I write in July of 2023, almost 110 years after the July Crisis that led to the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914.
The story , attributed to the great American historian Barbara Tuchman, that during the worst of 1916, the Imperial German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was asked by his predecessor, Prince von Bulow, ‘How did this war happen?’, to which Bethmann-Hollweg drolly replied, ‘Ah, if only one knew’.
No one in July 1914 could conceive of a world in which, ten years later, four combatant empires—the Ottomans, the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, regimes ranging in age from decades to almost millennia—would each be replaced by dubious republics at the behest of even more dubious diktats in the respective forms of the treaties of Sèvres, Versailles, Saint-Germain and Trianon … or by Bolsheviks.
Former US President John F. Kennedy was very fond of the Tuchman story. Kennedy was also a keen student of British military historian Sir Basil Liddell Hart, such that Kennedy, in the context of his 1960 presidential campaign, even wrote a review of one of Liddell Hart’s books. Notably, Kennedy quoted this advice proffered by Liddell Hart:
Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding.
While it is hard to imagine any significant Western politician today having Kennedy’s curiosity and historical literacy—let alone capacity to write a book review while campaigning—it is not at all hard to conceive of Western politicians, like Bethmann-Hollweg, feigning ignorance of a stupid war they helped engineer, particularly given the last twenty-five years. This is to be regretted, given that the Great War’s history overlaps with this ongoing Russian–Ukrainian war, in particular its brutal fronts of war and the importance of the strategic arteries of the Dnieper and Don rivers.
The necessity for prudence
My own grave disappointment, well pre-dating the February 2022 Russian invasion, was and remains the timidity and hesitancy of conservatives to speak honestly and realistically about war. After all, political conservatism and foreign policy realism go hand-in-hand-in-velvet-glove-in-mailed-fist.
Today’s Anglophone Right suffers from the damage done by its own ‘long march’ against itself. Too many conservatives have allowed their once unapologetic (if lacking in ‘empathy’) elitism to be replaced by either a brain-dead zombie neoconservatism stuck in 1985 or, just as bad, an array of libertarian grifters.
I mention this because the historic joinder of conservatism and realism owes less to any reactionary mindset—albeit I am perfectly prepared to defend that, too—than to the fact that conservatism is an ideology for governing. Governing begins with recognising realities, such as that there are no ideal policies but only trade-offs or that in a world of pressing demands and finite state resources, ‘to govern is to choose’.
In this respect, war as an aspect of state policy is not, as Clausewitz would say, ‘the continuation of politics by other means’ but, rather, war is like any other part of governing. War, too, has its trade-offs and choices. Illusions about fighting on all fronts or supplying all forces equally, are dangerous ones. War is about prioritisation and execution.
It is fitting, then, that the Jesuits, founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola—himself a former captain of soldiers and wounded in battle—taught their students, of whom I am one, that Prudence was the highest virtue, especially in matters of state. The Book of Wisdom names Prudence as one of the four cardinal virtues, along with Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance, and while dowdy and unfashionable, these virtues have, over the long-recorded history of governments and policy, repeatedly proven their worth, especially in wartime. Prudence rejects dangerous liberal appeals such as ‘this time it is different’, ‘we cannot stand idly by’, and ‘something must be done’.
The Russian reality
Mindful, then, of both prudence and what Liddell Hart advised, one must try to consider the Russian position ‘as it is’.
Russia spans eleven time zones from the Baltic to the Pacific, and since the Russian state began in what is now Kiev/Kyiv, the states of Muscovy and then Russia have known almost constant war and invasion. It is a reality of Russian history and geography, and the strategic culture that its experience has bred, that Russia must either be in control of its enormous domain, or it will be at least exploited if not dismembered. Not for nothing does the Kremlin, as with the American ‘Monroe Doctrine’ or Australians discussing the Pacific as our ‘backyard’, claim the ‘near abroad’ of Russia’s frontiers as a sphere of influence.
A consequence of the Russian mentality is that, since at least the time of Tsar Peter the Great (1682–1725), Russia has been a ‘garrison state’ which was and still is organised for the making and supplying of war. In few, if any, other countries is the state built, as it is in Russia, around the supply of persons and materials to the ministries, forces, apparatuses and bureaus erected for the making of war. This mentality survived the fall of the Tsars and of the Soviets, and operates in Russia now. While it was said of Prussia in the nineteenth century that it was an army with its own state, that was then and now always truer of Russia. I mention all this to explain the current Russian war in Ukraine, and also because, for any sober-minded realist, this war did not suddenly begin in February of 2022.
Rather, as the then US ambassador to Russia and now CIA director William Burns wrote in 2008 in a diplomatic cable, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO would undoubtedly provoke a Russian response:
Ukrainian entry into Nato is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In my more than two-and-a-half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in Nato as anything other than a direct challenge to Russia’s interests … Today’s Russia will respond.
So, despite well-known Russian sensitivities that transcended domestic politics, Western policy was to antagonise Moscow, particularly in supporting the February 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, which ousted the then pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. The rationale of Western policy was the ostensibly liberal one of supporting democracy in a former Soviet territory. However, when viewed from the Kremlin, the shift of Ukraine—which in Old Slavic means, literally, ‘the borderlands’—from a strategic buffer between Nato and Russia to a chess piece seized by the West was a gauntlet thrown down by the West at the front paws of the Russian bear. The Russians responded in March 2014 by seizing and annexing Crimea, home to the major Russian naval base at Sebastopol that dominates the resource-rich northern Black Sea. This was followed by pro-Russian separatist militias proclaiming the independence of the formerly eastern Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Overall, the events of 2014 reinforced in the Russian mind that whatever noises are periodically made by the West in terms of General de Gaulle’s vision of ‘a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals’ or even a comical ‘Reset’, the West just cannot help intruding upon the Russian bear’s historic den. And this view is not just held by Putin’s inner circle, either. As the former CIA director and US defence secretary Robert Gates wrote in 2014i, echoing William Burns’ diplomatic cable: ‘Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching. The roots of the Russian Empire trace back to Kiev in the ninth century, so that was an especially monumental provocation’.
Russia, like other historically imperial nations, has a strategic mind that transcends its day-to-day politics. If the Vladimir Putin apparatus was removed from the Kremlin, then whoever supplanted or succeeded Putin would pursue the same, or indeed more aggressive, Russian foreign and military policies. If, for example, any of the Russian Tsars were restored to rule Russia, tomorrow they would all pursue policies very similar to, if not more expansive than those of Putin and his advisers. So when the West decided, after years of expanding NATO to the Russian frontier, to also dangle NATO membership in front of Ukraine—the eastern half of which was the ‘little Russia’ that belonged for centuries to the ‘Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russians’—then a Russian response, including a military response, was, as Burns and Gates noted, a risk always being run.
The Russian war
While there are many good reasons to criticise the late former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his much-lampooned observation that wars include ‘unknown unknowns’ is not one of them. Indeed, it is hard to explain war without also explaining that war’s fog is real and that even the most penetrating and persistent intelligence systems for reconnoitring one’s enemies will still miss some target and fail to identify some crucial node.
Yet amid the fog, if there is one other aspect of war that has gone unchanged since Hannibal first baulked at marching on Rome, it is that wars are won and lost at the strategic level. Even the best admirals and generals leading the bravest fleets and armies cannot long overcome an adversary that is superior in its overall capacity to ‘raise, train, and sustain’ its combatant armed forces, absent that adversary’s loss of will or strategic collapse (such as the Tsar’s abdication in early 1917 despite the success of Russia’s Brusilov offensive in 1916).
As of now (July 2023), the Russian armed forces control or occupy approximately 20 per cent of what was Ukrainian territory. This has more or less been the case now for over a year. What has been noticeable about the war is its generally static front line, notwithstanding the enormous number of ferocious tactical battles resulting in the gain or loss of small amounts of territory.
Much of what the Russians occupy in Ukraine is rich in natural resources and farmlands—and ethnic Russians. At worst, if Russia declared victory today and stopped the war, the Russians would occupy most of what was eastern and southern Ukraine, the whole of the Azov coast, as well as having further consolidated Russia’s military presence in Crimea.
Further, it is important to note the scale of the war being fought, and why this will always advantage Russia in the same way that a war fought in northern Mexico would advantage the United States. Where the 1815 Waterloo battle’s frontage was approximately 25 kilometres and the 1944 Battle of the Bulge’s front was roughly 150, the frontage of the Russian—Ukraine war, from the Black Sea to the Belarus border, is almost 1000 kilometres. The resourcing demands—food, kit, ammunitions, vehicles, spare parts and, especially, reinforcements—are obviously enormous.
In terms of large-scale operations, there has been a Ukrainian offensive underway for some weeks now that seems to be making very slow progress, capturing mere villages and settlements at great cost in terms of Ukrainian lives. Where Ukrainian troops have advanced, it has often been into heavily mined areas, locations registered for Russian artillery to fire upon, leading inevitably to heavy losses. This is before Ukrainian troops reach anywhere near the extensive primary trench lines prepared by Russian forces in the last six to twelve months.
It is noteworthy that those advising the Ukrainians to go onto this costly offensive did so while ignoring key historical Russian strengths, in terms of quantity and quality.
In terms of quantity, where, after the initial February 2022 invasion, the Russian high command fought this war focused on economy using, mainly, a mixture of Donbass militias, Chechens and Wagner volunteers, supplemented at times by Russian marines and paratroopers, the admirably ferocious Ukrainian defence in 2022 meant that the Kremlin could not continue to stagnate. Thus, Putin’s mobilisation in September-October 2022 of something approaching 300,000, in addition to Russia’s existing draft, has reinforced Russia’s units fighting in Ukraine as well as units stationed on Russia’s frontier. Put simply, a different, much larger, and better resourced, Russian army is now either in this war or waiting to join it.
In terms of quality, Russia’s historical competence with artillery has been central to its way of war for centuries, and it is no exaggeration to say that the Russian army is in effect a ‘moving company’ whose main job is to capture tactical positions from which to better deploy heavy artillery. Another Russian strength going back to the Second World War is the use of electronic warfare to locate, disrupt, jam and confuse an adversary—again, well known prior to the invasion, such that the West had exercised against this threat only years before. Finally, since well before the earthworks were dug around Borodino to resist Napoleon, the Russians have been very good at combat engineering, and the Russian earthworks and trench systems that now impede the Ukrainian offensive live up to this lineage.
In noting all of this, I do not criticise at all the courage of the Ukrainians, who are hardy soldiers that descend, like the Russians, from a Cossack military tradition. However, even the most valiant soldiers can only do so much against a much larger adversary organised for a war ‘next door’ that it can likely sustain indefinitely.
The strange persistence of Western delusions
For we in the West, there is a stark contrast between Russia’s acquisitions ‘next door’ and our two decades of unfathomably stupid wars in the greater Middle East.
The West expended precious lives and enormous treasure for twenty plus years in the perverse belief that we could occupy and remediate Arab and Afghan societies brutalised by centuries of foreign and local tyrannies.
By contrast, the Russians, deciding that the West was advancing to their borders, have applied force next door, at considerable cost, but gaining more ethnic Russians, as well as resource-rich lands and Black Sea and Azov coastal areas.
So many Western delusions about the true state of this war result from absurdist commentary by our own grifting cohort of failed generals and ex-government officials, whose only successful conquests have been of television cable news green rooms—and who, if in Thucydides’ time, would have been exiled in deserved disgrace.
Worse, credulous journalists who clearly learned nothing from the lies told about Saddam’s WMD and Iraqi connections with Al Qaeda, or 2021’s assurances of the solidity of the Kabul regime while it was obviously collapsing, have uncritically consumed absurd tales of ‘ghosts of Kiev’ and ‘martyrs of Snake Island’.
We have, as I said, few if any thinkers or elites, now, that can see things as they are. We are, though, required to be prudent and to draw conclusions from the obvious military, as well as political, realities that now present themselves to us. Hard as this may be, we should not shrink from what the present situation demands of us: to start thinking of ways to end this war.
Overall, it is difficult to see what the future holds beyond more of the last year’s attritional war. It is hard to see how the West benefits from wasting more Ukrainian lives in forlorn offensives against an enemy that can further escalate, while sanctions and war push Russia ever closer to China, which is not in our national interest.
Given what has happened, which is most unlikely to be reversed, we who are conservatives and realists need to see this war as it is—and, above all, as one that must be ended. Wiser heads among the allied powers should be trying to negotiate a ceasefire and armistice that leads to talks between Moscow and Kiev and the peaceful arbitration of all grievances among the belligerents and their sponsors.
Similarly, Ukrainians should be assured there will be reconstruction plans for them that will coincide with UN-supervised plebiscites in the disputed regions and any resulting population transfers. Given the corruption usually rampant in Ukraine, assurances should also be given that any reconstruction works will be supervised by a proper inspector-general’s regime.
Far better for all this to commence sooner rather than later so that changes on the ground can be done peacefully and as part of a process with which all belligerents can live.
We must not follow the escalatory ghosts of July 1914 but instead exorcise them.
i The Tsar’s title refers to the main Russian lands (‘Great Russia’), the western lands never occupied by the Mongols (‘White Russia’/Belarus), and what are considered the south Western lands of ‘Little Russia’, which is the east of what is now Ukraine.