History’s Rhymes: Ukraine Conflict as a War of Independence a la Americaine?

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By Chris Chatteris SJ

It seems Vladimir Putin has skipped a few lessons of history. It’s tough to invade and hold a country where you’re not welcome. One would have thought he should have gotten that by now, but his relentless escalations suggest not. 

I was helped to understand how Putin manages the war mentally by a comment from Moscow-born Russian-Israeli commentator Vladimir Vexler. He said that Putin is convinced that Ukrainians are really Russians, even if they don’t get this themselves. Putin believes that the resistance he is experiencing results from alien (Western) influences poisoning Ukrainian minds. 

From an outsider’s perspective, the war looks more and more like a terrible ‘march of folly’, but for Putin and his cheerleaders, history will eventually vindicate them. The notion of a ‘march of folly’ reminded me of Barbara Tuchman’s book of the same title, in which she recounts some of the disastrous decisions of people of power throughout history, in particular, the decision of the British to fight the American’s in the War of Independence. Tuchman argues that it is not only with hindsight that this can be seen as an utterly crazy decision but that even at the time, wise heads warned that it was a daft undertaking and reckless gamble.

The question Vexler fielded was whether he thought the Russo-Ukrainian ‘special military operation’ was a ‘colonial war’. He replied that he felt it was, but not in the sense of a colonial war against linguistically, culturally and religiously different peoples, for example, the French colonising swathes of North Africa. The Ukrainians are ethnic cousins to the Russians, as the white Americans were cousins of the British. Russian and Ukrainian are similar languages, and many Ukrainians speak Russian. Their churches were, until recently, in communion, and there are many cultural similarities and shared historical experiences, such as the struggle against Hitler. So Russia’s colonial war, like the British one in America, is, from Putin’s point of view, more akin to rescuing errant family members than conquering exotic Untermenschen. 

There are some lovely political rhymes here. As the British monarchy was trying to suppress an Enlightenment-inspired, secular republic, so Putin is a throwback Czar trying to crush a country intent on becoming a social democracy. Some historians note that George III came to view the American conflict as a ‘personal contest’ and that this ‘special military operation’ is a pet project of Putin’s, summed up by the German Chancellor when he bluntly dubbed the conflict ‘Putin’s war’. After the surrender at Yorktown in 1782, Parliament forced George out of his fantasy land into the cold reality of defeat. If the Russian adventure continues on the present disastrous trajectory, some groups in Russia will eventually have to do something similar to Putin.

Geopolitically, Ukraine identifies with Russia’s Western rivals as the American colonies aligned themselves with Britain’s historical rivals – France, Spain and the Netherlands. Economically, Ukraine has resources which Russia covets – its cereal production coupled with access to the world market through the best Black Sea ports. The 18th Century British establishment, too, was greedy for a greater slice of growing American wealth. 

Militarily, both campaigns were doomed since the American colonies and Ukraine, although having smaller populations and armies than the invaders, were too large to occupy successfully. Unconventional and guerilla-style military tactics have characterised the Ukrainian resistance, as they did in North America. As in all wars, logistics are paramount.

Russia is systematically destroying Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. This is rhymingly reminiscent of the vengeful British attack on Washington in 1812, in which the Capitol, the White House and other government buildings were razed to the ground, trying to weaken the morale of the young country. It didn’t work; Washington was rebuilt, and the United States became a superpower while Britannia ultimately lost her imperial sway. The invasion of Ukraine sounds like the last gasp of the Russian empire. Ukraine looks set to become a powerful future player in the European Union and NATO. Plus ça change …

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