“You may not be interested in war,” Trotsky said, “but war is interested in you.” We in the more fortunate parts of the world are learning that hard lesson again as we watch the fighting in Ukraine. Some of the stories emerging from the conflict could have come from wars in any place at any time: the arrogant and overconfident invaders, heroic resistance, attacks and counter-attacks, siege warfare, ordinary citizens taking up arms, the invaders committing atrocities against civilians. Images of Ukrainian soldiers in their trenches recall the First World War. The middle-aged woman who confronted the first Russian soldiers to arrive in her town with a curse that their bones would rest in Ukraine’s soil could have come from the Trojan wars.
Yet this is a conflict of the 21st century too. We are learning more about weapons such as killer drones and thermobaric rockets. Social media is becoming an instrument of war as Ukrainians use it to spot and report the movements of Russian troops and as both sides try to disseminate their own narratives – the Ukrainians far more skilfully than the Russians. When I look out of my apartment in Toronto, I wonder how the neighbouring buildings would look with their windows blown out and their balconies crumbling. I can imagine southern Ontario, which looks like parts of Ukraine that I see in videos, with trenches or ruined Russian tanks, our young people with weapons and the rest of us sheltering in basements, and all of us wondering how it came to this.
And as we watch, we are realising that this war could easily spread and escalate. Russia has not yet attacked territories encompassed by the Nato treaty such as Poland and the Baltic states, but the Kremlin has made dark threats, and they are becoming more explicit. In February, when the war started, Vladimir Putin warned the West of “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” if it intervened. On 1 May Dmitry Kiselyov, a host on the main channel of Russian state television, boasted that Russian nuclear torpedoes could set off a giant tsunami that would engulf Britain and Ireland.
The Third World War, a possibility that few people outside military and strategic think tanks have taken seriously since the end of the Cold War, is now the subject of anxious discussion among more and more of us. The nuclear arsenals of today are terrifying, with warheads many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Yes, the Cold War ended without a nuclear exchange between the superpowers, but that was partly a matter of luck. We now know how close we came to the brink in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how mistakes – a training tape being fed into the wrong machine for example, or technicians mistaking flocks of birds for incoming missiles – nearly led to one side or the other launching its bombers and missiles.
After the crisis the Soviet Union and the United States established a hotline to ensure that their leaders could get in touch as quickly as needed. Are our communications as good today? And are we prepared for the errors or incidents which, as we know from the past, can start wars? War did not have to come to Europe in 1914, but the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo provided Austria-Hungary with the excuse it needed to destroy Serbia and set in train a series of decisions that led to the catastrophe of the Great War. What if Russia hits targets in Nato countries by mistake or weapons from the West destroy Russian towns or cities?
We are shocked by the re-emergence of an evil we thought was firmly in the past. Yet war did not vanish after the end of the Second World War, indeed there has been one somewhere every year since 1945. It only disappeared for those of us living in peaceful parts of the world. Sometimes our militaries fought wars, but for the most part peoples living in the West were not affected directly. The Americas, most of Europe, large parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific have enjoyed the Long Peace and come to think of war as a relic of the past, or that it is only fought today in faraway places. Even the violent breaking apart of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was explained as a result of “age-old hatreds” among peoples in the Balkans.
The type of war being fought seemed different too. Many were wars of national liberation against an imperial power – think of Algeria between 1956 and 1962 or the wars in Indochina from 1946 to 1975. Others were civil wars or armed insurrections, as in Nigeria, Northern Ireland or Peru; and in the 21st century there were wars in the name of humanitarian intervention or regime change, as in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.
Unlike the first half of the 20th century or before, there were relatively few state-to-state wars fought by coalitions. In the India and Pakistan wars, the conflicts between Israel and its neighbours, or the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, other powers had their favourites but did not intervene directly. The knowledge that direct confrontation could bring about their mutually assured destruction kept an uneasy peace between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union.
The world still came close on occasion to all-out nuclear war, sometimes as the result of avoidable mistakes, so we should not be overly nostalgic for the Cold War. We are being forced to recognise, however, that our world has become dangerously unstable. The weapons may be more deadly, but the challenges for those who want peace are old.
As far back as is known, empires have used war to subjugate peoples, and clashed with each other. And the winners took what they wanted, whether in the form of slaves, gold or territory. The Lion of Venice sculpture in St Mark’s Square, many of the great paintings in the Louvre, or the treasures of the Summer Palace in Beijing – which would come out on mess nights in British regiments – have all been the spoils of war. In Europe the rise of the strong central state expanded its countries’ capacity for war and, too often, the willingness on the part of its rulers to wage it. Louis XIV made war for his own glory, to increase his kingdom through conquest or to protect French industry and trade against competition (what David Hume called “jealousy of trade”). These were not considered by his contemporaries to be illegitimate grounds for fighting.
By the 19th century, rulers talked more of the needs of the state or the nation, but glory, land and commerce remained part of those needs. The acquisitions of empire around the world, accompanied as they often were by savage colonial wars against less well-armed inhabitants, were seen as a measure of a nation’s power and influence and a way of ensuring control over resources and markets.
Few were as blunt as Bismarck, the Prussian then German statesman, who made a famous speech in 1862 before the series of wars in which he created modern Germany. “The position of Prussia,” he stated, “will not be determined by its liberalism but by its power.” Prussia, he went on to say, needed better borders and those would not be determined by negotiations with its neighbours, but by “iron and blood”.
Yet as the world changed, with the spread of democracy and the idea that peoples were not subjects but citizens whose wishes must be respected, even Bismarck tried to find a cover for his wars by claiming to be responding to the will of the German people. In 1867, as relations between France and his new North German Confederation worsened, he declared, “If a nation feels its honour has been violated, then this honour has in fact been violated and appropriate action must ensue.” When the new Germany took the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871 after its victory over France, German nationalists argued that their inhabitants were German and were simply being restored to their rightful nation.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, as the world became globalised and war became deadlier, the powers attempted to establish a global legal regime. The International Court of Arbitration, established in 1923 for settling disputes between nations, was intended to forestall war. The Geneva and Hague conventions were an attempt to control armed conflict and limit its impact on those caught up in it.
A series of disarmament conferences and agreements throughout the middle of the 19th century, which the historian EH Carr described as an attempt to “war-proof” international life, had also tried to blunt the onward march of science and technology as they made war more lethal.
Later, the 1928 Pact of Paris, also known as the Briand-Kellogg Pact, bound its signatories to renounce war as “an instrument of national policy” (it remains a ghostly reminder of all the hopes that have come to nothing). The League of Nations and its successor the United Nations were more ambitious attempts still to rid the world of war altogether. And yet we now talk of a third world conflict and witness a war of conquest in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin uses history to justify his war. In this, at least, he is reflecting the times. As the acceptability of other grounds – dynastic claims, religious missions or, until recently, successful conquest – has receded, claims based on the past have become the dominant excuse for military aggression. In the largely secular world history has become both judge and justification. Nations claim lands on the basis that their ancestors once lived there, sometimes even centuries before.
At the Paris Peace Conference, which began in January 1919 and attempted to conclude the First World War, many of the delegations included historians, who worked out elaborate cases to support the claims of their governments. Greece and Italy both went back to the classical age to make their arguments, while the states emerging out of the disintegration of empires in the centre of Europe cited the periods when they were at their greatest extent. Even Saddam Hussein, when he tried to annex Kuwait in 1991, drew on dubious history to claim that it belonged to Iraq. China used history to justify its seizure of Tibet and is using it again with Taiwan. Now there is Putin.
In his speeches over recent years and the long essay he wrote in the summer of 2021, he goes back to the historical state of Kyivan Rus’ – and the conversion of its ruler, his namesake Vladimir, to Christianity at the end of the 10th century – to argue that Ukrainians and Russians are one people and always have been. He also refers to his predecessors Peter the Great and Stalin with regret for the lands that they once controlled and have since been lost. Perhaps he even takes his own arguments seriously. In his hands history has become a weapon of war.
But even Putin now seems to be abandoning the attempt to make a plausible history to support his claims. His narrative has shifted so wildly that it no longer makes any sense. Russian troops, so the Kremlin and its mouthpieces said at the start of the invasion, were coming to free the innocent Ukrainian people from the drug-addicted Nazis and anti-Semites who controlled their government. But in recent weeks the story has changed dramatically. The Ukrainian people are the criminals too. Those resisting the Russian invasion are Nazis and need to be punished and reformed. The more wildly implausible the stories become, the less useful the past becomes. So all Putin – and those who will inevitably copy him – is left with is brute force. As Thucydides said, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
What Russia has broken, among much else in its war on Ukraine, are international norms – those unwritten yet powerful understandings that govern human behaviour and that can matter as much as more formal agreements. An understanding has existed since 1945 that conquest never justifies itself and that borders should not be changed by force, but only with the consent of those who live there, the acquiescence of the bigger powers and UN approval. That norm was breached when Putin took Crimea and recognised breakaway regions of Georgia and eastern Ukraine, and when Donald Trump recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in the 1967 war. Each breach weakens the norm still further.
As the Kenyan ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, said when Russia invaded Ukraine, almost all the countries in Africa came out of colonial empires, their borders drawn by foreigners who divided ethnic groups and largely ignored geography. Yet, he said, “we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited, but we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration”. Will others be so wise? There are few borders in the world that cannot be contested and Putin has set a dangerous example, especially if he succeeds in seizing part of Ukraine. He and his accomplices can don whatever historical fancy dress they choose, but that will not be enough to cover naked aggression.
In a way that Bismarck would recognise, Putin has shown that he considers war a usable tool of state. It matters little that this tool has, so far, proved ineffective. It is the precedent that counts. Will other powers – perhaps China with Taiwan, or the US if it recovers its enthusiasm for regime change – be tempted to make war a policy option?
In 1914 Europeans thought that war was something they did not do any more. They were too advanced a civilisation and their countries so intertwined economically that it did not make sense for them to fight. In 1939 they were wiser and more apprehensive about the possibility of war. We may be moving in our thinking from 1914 to 1939. If so, like the democracies then, we will find ourselves taking preparations for war more seriously. Governments and their voters will have to make difficult and unpalatable choices about raising taxes, redirecting expenditures, and ensuring that industry can produce the materials their military forces need. We are going to have to think, more seriously than we have done, about how to shore up the international order. Remember, war is interested in you.
[See also: War at the end of history]