History does repeat itself—but in very different and unexpected ways, given the fact that systemic geostrategic, political-economic, military-technological and social-cultural variables can change radically within each historical epoch.
The Crimean War of 1853-56 in which the British, the French, and the Ottoman Empire fought against Tsarist Russia remained limited to the Black Sea region. Yet the war could have expanded to involve Prussia, Austria, Sweden, among other European powers, including support for the Finnish resistance—as urged by Karl Marx at the time.
With Homo Geopoliticus now confronted with a new rendition of the Crimean War since 2014, what clues does history provide for the future of this conflict?
Karl Marx and the 1853-56 Crimean War
Not so ironically, Karl Marx wanted to enlarge the Crimean war into an all-European war. As Marx was a virulent opponent of Tsarist Russia—which he saw as the most reactionary and “absolutist” power in Europe—he urged the formation of an all-European coalition Germany and Austria, plus Britain, France and Sweden, not to overlook the Ottoman Empire—in the struggle against the Tsarist regime during the 1853-56 Crimean War.
In the New York Tribune of February 1854, the writer of the Communist Manifesto not only argued that French and British naval power should fight to liberate Odessa, Crimea and the Sea of Azov, but he also proposed that maritime Sweden, along with monarchist Prussia and Austria, should open a new flank in northern Europe. The goal would be to emancipate Finland and the Baltic states from the Tsarist oppression. If the struggle was victorious, this would make Russia:
A giant without arms, without eyes, with no other recourse than trying to crush her opponents under the weight of her clumsy torso, thrown here and there at random, wherever a hostile battle-cry was heard.
For many of the reasons outlined by Marx himself, the Crimean War did not, however, become an all-European war as Sweden, Prussia and Austria did not enter the conflict. And what Marx called the “sixth power” in Europe, the Socialist Revolution, did not, at least at that time, succeed in overthrowing the Tsarist regime as he had hoped.
Origins of World War I
As the insecurity security dialectic widened and geopolitical conflicts intensified within Europe in the aftermath of the Crimean War, major power war became more and more probable after Prussia, in the process of unifying the independent German states by force, annexed Alsace Lorraine from France in the Franco-Prussian war of 1871.
In response, France sought to “encircle” Imperial Germany by forging an alliance with Tsarist Russia in 1894, and then with Great Britain in 1904. By 1908, Imperial Germany claimed that Britain, France and Russia, coupled with the US, had forged an “encircling” alliance against it. Ironically, after the Anglo-Russian Great Game in Asia, Tsarist Russia, backed by France, sided with Great Britain in forging the Triple Entente against Imperial Germany.
By 1914, Marx’s advocacy of war against Tsarist Russia would become one of the goals of the Imperial German elite. Berlin was then able to coopt the German Social Democrats into voting war credits for the struggle against Tsarist Russia. Yet, the Social Democrats did not fully realize that Berlin’s military strategy involved a two-front war against both Tsarist Russia and democratic France.
After a month of failed diplomacy that followed the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand, Berlin sought to break its perceived “encirclement” by opting for a two-front war in August 1914. Rolling the “iron dice,” Imperial German elites convinced themselves that both Great Britain and the United States would back off and not support France after the German attack.
Against Imperial German expectations, however, Britain, and eventually the United States in 1917, did come to the assistance of France, while Berlin pursued its effort to defeat Tsarist Russia. At that time, Berlin supported the nascent Ukrainian nation against Tsarist Russia, while backing up Lenin as the “peace candidate” who would lead Russia to withdraw from the war and implement a humiliating peace at Brest Litovsk in 1916.1
Tsarist and Soviet collapse
As the tragic farce of world history never repeats itself in quite the same way, the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 in the aftermath of the Cold War, somewhat like the collapse of the Tsarist empire after World War I, did draw and quarter Russia into “a giant without arms” much as Marx had hoped.2
Following the Tsarist collapse, Lenin sought to incorporate Ukraine into the newly forged Soviet Union in conflict with Poland during the Russian civil war. And the secret American, British and French military intervention in Russia in 1918-21 did not prevent Bolshevik victory.
By contrast, at the immediate end of the Cold War, both Moscow and Washington sought to pressure Ukraine into giving up its nuclear capabilities left over from the Soviet arsenal. This led to the signing of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine was promised security assurances for giving up its nuclear weaponry by the US, UK and Russia.
Yet by the end of 1994, the US concurrently abandoned the Partnership for Peace, and opted to expand NATO as a collective defense organization into former Soviet spheres of influence in the period 1997-99 against Russian protests even after Yeltsin had been re-elected—in addition to engaging in the 1999 air war over Kosovo, which alienated both Russia and China. And after absorbing the Baltic states in 2004 in the “Big Bang” NATO enlargement, the US promised to draw Georgia and Ukraine into NATO at the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit.
In the period 2008-14, following Russia’s intervention in Georgia (largely provoked by Tbilisi), Putin began to reconstitute the arms and legs of the former Russian empire with new prosthetic devices by annexing Crimea in 2014, and by supporting independence movements in the Donbass, after the failure of the Normandy talks to grant the Donbass region autonomy. So far Putin’s actions appear more like Lenin or Bismarck in terms of their geostrategic goals than like the goals of Stalin or Wilhelm II or Hitler.
Much like Prussia’s annexation of Alsace Lorraine in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, that was intended to weaken France and provide a defense buffer for a Germany unified by force, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 represented an act of preclusive imperialism. Moscow’s goal has been to check Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO’s nuclear alliance, prevent NATO from obtaining the Russian military base leased from Kyiv at Sevastopol, while brutally subjugating Kyiv, and undermining its claims to national identity and independence.
This horrific war—which is a direct result of the failure of the US, Europeans and Russia to forge a new system of European security in the aftermath of Soviet collapse—has expanded to include much of south and eastern Ukraine. After failing to subdue Kyiv in February 2022, Moscow has sought to seize control of the Sea of Azov, Mariupol, and has hoped to hold Kherson so as to guarantee the fresh water supply to Crimea, which was cut off by the Ukrainians after the 2014 annexation.
In short, Moscow has sought to obtain the territories of so-called “Little Russia” while still threatening Kyiv with missile strikes. The question remains as to whether Moscow can hold onto these territories in the long run against Ukrainian resistance and will also seek to seize the key Ukrainian port of Odessa, Kyiv’s primary outlet to the Black Sea.
Moscow has feared that NATO and EU membership for Ukraine, and for former Soviet bloc states, will mean the potential loss of Russian political-economic influence and access to strategic raw materials, which include lithium, which is seen as vital for the new digital economy and that is located in the Donbas region. Moscow also fears the loss of other markets, including agricultural products and arms sales. Moscow furthermore seeks to link southeastern Ukraine and the Sea of Azov and Black Sea regions with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, so that it is Moscow, and not Kyiv, who controls trade to and from Eurasia.
In the North, Moscow hopes to gain access to strategic Arctic resources while controlling the new sea lines of communication to and from the Far East to Europe, in cooperation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Ironically, both Russia and China seek to take advantage of global warming in the Arctic—but in potential conflict with the interests of Finland, Sweden, the UK, among other NATO members of the Arctic Council, as well as with Japan.
Concurrently, as the Arctic represents the shortest path for ICBMs, Moscow will seek to counter the NATO presence. Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO will most likely result in a more provocative military and nuclear build-up in Kaliningrad and the Arctic region as NATO could potentially threaten Russian supply routes to Murmansk from Finnish territory in case of war.
The US and NATO confront Russia
While the Russian Civil War involved direct US, French and British military intervention, the US and NATO have thus far refused to become directly involved militarily in the Ukraine-Russia war. Nevertheless, the US, NATO and non-NATO members have provided significant defense capabilities for the Ukrainian resistance.
And in the effort to counter both China and Russia in the Far East, the US has been forging an alliance with Japan and Australia, plus South Korea and Taiwan, in addition to reaching for an entente with India, which is still seeking to balance itself between Russia, China and the US. This US-led alliance formation leads Moscow and Beijing to see themselves as being “encircled” much like Imperial Germany saw itself as encircled in the period 1908-14.
Assuming their membership is not blocked by Turkey, the “neutral” countries Sweden and Finland—whose neutral status had already begun to change once both states became EU members—have both sought membership in NATO’s nuclear alliance. This is not just in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as generally argued in the news media, but also to counter Moscow’s burgeoning steps to militarize the Arctic in its quest for strategic raw materials and efforts to defend sea lines of communication from Europe to the Far East.
In many ways, Finnish and Swedish demands to enter NATO were a direct consequence of the Russian military build-up in Kaliningrad, the Baltic region, and the Kola peninsula after the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania entered NATO’s nuclear alliance in 2004. In addition to engaging in war with Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999, NATO membership for the Baltic states crossed Moscow’s first “red line” in 2004—as NATO could potentially threaten Saint Petersburg and Moscow from the Baltic region.
NATO then threatened to cross Russia’s second “red line” in 2008 by promising NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia at its Bucharest summit. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine from 2014 to the present accordingly represents an act of preclusive intervention designed to check NATO and EU enlargement.
In response, the US has augmented its political and economic and energy influence in Europe, while strengthening the role of NATO. The US/NATO goal has been to bruise Moscow to the point that it cannot “do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine” in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Yet it is not clear that US military supports for Ukraine and US-led sanctions on Russia are hurting Moscow significantly enough to stop the fighting and forge a “mutually hurting stalemate” that will lead both sides to seek a peace settlement. Moscow has accordingly found many ways to avoid or lessen the impact of sanctions—making them largely ineffective at least in the short run during Russian military operations.
The concern raised here is that Russia will continue to use brute force regardless of the strength of imposed sanctions. And the possibility that Moscow could eventually lose strategic ground to Kyiv could actually lead Russia to use even more violence including tactical nuclear weaponry. In accord with theories of “limited” nuclear war, tactical nukes could be used with strategic hypersonic ICBMs concurrently placed on high alert as a “deterrent.”
While thus far expecting the conflict to remain on the conventional level, the US has been attempting to “calibrate” the war by adjusting the range of its conventional capabilities that it has supplied to Kyiv, so that Ukraine, for example, cannot easily strike Russian territory. Yet, even if the Pentagon has ostensibly “limited” its military supports, Moscow has nevertheless engaged in nuclear maneuvers as a counter-threat.
The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is largely based on myth—as the miniaturization of nuclear warheads potentially makes such weaponry very usable. The concept of MAD furthermore depends on mutual understanding and rationality. Yet what if one side takes the initial risk to use tactical nuclear warheads? What if an accidental attack, or unexpected action by a third party, or an accident, leads to a nuclear confrontation? What if Putin and his cronies—like the Imperial German elite who opted to roll the “iron dice” and attack France in the belief that Britain would not risk a military intervention—opt to roll their “nuclear dice” in the belief the US, UK and France will not strike back?
Once one enters the “fog” of war, what appears to be “irrational” at one time, may become “rational” in a new situation as both sides begin to “up the ante” in terms of violence. In effect, US and NATO efforts to “calibrate” the war though arms sales may not be interpreted in the same way by Moscow. In addition, the use of cyber warfare can change the nature of the game entirely as weapons systems, radar and targeting systems could malfunction if attacked by cyber weapons.
The deeper irony is that if Washington itself cannot control the irrational nature of its own domestic violence after multiple consecutive mass killings in recent weeks—how can the Pentagon expect to manage the violence in Ukraine after flooding the country with arms—which could, in turn, be used in acts of violence inside Russia or elsewhere or be sold or distributed outside the country? And how can the U.S. guarantee that Putin himself or another future Russian leader will not act “irrationally”?
As Homo Geopoliticus witnesses a conflict which appears to represent a new rendition of the 1853–56 Crimean War, the Russia Civil War and the German annexation of Alsace Lorraine combined, the following questions can be posed: Will the present conflict remain “limited” to Ukraine? Or could it draw the major European powers into direct confrontation with Russia—much as Marx had advocated in the mid-19th century? Or could the conflict soon transform into a wider, more generalized and global war, that destabilizing much of the world and involves China, Iran, North Korea, among other states?
The question also remains as to how unified NATO members will be as Russia seeks to play the Europeans against each other and given the fact that Washington, Kyiv, and the differing European NATO members and third states, already disagree as to when and how to pursue peace. While it is often said that it is Kyiv who must decide when to begin negotiations with Moscow, the fact of the matter is that it is Washington who largely calls the shots and who can turn on and off the supply of arms.
In order to prevent this conflict from intensifying and widening any further, it is Washington—in working with the Europeans and Kyiv—who must engage with Moscow in the effort to achieve a geopolitical settlement in Ukraine and in Europe as a whole as soon as possible. Otherwise, this new rendition of the Crimea War may well turn out to be Phase 1 of a much more extensive conflict.
The Biden administration needs to reassess its policies.
And no… the kites are not drones
“Papa, what are those black things in the sky?”.
demands the pre-teen in trepidation.
“UFOs!” the father responds.
“Unidentified Flying Objects”.
The father smirks as two swing-wing Mirage 2000s
suddenly pivot from ocean patrol
and sweep across Normandy beaches
breaking sound waves over Boudin-painted sands.
His youngest looks dismayed, not understanding.
The elder son replies…
“Dad, why did you say that… Those aren’t UFOs…
They’re fighter jets…”.
“Just jokin’…”. “But dad… Look! There are tank treads in the dunes!…” “Son, those are tractor tracks… Don’t let Putin and his invasion of Ukraine get into your brain!” The father stares… blankly… for a moment up into the blue sky’s blueness, before whispering to himself… “And no… the kites are not drones…”
1 Hall Gardner, The Failure to Prevent World War I: The Unexpected Armageddon (London: Ashgate, 2015).
1 See Hall Gardner, Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2015).