When analogies go to war: Lieven on “the West” misreading the Russo-Ukrainian War

November 2, 2022

It has been a while since I wrote a response to a polemic about the war in Ukraine, but this one caught my eye. It’s an article by Anatol Lieven published a few days ago in Foreign Policy. In it, the author advances the thesis that the correct analogy for the war in Ukraine is World War I, not World War II, and the West is “worsening the outcome” because it is “using the wrong analogy for Russia’s invasion.”

I am writing the response because I think of this article as a good example of how Putin-versteheners work, and how a narrative that is based on fact rather than lies, but tendentiously interpreted fact, can advance the Kremlin’s desired interpretation of the war.

Lieven asserts that the “hawkish elements of the U.S. establishment” base their reasoning on WWII analogies, and because that war was unmistakably “planned and initiated by a deeply evil and megalomaniac force,” they interpret the Russian invasion in the same light. But, Lieven hastens to tell us, even though this is a correct interpretation of WWII (nobody wants to be associated with Nazis or be seen as a Nazi apologist), that war was “exceptional” in that regard. To quote, “the great majority of wars in modern history and indeed in American history have been far more morally complex in their origins” and have ended “with some form of messy compromise.” This is why WWI is supposed to be a better analogy.

And what about that analogy? Well, even though Lenin predicted that “war would lead to revolution,” nobody else foresaw how it would unfold or end. We now have the first example of tendentious interpretation of facts. It is true that many — but not all — faile to foresee how the war would end — or what it would cost. There had been influential voices in the West warning that the war would be long, costly, and terrible, and specialists had already seen the examples of the American Civil War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkan Wars, just to name a few precursors. Lieven is just uncritically peddling the common — but incorrect — narrative of unwarranted optimism, and nations marching off to war with music and flowers in 1914. (Political scientists are especially fond of this narrative, but it does not make it right.) Moreover, Lenin’s “predictions” did not come true — because the explanation he had for revolution (which involved exploited classes rising to topple their governments and then even joining internationally to overthrow the imperialist regimes) was not how the Bolshevik coup came about, and certainly not how the Bolsheviks then maintained themselves in power (civil war, and all).

I would be the first to say that predicting war outcomes is a fool’s errand, and that most wars do end in a negotiated settlement. But this is not the same as “compromise” as Lieven asserts. A negotiated settlement simply means that the war ends while both combatants have the capability to continue fighting but have decided that it is no longer worthwhile. This may, or may not, involve concessions by both sides. For instance, did the Vietnam War end with concessions by North Vietnam? (In fact, this “peace with honor” is probably a good analogy for what Lieven advocates we do now in Ukraine.)

The fact that WWI ended in disaster for many of its principal belligerents is true, as is the claim that if any of these governments had foreseen how it would unfold, they would probably have chosen different policies.

But so what? I can pick another war — almost any other war, actually — and assert that it is a better analogy to use. For example, how about the Korean War (I am picking a tough one, I know)? How did it end relative to prewar aspirations? Very badly for North Korea and for China, and quite OK for the USA (and the USSR). Wait! But did we not lose in Korea? Or maybe it was a stalemate? Ah, that’s why I said this is a tough case. The US did expand its goals after the unexpectedly fast collapse of the North Korean army, and when it convinced itself that China would not intervene, the administration decided to proceed to conquer North Korea. The expanded war aim of unifying the peninsula under South Korean leadership was thwarted by the Chinese intervention. Neither side really wanted to fight this new war and — for mostly domestic reasons in the US and Soviet/China relations on the other side — the stalemate continued for 2 years until Stalin’s death and Ike’s election helped break it with a ceasefire. These two years were pointless in terms of the eventual outcome — it was exactly what had been envisioned after the Chinese attack was repulsed and Seoul liberated for a second time — but what do we conclude about the war and its unpredictability? At the end of the day, the war was totally worth fighting to prevent the unification of the Korean peninsula on North Korean terms.

The point of this example is to demonstrate the fallacy of an argument by analogy without attention to specifics. Even if WWI started because of excessive optimism and naive belief about how it would unfold, this is manifestly untrue for the Russo-Ukrainian War as far as the US concerned. If anything, our administration has shown too much timidity in face of this overt Russian aggression. Where Lieven sees hawks, I see, at best, “cautious policy-makers.” The US has definitely not rushed headlong to support Ukraine, and has remained very sensitive to moves that could potentially escalate the war. We have not supplied Ukraine with weapons that would enable it to hit targets in Russia, leaving us with the strange spectacle of a war where one side bombs the other with impunity (from its own or Belarusian territory) and the other side is just supposed to sit tight and take it. That’s because we are very afraid of what the Kremlin might do if, god forbid, the Ukrainians actually retaliate the way any normal and sane government would if it were in their shoes and had the right capability.

If anything, the Ukrainians are even more pessimistic about how the war would unfold. Behind all the bravado about not negotiating with Putin and “Crimea is Ukraine!” — all partially designed to rally domestic support as well as maintain the Western coalition aiding Ukraine — we can see a much more somber assessment that comes from the military’s High Command. They predict a protracted war, well into 2023, with lots of casualties, and uncertain outcome unless specific kinds of weapons — which the West is not providing — are given to the Ukrainians. This is no “rah rah” walk in the park nonsense the way Lieven portrays it.

So Lieven’s dire warnings are either trivially true and therefore useless (unpredictability of war), partially true and therefore misleading (negotiated termination means compromise), or based on assertion of flawed similarities (optimism about the war).

What follows next is a nearly complete catalogue of Kremlin talking points, repackaged with odd references to WWI. Lieven somehow manages to hit all of these points except “Ukraine is not a real state.” A quick rundown is in order:

  1. US/NATO made Russia do it. After paying lip service to the alternative with “we can all agree that principal responsibility for the war in Ukraine lies with the Russian government,” Lieven goes on to peddle the especially pernicious myth that U.S. and NATO member governments were to blame for “threatening what both Russians and a long row of Western experts… warned were seen in Moscow as vital Russian interests.” I have written at length about this nonsense — and it is pure nonsense — so I will not rehash it. All of these “experts” have merely parroted Russian claims while simultaneously disregarding even more forceful Russian claims of more imperial-expansionist (rather than security-based) nature, as well as assertions by Russian military professionals about the “threat” that NATO represents. We have also seen the equanimity, which with the Kremlin greeted the Finnish and Swedish inclusion into NATO, complete with a near demilitarization of the border with Finland (they need the troops in Ukraine), also showing unmistakably that the Kremlin regards its NATO borders as potentially the most secure.
  2. What Russia is doing in Ukraine are not war crimes. Again, after paying lip service to “the annexation of Ukrainian territory” being a violation of international law, and “Russian soldiers” committing crimes against Ukrainians also being worthy of trials, Lieven asserts that the Russian military is “indifferent towards civilian casualties” (you could call deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure and quality of life “indifference” but it rather does violence to the reality). He then, astonishingly, asserts that we cannot label Russian actions “genocide” because… well, others have done worse before. In particular, “Western forces have themselves repeatedly carried out similar actions,” and we cannot call these genocidal because that would make us like the Nazis, a “very bad thing” indeed. Well, I think it is an open question just how one should think about the allied bombings of Dresden and Cologne during WWII, and I have no problem with that. I also think that our forces have committed certain war crimes (e.g., during the Vietnam War) that have escaped proper accounting. But this is vastly different from asserting that Western forces are doing things like this in the 21st century as a matter of policy. The Russians are, all the fanciful attempts to assign responsibility to individual soldiers notwithstanding.
  3. We should not be outraged if Russians bombard Ukrainian forces established in cities. Ah, but this is not all, or even most, of what the Russians have been bombing in cities. Even now, the Russians are deliberately destroying the energy infrastructure of Ukraine, very far from the front lines and without any military value. Even the Russians themselves are open about this: it’s a coercive strategy much like strategic bombing during WWII (oh, sorry, another WWII analogy! mea culpa!) The Russians want the Ukrainian civilians to go without light, without water, without heat, without internet, so that they can sow chaos and confusion there, and hopefully set the stage for some calls to end the war to avoid further suffering. This is a military strategy — which I happen to think is destined to fail — but it is also a war crime. Lieven may talk how Amnesty International’s report got it right for the wrong reasons, but AI got it wrong for completely different reasons, false equivalence being one of them.
  4. Crimea is Russian! Lieven asserts that “it seems lunatic almost beyond belief that millions of German, French, and British soldiers should have died in a war that began over whether Austrians or Serbs should rule Sarajevo.” And so, he says, it’s crazy to think that we should fight over who rules Crimea. Let’s set aside the asinine claim that WWI was fought over who would rule in Sarajevo — nobody cared about that — as no doubt Lieven knows very well, each government had geopolitical concerns about the consequences of assertion of Austrian dominance over Serbia would have for their own relationships with each other. This is not to say that these concerns made millions of deaths somehow worth it, but that it was not Sarajevo. It’s the same here: the US is not concerned who has Crimea — we showed as much by not trying to undo the illegal annexation of 2014 — but what the consequence would be if Russia gets away with military conquest in Ukraine. I can’t believe that I have to explain this to somehow who bills themselves a foreign policy specialist. Even the hawks here do not seem to be sure whether Crimea would be part of Ukraine when the war ends, which leads me to the next point.
  5. We have allowed the Ukrainians to dictate our foreign policy. Lieven notes that the Ukrainian government has declared as its aim the removal of Russian troops from all territory defined as Ukrainian in 1991. This is a fact. But it is also a fact that this was not Kyiv’s position early in the war, which means that the fate of Crimea — and, in fact, the occupied areas of Donbas prior to the invasion — as not somehow intrinsic and non-negotiable. (I happen to think that pushing the Russians to the pre-invasion borders would be a good time to start negotiations.) Lieven also forgets that Kyiv’s refusal to talk with Putin, specifically with him, came after the Russians illegally annexed four other regions. It’s not the fate of Crimea that’s driving the disagreement right now, it’s very much the Russian occupation of 20% of Ukrainian territory and its attempt to dismember the country. We have not given Ukraine a carte blanche to define victory any way they want, and I am sure this will become obvious very quickly if there’s any chance for a realistic settlement with the Russians. This settlement may well leave some Ukrainian territories outside Kyiv’s control. And, as I keep repeating, our levers are indirect, through the amount, type, and pace of aid we provide.
  6. The nuclear threats are real. Lieven says that “every officially connected Russian with whom I have spoken, and most ordinary Russians, have said that to defend Crimea, Russia should in the last resort use nuclear weapons, as the United States would to defend Hawaii.” There are two things here that need unpacking. First, I am pretty sure it’s correct that Russians — elites and ordinary citizens alike — regard Crimea as Russian. In fact, this already goes against Lieven’s narrative of “the West made them do it” because it points to the undeniable fact that the Russians never accepted Ukraine as an independent state, and certainly not the “loss” of Crimea as a result of the disintegration of the USSR. There’s no NATO in this story, but there is an imperial view of Russia “should” be like. Second, the assertion about nukes is just that, an assertion. Somehow, the Russians contrived to live with an Ukrainian Crimea for 23 years. But now, we are told, they would totally use nukes to keep it theirs because… because what, exactly? The Hawaii analogy does not work here because Lieven simply grants credibility to a threat that is not at all obvious to me. (In fact, it’s not even obvious that the US government would use nuclear weapons to prevent Hawaii from being taken over — although here it’s difficult to see by whom. China, maybe?) The fact is, the Russians have already shown us that they can live with Crimea being Ukrainian. What has changed? Maybe, one could argue, now it would no longer be possible to keep the lease on Sevastopol for the Black Sea fleet? To this, I have a one-word response: Guantanamo. Yes, the naval base that the US maintains in Cuba despite, well, not really being very friendly to the regime since its inception and occasionally trying to invade it. Agreements like this can be made, and Russia’s legitimate security interests in the Black Sea can be protected without the nonsense about whom Crimea “really” belongs to. This is one of the things that absolutely can be negotiated as part of a peace settlement.

And this is it. A laundry list of Russian excuses and obfuscations, packaged with bad comparisons to WWI, published in a leading US foreign policy magazine.

An embarrassment.

10 thoughts on “When analogies go to war: Lieven on “the West” misreading the Russo-Ukrainian War

  1. But will it be correct to draw parallels with the wars of the past, when only one or none of the parties had atomic weapons? Doesn’t the fact that NATO/USA (not a direct participant in the conflict) and Russia have atomic weapons affect the course of this conflict?

    And also, does anyone know what really happened in the spring of 2022, when it seems that Ukrainians were already ready to make peace with the Russian Federation? If you go back and read the news from that time, it was clear that Zelensky was ready to give up on the NATO and Crimea, and at that time it was still far from the annexation. It’s just interesting, was it all a show for the Russian Federation to buy time for something? Or, did everyone understand that it was the Russian Federation that was doing a show and then they would annex something anyway and continue to seize everything further? Or, maybe the United States said that they would not give guarantees to Ukraine if Ukraine now goes to a peace treaty (to give up the war)? Or, your version. But obviously something happened back then. You could say the horrors in Bucha, but I’m not sure that was the main reason.

    Americans are simply afraid of Russians, I just wanted to hear that. And the entire Western world is based on cheap resources (the EU for sure) and cheap Chinese labor. Soon this will come to an end, and then we’ll see who will stand: some american fatass or poor and very angry residents of outcast countries (Iraq, RF, North Korea, China).

    A rhetorical question. What is the point of having such military power and not using it (I’m talking about the USA)? It’s a shame and looks really funny considering the geopolitical importance of the current conflict in Ukraine. On the other hand, maybe this is not funny, considering when the USA entered the second world war, and before that they had been doing business with the Nazis (oil, etc).

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    1. NATO is not a participant in this war, has ruled out direct participation, and the US has even said that the response to a nuclear weapon used by Russia would most likely be non-nuclear. We have had these kinds of wars before (the Vietnam War, for example) and we have had direct confrontations as well. I am not a big fan of using analogies except to demonstrate that something is possible because it has happened in the past. The article to which I responded is a very good example how not to use historical analogies.

      As for what happened in the spring of 2022: I don’t know what sources you are referring to. I am on record at the time saying that negotiations will fail. They had to because Russia was negotiating in bad faith. I just do not understand why people just do not accept the plain fact that the war was NEVER about Ukraine’s supposed NATO membership. It was ALWAYS about dismembering the country with Russia annexing at least 5 regions and installing a puppet regime in Kyiv for the remainder. Everyone who has studied this and who is not a Kremlin troll knew this back in 2014 (and yes, I am on record back then saying that war is inevitable, and it will begin with a Russian invasion on the pretext of defending Donbas — this was before the fighting in Donbas had even started). The Ukrainians were desperate back then and I think they offered the maximum they could reasonably expect to give up — Crimea and NATO (the latter was not even in the cards back then, so it did not count as a concessions). I happen to think that they still can very much make a deal on Crimea and even pre-invasion Donbas, rhetoric by Kyiv notwithstanding. Russia is the reason we cannot get a negotiated peace.

      I very much disagree that “Americans are simply afraid of Russians.” I do not know where you are getting this. We do not want a nuclear war with Russia or anyone else, that’s true. But beyond this, I do not know. I also emphatically reject the notion that “the entire Western world is based on cheap resources… and cheap Chinese labor.” Where are you even getting this from? Cheap resources is what gives you Russia, and cheap labor is what gives you China. The Western world is neither. I also fail to see the statement about “american fatass or.. angry residents of outcast countries” (but if you want an answer, then here it is: never, ever, bet against the West militarily or economically — you will lose. You can take that to the bank. And not because of some tired leftist nonsense about “exploitation” or “colonialization” or “cheap resources”. I just don’t have space to give you a lecture on the reasons for Western dominance but they are “none of the above”.)

      Who’s not using their military power? The US? Are you joking? We are using it all the time. Sometimes directly when we fight, sometimes indirectly when we give it to others, and always always indirectly when it supports our geopolitics. Seriously, I am at a loss to understand where your positions are coming from.

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      1. Josep Borrell: “So, our prosperity was based on China and Russia – energy and market (labour)”.

        https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/eu-ambassadors-annual-conference-2022-opening-speech-high-representative-josep-borrell_en

        Slantchev: “That’s because we are very AFRAID of what the Kremlin might do if, god forbid, the Ukrainians actually retaliate the way any normal and sane government would if it were in their shoes and had the right capability”.

        Slantchev: “As for what happened in the spring of 2022: I don’t know what sources you are referring to”.
        That was just my question and guesses, because I can’t figure out what to think.

        Slantchev: “I am at a loss to understand where your positions are coming from”.

        From the real world and not from the classrooms at the University of San Diego for sure. If you are not afraid and you have so many weapons, then give Ukraine tanks, ATACMS, air defense systems, jets, a submarine. Soon there will be a year of war. What are Americans waiting for? When Kyiv will be destroyed?

        Canada admitted that Russia is doing the genocide of Ukrainians, why America does not do it?

        Btw, the US signed the Budapest Memorandum and the Charter of Partnership. Ukraine and the US are allies/partners. It seems difficult to believe not only Russians

        U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership
        https://www.state.gov/u-s-ukraine-charter-on-strategic-partnership/

        Putin began to threaten with an atomic bomb and the Americans were so scared that some of the Republicans began to give back. If America is afraid of a nuclear war, then countries like the Russian Federation that have an atomic bomb will rape and kill and will never stop. I wonder what the US will do when China fucks Taiwan? Impose sanctions? lol

        All countries in the world should have atomic weapons, this is what the situation with Ukraine looks like. If my country doesn’t have a bomb, then I’m afraid to live here.

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      2. On Borrell quote: please distinguish between rhetorical and causal statements. Western economic growth and prosperity predated colonialism, cheap energy, and Chinese labor markets. The causes are complex (and some still worked out) but it’s a combination of economic and political institutions, as well as cultural practices.

        Same holds for the quote by me about fear: I emphasized it because I do believe many ARE afraid of escalating the war — I am one of them. But the argument is that we should not be afraid — not because a third world war or a nuclear exchange is nothing to be afraid of — but because the Russians are also afraid and because there is no military or political benefit for them from doing so. These are very different things. Any sane person should be afraid of nukes. When I say that many here are not afraid, I am talking about pressing the Russians, not launching nukes.

        This relates to your next point (please refrain from ad hominem attacks because this is the surest way to get me to stop responding — the distinction between “real world” and “a classroom” is also overblown — do you need real-world experience to know not to jump from the 10th floor or would some classroom physics suffice?) There are several reasons we are not giving Ukraine the weapons you mention. Among them: they can’t use some of our advanced systems, we do not want the tech to leak, we do not want the Kyiv government to escalate beyond what we can tolerate (common problem that’s known as “entrapment” in the deterrence literature), and so on. I think it should be clear that our goals overlap with those of the Ukrainian government, but they do not coincide. They have an immediate problem to liberate their territories. We have a much larger problem of ensuring the security of ourselves and our allies while looking nervously at China. We are not waiting for anything — we are giving what we think will be helpful without dragging ourselves into this. I am very sympathetic to the plight of civilians in Ukraine, but one must also realize that there are civilians here and Europe as well.

        I do not know why the US is not declaring Russian actions a genocide or Russia a terrorist state. I guess that it’s because of what we would legally have to do in terms of breaking trade and commercial relationships, which we are not ready to do (and neither are the Europeans). It’s a messy world, and I would have preferred it more clear-cut. But it isn’t.

        The Republicans that are dialing back their support for Ukraine are not afraid of nukes — they just want to hurt the democrats. Invariably, it’s the MAGA wing of the GOP that’s involved in this. I think once they get into the House, many of them will vote aid to Ukraine or only vote against it when their votes would not block it. That’s an empirical prediction that we will soon have the occasion to test.

        I don’t understand why you think Russians are not afraid of nuclear war — everybody is. All crises that involved nuclear powers have one thing in common — both sides were pulling furiously back from the brink the moment the escalation became evident. We have no escalation here aside from heated rhetoric, most of which is not even coming from the Russian government directly (except Medvedev). We are monitoring closely for any preparations to use nuclear weapons — this is when escalation would become real. Thus far, it sounds bad, but it’s just part and parcel of coercive diplomacy. (We have also sounded unhinged to the Russians when Biden talked about Armageddon — and that was the point.) So no, nuclear powers cannot just steamroll over everyone. If they could, the Taliban would not be in Afghanistan today.

        As for China / Taiwan — yes, sanctions will be part of it — and they will hurt China. The rest is, frankly, uncharted territory. What are we going to do, use nukes? Seems unrealistic. Part — and a big part at that — of the reason for trying to deny Putin victory in Ukraine is to convince China that Taiwan would not be an easy prey. Putin did us all a huge service in that respect because his war has united the West, strengthened NATO, and redefined the global conflict in more moral terms (democracy vs authoritarianism). Beijing must be livid with him — especially if he manages to lose. So who knows, perhaps a victory for Ukraine would also mean no war over Taiwan for another decade or two, or ever?

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  2. I am wondering if you have read Masha Gessen’s recent article in The New Yorker on Putin’s willingness to use a nuclear weapon? If so, what is your take on Masha’s arguments? They seem pretty convincing – I fear we will see a nuke used before this is all over.

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    1. I did read it. I think that Putin is capable of ordering the use of a nuclear weapon, but that this is very unlikely to happen. I can see him trying this if he is convinced he’s out of options. Right now, he is not (the argument in my post). There is just no reason to use it — what would he achieve? Gessen seems to think that he does not believe the West would retaliate. This might be true but I really doubt it. Even if NATO does not retaliate because the allies are wobbly, the US almost certainly will. (This is why Petraeus said that the response could be US-led coalition rather than NATO — Putin cannot rely on the Germans getting scared.) I am also not a big fan of psychological profiles for the simple reason that we do not have enough information to do them. There is a lot of guesswork and if one listens to Russian analysts, one can go nuts because they do not seem to agree on much of anything about Putin (except that many do not like him). I do not for a moment believe that Putin is “irrational” in the sense that he would have to see a benefit from using a nuclear weapon, and it isn’t clear what that would be. He’s gone to great lengths to avoid using nukes, and if you read his statements carefully, you will see that he does not really threaten to use them (he lets his minions do the threatening so he can disavow it when needed, much like the nonsense with the grain deal recently). By the time he’s truly cornered and might be tempted to order the use of a nuclear weapon, the chance that the order will not be followed will be rather significant. In fact, such an order might well prompt his removal because the escalation that would follow is very scary, very unpredictable, and I doubt many people would be suicidal. We have had some pretty intense crises before without resorting to nukes, and I hope this will be one of them.

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  3. Thank you for this post. – As for all the others. – Putin-Versteher publishing in FP without a direct rebuttal or in a pro/contra-context – what does it say about the FP? – Anyways, sadly funny to see Putin-Versteher as a new germanism/loanword. We Germans deserve it. :/

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  4. The President of Germany (who was denied entry earlier) visited Ukraine and saw how it is in reality after sitting in a bomb shelter during the bombing. I think it would not be bad to organize such “an excursion” for many leaders of the Western world, maybe for Biden. Perhaps this will change the approach to providing weapons to Ukraine.

    https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/europa/ukraine-steinmeier-kiew-101.html

    I am sure that the Ukrainians will finally receive the first two anti-aircraft defense systems from the United States before the end of the war and before the entire energy system of Ukraine is destroyed and people simply freeze to death in winter.

    I am sure no one in Ukraine regrets now that they have made their choice towards the West, and not the Russian Federation.

    Apparently I got too excited to draw a parallel with classes at the University. It was just a metaphor. Don’t take it personally. I hope Americans know what they are doing and not turn away from Ukraine, as this will greatly disappoint many people and not only in Ukraine.

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