02 July 2023
Ukraine War – echoes of 1914?

Ukraine War – echoes of 1914?

The Ukraine war has inspired a search for historical parallels. Could World War 1 offer a parallel, or perhaps World War 2?

The wisdom of American writer, Mark Twain, is perhaps the most relevant. He once said that “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme”. And as distinguished historian Margaret MacMillan has suggested, the Ukraine war might rhyme most with World War 1.

One of the similarities is that both wars came “out of the blue”.

An unexpected jump to war

In the spring of 1914, just a few months ahead of the outbreak of World War 1, few leaders envisaged a land war between major European powers. Europe had lived in relative peace in the preceding century since the Napoleonic Wars, writes MacMillan.

Even though there were tensions, European states seemed too advanced, too economically integrated, and even too “civilized” to resort to armed conflict with each other. What’s more, in 1914 Europe’s elites shared a common culture, often spoke the same languages, and were connected by ties of friendship and marriage.

In a similar vein, in 2022 very few Western leaders expected a new land war in Europe. True, Vladimir Putin’s Russia had long been a bad actor as it intervened in many countries, launched cyber-attacks, murdered people on foreign soil, to name a few. But the West seemed to tolerate this, and never imagined a high-risk, all-out invasion of Ukraine. Even on the eve of the war, most European countries were not convinced by US intelligence on Russia’s planned invasion.

Once these wars started, they took on a life of their own and proved difficult to stop. World War 1 was expected to last just a matter of months but went on for four years. Russia believed that the Ukraine war might only last some days or weeks, but after some 16 months there is no sign whatsoever of an end in sight.

Leaders’ wars

Many historians believe that great forces—like economic, sociological and political ones—determine important events in history. But according to MacMillan, when you have leaders who have the power to take countries into war or keep them out of war, it is also important to look at their role.

For example, World War 1 came about because of leaders’ decisions more than great historical forces. A Serbian nationalist’s assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 gave the rulers of Austria-Hungary the excuse to attempt to destroy Serbia, even if it meant a war with Serbia’s protector, Russia. Within five weeks, it had become a general European war because the other great powers chose to intervene, acting, so they believed, in their own interests.

Similarly, MacMillan believes that the Ukraine war is very much Putin’s war. She thinks that he wanted it, and given his position in Russia, the war would not have occurred unless he wanted it. A different leader in Russia may not have jumped recklessly into this war. Putin’s background in the KGB is critical to understanding his behaviour. He grew up in a world where conspiracies were suspected everywhere, and where those with the levers of power exercised them in a very secretive, top-down way, without consulting informed advisors. This is typical Soviet-style decision making, by elderly men, who are nervous, because they’re afraid.

Putin is also motivated by his own sense of historical nostalgia. He wants to reunite the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, restore the boundaries of the Russian Empire. Many analysts are also looking for rational motives to explain Putin’s behaviour. But if he made a rational estimation of the merits of invading Ukraine, he may not have gambled on such a huge war. Seemingly irrational emotions—like resentment, pride, fear and honour—often play a role in leaders’ decisions.

The Ukraine war is not only Putin’s war, it is also Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s war. It is highly unlikely that another Ukrainian leader would have been able to lead Ukraine’s stiff resistance and also motivate the West to provide such great support to Ukraine. Indeed, one of the great errors of Putin was to underestimate the qualities of Zelenskyy.

Lastly, the Ukraine war is also the West’s war, a West led by President Joe Biden. If Donald Trump had won the last US presidential election, it is unlikely that the US would have led the West in standing up to Putin. Biden’s leadership has seen applications for membership of NATO (the symbol of the West) by formerly neutral Finland and Sweden, and strong cooperation between NATO and pro-Western Indo-Pacific countries, namely Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

Lessons and looking ahead

At the time of writing, it was far from clear how or when the Ukraine war would end.

But if World War 1 is a benchmark, the consequences of the Ukraine will be very profound. The “surprising” World War 1 led to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian, German, Ottoman and Russian empires. France and the UK were left greatly weakened, contributing to the ultimate loss of their empires after World War 2. And the Versailles Peace Conference laid the foundations for World War 2. Europe was changed forever.

The end of World War 1 also accelerated the rise of the US to global leadership, and a stronger and more assertive Japan. In sum, before World War 1, Europe dominated the world for 400 years, but then self-destructed during “The Second Thirty Years War” from 1914-1945, something from which it has never really recovered.

The Ukraine war will come to an end one day. Some agreement to end hostilities is unavoidable. At this stage, however, there is no sign that Russia or Ukraine will want to negotiate a settlement. And any negotiated settlement would be complicated by the involvement of many players, not just Russia and Ukraine, but also NATO and possibly even China. There are so many moving parts. Thus, a possible scenario would be an armistice, without a peace settlement, such that Russia and Ukraine remain technically at war (like North and South Korea).

Like World War 1, the Ukraine war will be an epoch-defining event in world history. It will have many profound effects on global politics and the economy, with repercussions for many years, even if one can only speculate at this point:

-- if Russia wins this war, this would be a major defeat for the West, for the democratic world, and for the many cherished hopes of freedom and democracy around the world. It would be a boon for authoritarianism worldwide and possibly give fuel to many other territorial disputes.

-- irrespective of the outcome of the war, it will be very difficult for Russia to restore constructive relations with the West, and there may still be a risk of a return to hostilities, especially if the Russian elite blames the US-led West for the war, rather than their own leaders, as did Germany after World War 1.

-- if Russia loses the war, it will be much weaker for many years to come, and likely move closer to China, thereby constituting a large anti-Western bloc. But the Russian public, many of whom see themselves as European more than Slavic, are unlikely to welcome their country becoming a subordinate of China.

-- there will need to be a new “Marshall Plan” to rebuild Ukraine, but this will be massively expensive and may strain the commitment of Western countries to a post-war Ukraine. China will likely seize the opportunity to contribute to financing reconstruction under its Belt and Road Initiative, thereby increasing its influence.

-- the admission of Ukraine to Western organisations like NATO, the EU and OECD will challenge both sides, in light of the demands and complexity of admission procedures. The US may need to give Ukraine a bilateral security guarantee for some time at least.

-- the solidarity of the West will likely begin to fritter, if European countries seek to go their own way, and prioritise economic relations with Russia over security concerns which tend to dominate American thinking. Against that, victory in next year’s US presidential election by Donald Trump or a Trump-like figure could further weaken the West, with many unpredictable consequences.

Key lessons of history from World War 1 and the Ukraine war?

The key lesson according to MacMillan is that things can seem to be going along swimmingly, and then suddenly go badly wrong when we least expect it. The world experienced periods of great complacency in the lead up to both World War 1 and the Ukraine war, and Europe was wholly unprepared for the Ukraine war. In sum, the world is not a stable place and the Ukraine war could become an inflexion point in history.


THis article by John West was first published on 27 June 2023 by Unravel.
Tags: asia, ukraine war, 1914, world war 1

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