History can never repeat itself, but….

3 min read

By the time this article gets published, the leaders of Europe had their meeting about sending or not sending, now, after all those months of secret presence, officially and openly, European soldiers to Ukraine.

Hopefully, the decision was a firm no, yet, even if that was the case, chances are high that the topic will resurface sooner rather than later.

Definitely so, as (based on their statements of late) French President Emmanuel Macron and his 36-year-old, golden boy ex-spokesperson prime minister seriously think that it is a good idea to send European troops to Ukraine to support the Ukrainian armed forces. 

Not to mention the leaders of the Baltic States, in panic-mode ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, who have been vocally supporting this initiative, hoping that this will guarantee their security instead of endangering it. 

Thus, this would seem to be a great moment to stop and think back on history at the same time as taking a step back and re-evaluating the motivations for military intervention into the conflict.

History is full of examples of wars that were started with the belief that it was to be a clear and quick victory (the latest is the current one in Ukraine that Russia probably started with the hope that it would end before it could have begun for real). On the onset of World War I, German soldiers marching to the front were encouraged by their commanders with the promise that it would be over before the leaves started to fall. 

There were also countless wars that started with the claim of (self)defence or with the noble aim of “just supporting” the friendly troops. JF Kennedy sent the Green Berets to Vietnam to support the local forces, supposedly for a few quick manoeuvres and an ever-quicker pull-out. 

The step meant to put an end to the conflict, opened a gate big enough for the Trojan Horse. Thanks to Kennedy having taken the first step, Johnson didn’t need to wait for long after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964. A North Vietnamese boat’s alleged attack against US destroyers was enough to unleash years of meaningless bloodshed.

These are just a few, well-known examples. Hopefully there is someone in Paris as well, who opened the history books.

History never repeats itself, that’s true, but similar situations usually end somewhat similarly. of course, there is always hope that this time it would play out differently. Only, it rarely does.

If there is one lesson to learn from the Cold War (let’s call it a Lesson on the Most Important De-Escalation Strategy) is that the main powers, the USA and the USSR (or, more widely, the Western and Eastern Blocks) never-ever allowed their military forces to meet openly on the battlefield. Not even accidentally. Help was kept on as low levels as possible.

For example, during the Korean War, Russian pilots flew planes with Chinese or North Korean markings and there were some combat contacts, during the Vietnam War Soviets Anti-Aircraft Missile operators/instructors were deployed to North Vietnam and they destroyed several US aircraft, what is assumed that is still happening in Ukraine (only in the opposite direction). 

It is likely that there were more incidents, but all involved parties were eager to hide those and save the World from the escalation of any war. 

The very rare occasions, when collision happened (mainly between the air forces), were immediately classified and remained secrets for decades, and even today we only know some vague details about them. Competition (or even some collision) was welcome, but thanks to the capabilities for mutual destruction, real war was avoided at all costs. 

Indirect involvement allowed for saving face and quiet withdrawal. 

Several great minds worked on theories and tactics. Among them the American Herman Kahn, whose 1965 book On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios, explored different levels of conflict escalation. He also introduced the concept of “thinking the unthinkable”, encouraging policymakers to consider extreme scenarios and their consequences. His theories had undeniably influenced Cold War strategic thinking and discussions. 

Another great mind, Barry R. Posen also warned against escalation. His book, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks, studies the risks of inadvertent escalation during conventional conflicts. His work highlighted how seemingly minor actions in conventional wars could lead to unintended escalation. Posen emphasized the need for clear signalling, restraint, and crisis communication to prevent accidental escalation.

The art of “Kremlinology” slowly disappeared after the end of the Cold War, so did the kind of strategic thinking prevalent in those days. But maybe there are still a few lessons applicable from their wisdom today.

The support for Ukraine should not end. But it shall stop at a level. 

As there is no guarantee that sending troops to Ukraine would lead to anything else but even more human loss and a lengthy, unsolvable conflict, direct and open confrontation is a level that should be avoided at all costs. 

To apply a more recent theory for international relations (think neofunctionalism), the spillover effect should not be overlooked, either. 

Any sort of direct intervention creates precedents for conflicts elsewhere the world. And given that most of the world is not against Russia (as proven by the very limited coalition the West managed to coin after the Russian attack against Ukraine), such interventions could happen on Russia’s side that time. Let it be in the Middle East or even in Ukraine. 

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