing Hitler when he marched into the Sudetenland.  However, even though the Russian invasion looks like an infantry war, the looming threat of both a nuclear war and a cyber-attack highlight immediately that this conflict cannot be fought the same way as WWII was.

Who Will Step Up for Ukraine?

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NATO and the European Union know this, and this is why they are hesitant to act to protect their best interests.  If this conflict was an infantry numbers game, this would have ended already.  It is not, and Putin knows this.  The EU is scrambling to give refuge to Ukrainians and to make sanctions against Russia, but Putin is little fazed.

This puts Ukraine is between a rock and a hard place.  The nation began the process of NATO membership, but did not join due to the efforts of past Ukrainian presidents to attempt to seek neutral ground in Eastern Europe.  Renewed efforts to join NATO by Ukraine in recent years has certainly exacerbated Russian aggression.  These are the vestiges of Cold War politics because, in the mind of Putin, Ukraine would be a restored piece of the Soviet Empire.

This isn’t going to end quickly.  Historically Russia has shown a massive capacity for suffering in war and for not surrendering even when faced with incredible hardship.  This was the territory that crushed the grand armies of both Napoleon and Hitler to dust.

Philosophical Wisdom

There is a sense of shock right now, but a step back to a philosophical view of statecraft provides some clarity amidst the modern haze. In The Art of War (1520) Machiavelli, leaning heavily on an ancient Roman playbook read with astute Renaissance eyes, emphatically made the argument that war is fundamentally politics when diplomacy fails.  Lacking any outward sense of diplomacy, Putin could learn a thing or two about the art of statecraft from a much more erudite mind.  Armies waging war, as Machiavelli suggested, should serve as a protective roof over your house, but the Ukrainians have made it very clear that they are no longer a part of the Soviet house.  Otherwise, this would not have been an invasion, it would have been a welcome home party.

 

 

Star Mountain note: We are currently devoting blog space to discussing the Ukraine situation as well as ways to help Ukrainian refugees.

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