A war becomes a reality even when no shots are fired. When soldiers learn that they are already soldiers, when drafts of the war scenarios become tactical references.
Thirty years ago, I met a Swiss man who convinced me that his country had indeed participated in World War II. He – a military man at the time – had a combat weapon and was prepared not just to guard the border, but to fight a real enemy.
Much has been written about the nature of war, both clever and nasty. To start with tales of wars being started by “bad uncles” who seek to profit from the manufacture of weapons or tailoring of military uniforms, to epics in which the “just” people, arms in hand, defeat their oppressors. Of course, these are tales, and neither you nor I believe them, but there is no one absolute reason of the war.
Wars of recent years are described in relatively abundant details, to start with media thrillers with conspiracy theories and hot “heroism” to “respectable” academics who group all wars into familiar theoretical stereotypes. The real scenarios are somewhere in the middle, but still contain more historical war experience than thriller bravura.
So what is this future/present Ukrainian war? Is it really necessary?
The wisdom of the immortal Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is that war is part of politics, that the best war is the one that is avoided, because a war is otherwise a very unethical, non-aesthetic and, in any case, expensive “pleasure”. It is worth weighing up whether it is really worth destroying and killing if the political objective can be achieved in other ways. All strategies of threat and deterrence are based on the assumption that the enemy will believe that going to war… is not worth it.
Here we have Ukraine and Vladimir Putin. According to Sun Tzu’s logic, the hundred-plus thousand armed Russians are not there to destroy and kill, but to keep Ukraine free of everything that can be called Western Europe. If you are going to war, you should always carry the argument that you do not want war, but… Vladimir Putin does not want a war, but he will not be able to sleep well if NATO comes step by step closer to Moscow. That is why he is prepared to go to war for his own peace of mind (actually, it is not really about that, but more on that later).
The ancient Greek historian Thucydides described what discourages war and what … tempts to war. Indeed, politically speaking, a war is the temptation of a quick and effective “final solution”, for history, it is said, is written by the victors. This is the situation… Although there has never been a desire to recognise borders established from a position of force, most of our national borders, at least in Europe, are the result of wars. Even the Cold War had winners and losers.
Vladimir Putin has several arguments for going to war. And a few more temptations that make him think it is worth going to war.
According to Thucydides, a war is unlikely when the opposing forces are equal, or when one is so much weaker that it is pointless. A war is highly probable when one side feels sufficiently stronger than the other to be able to win surrender rather than a negotiation, and to base its decisions on “victory day”. This is how Vladimir Putin or his strategists see the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. And the great temptation is that Europe is very reluctant to go to war… So reluctant that it is even determined to rehabilitate the pre-Second War division of Czechoslovakia. Not wanting to go to war may not be entirely bad in itself, but it is much worse than that – Europe does not want to defend itself… Europeans today are still very much convinced that they are good, beautiful and right, that everyone loves Europe, just loves it by definition. Even the Russians, because they are all spiritual democrats, although they do not know it themselves. Europeans work hard and create, they do not threaten anyone, and they give money to others. Only fools cannot love and understand such people. By the way, the Americans, too, genuinely do not understand why someone does not want to implement the principles of a beautiful and just democracy. After all, it will only be better for everyone…
Leaders of Russia also have the messianic task of restoring the empire, which is an argument that the war they are waging is not imperialism but the restoration of justice. However, we delude much ourselves with myths of the Russian democracy; the majority of Russians would support the idea of restoring the USSR. Strange as it may sound, Russia today is small; it has not been that small for more than 300 years, it is so small that it is ashamed to be so. No wonder the Russian army is preparing for a real war. Europe is preparing more for the prevention of war: how not to go to war and how not to persuade its opponents not to do so. Technically, quantitatively and qualitatively, the West is several times superior, but the aforementioned public opinion is already in a state of panic … If the Russians start, we will lose…
In reviewing the short history of the Russian wars, I have noted that perhaps the most similar situation to the present one occurred at the end of the 19th century.
In 1877, another conflict between the Russian and Ottoman Empires was brewing. Later it has turned into the umpteenth Russo-Turkish War. Without recounting the geopolitical context, it can be argued that the war was the result of “reckoning”, a threat and a deterrent on both sides. There are a lot of analogies: Russia amassed a large army on the border of Turkish-held lands, brought in an ally, Romania (like Belarus), a few other small allies (like that coalition to “appease” the Kazakhs), and said it would go to the Turks adopted what they called a “deterrence tactic” – saying they would resist, but hoping until the last day that war would be avoided. They promise to resist and the Russians will not attack in the end, after assessing the potential losses. They hoped that they would not attack, they did not fully prepare, because hope, you know, almost never dies. The Russians hoped that the Turks, seeing obvious superiority of Russia, would surrender immediately, that the war would be easy, that it would be almost unnecessary, that there would be no casualties. So the Russians attacked unexpectedly, the Turks resisted incredibly, and… the war became unintentionally brutal, with many casualties. Over 50,000 dead, three times as many wounded and dying from “concomitant” diseases.
That war has been evaluated by a number of historians, not only according to the teachings of Sun Tzu and Thucydides, but also according to later theories of war, which take into account both conscription (the factor of military service rather than patriotism) and the active participation of what is known as irregular forces (civilians) in hostilities. It is all possible today. Military superiority of Russia over the Ukrainians is obvious, but one must also bear in mind the unpredictable, as yet untested, Ukrainian civil resistance and the inexperience of the Russians on both sides in fighting a war that is not a modern one, but rather one of the World War II era. Inexperience creates chaos and prolongs the process, and, as Thucydides said, the longer the war, the more difficult it is to predict the outcomes. The painful American experience of recent decades shows that technically winning a war does not mean “winning the peace”. “Blitzkrieg will eventually translate into “perpetual war”.
One can be glad that the nuclear scenario is not seriously considered, although there are rumours from the Russian side… And who is going to ban it here?
Ukrainian propaganda promises the Russians at least a Finnish “Winter War”, with heavy losses and real political shame. A “Winter War” would be a different scenario, especially as winter is around the corner… Geography of Ukraine and nature are different from Finland after all. However, it has to be said that in the last few years since annexation of Crimea, the Ukrainian military forces have become much better “warmed up”, much better prepared to operate in the real conditions of the geography and climate. They say that Russia is stronger, but Ukraine is a too big prey to be handle it so easily.
The clock is not ticking in favour of the Russians, but Ukraine is not safe from defeat and major geopolitical losses. Incidentally, the Turkish and Finnish fighters in those wars expected far more Allied support than they actually received. Today, the Ukrainians are therefore advised to be wary of a possible “tough” Western response. I wish it to be really tough. Historical memory goes back to 1939. When Germany went to war against Poland, the French and the British and their friends acted so harshly that it is unthinkable to be harsher: they declared war on Germany, but… you know. Here is the scenario.
If Vladimir Putin’s team could, it would certainly go beyond Ukraine. But… They can’t, and that should be clear to everyone. They had a hard time with the Chechens, they didn’t even defeat little Georgia completely, and it is much harder with Ukraine. So there are two alternatives, both of which are not very pleasant for Russia: either there will be no war at all, or it will be very, very tough….
As I have already mentioned, historical experience shows that those who are always ready to defend themselves are the least likely to fight, and those who are forever clinging to the idea that there will be no war are the most likely to fight. So is it really necessary to be prepared for war in order to have peace? And to be sure that you will win.