Expert Comment: How history will look back on Russian invasion
'The war has set off a chain of events that could alter the balance of power for good,' writes Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at the University of Oxford, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College.
'At the bottom of the Kremlin’s view of world affairs is a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,' ran the report of a senior US official reporting back to Washington.
The leadership in Moscow, it continued, was driven by the 'necessities of their own past and present position' to present the 'outside world as evil, hostile and menacing'.
Decision-making, the report concluded, lay in the hands of 'a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken…
'This political force has complete power of disposition over energies of one of the world’s greatest peoples and resources of the world’s richest national territory, and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism'.
The official’s name was George Kennan, the US chargé d’affaires in Moscow in 1946. His report, which came to be known as the Long Telegram, marked a key moment in the crystallisation of the Cold War.
Although the Soviet Union had sided with Adolf Hitler’s Germany at the start of the Second World War, it had worked closely with the US and Britain after the launch of Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when German forces flooded over the border and advanced on Kyiv, Leningrad and Moscow.
That sparked four years of close co-operation, as British fighter planes and American tanks were shipped into the Soviet Union through the White Sea and through the Gulf.
Regular summits between Sir Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin built up a close working relationship as discussions turned not only to the war, but to the world that would emerge afterwards.
Just months after victory was declared in Europe, and then in the Pacific not long afterwards, it became increasingly clear that the Western allies had got Stalin badly wrong. Stalin was no ally who shared a vision of peaceful co-operation and partnership, but a leader who was paranoid, obsessive and willing to use force to get his way.
Some astute observers warned a man who had ravaged his country in the Thirties with show trials, repeated purges of the inner circle, mass deportations, gulags and executions was unlikely to be anything like the “Uncle Joe” caricature that had built up in the press during the war years.
History repeats itself
And so here we are again. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the devastating attacks on Kharkiv, Mariupol, Kherson, Kyiv and elsewhere, it is hard not to look back and ask how we got it so wrong.
Not long ago, many smirked at images of a shirtless Vladimir Putin horseback riding in the Russian wilderness or playing ice hockey with professional players who politely allowed him to tap in the winning goal.
Not long ago, many cheered at England’s run to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Russia, silent about the annexation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine four years earlier.
Not long ago, retailers, shipbrokers, estate agents and lawyers rubbed their hands with delight at the sight of a well-dressed and well-funded Russian whose fortunes seemed limitless, if sometimes of obscure origins.
The past 10 days have been the most important in decades. We have seen an authoritarian state turn into a totalitarian one in front of our eyes. Independent media has been shut down and dissent all but silenced.
Those demonstrating against the attack on Ukraine have been threatened with immediate dispatch to the front lines; Bloomberg has reported on plans to hold public executions in Ukrainian cities to break morale; and Chechen hit-squads have been sent to murder Volodymyr Zelensky, the defiant and charismatic Ukrainian president who has been a thorn in Putin’s skin for years.
A race against time
Ukraine will never be the same. A million people have already fled as refugees, one of the largest and fastest migrations in modern history – 10 times the scale of the crisis of 2015 that played a role, amongst other things, in convincing people in the UK to vote for Brexit.
Cities have been pounded into submission, with worse to come in the days and weeks ahead.
Odesa looks like it is next, cutting off Ukraine from the Black Sea altogether, and there is no sign that Russian forces or Putin will stop until Kyiv is brought to its knees.
Russia will never be the same. The past 30 years saw many troubles, challenges and difficulties; but it also saw progress and freedoms that, however imperfect, have now evaporated. Western businesses that allowed people to learn, to share, to celebrate and to work together have gone – from Microsoft to Apple to Netflix.
Russia has chosen to cut itself off from the West, accepting the price of sanctions that JP Morgan estimates will lead to the economy collapsing by 35 per cent in the second quarter of this year – a brutal scything of the middle classes, and compounding devastation for the poor and destitute already teetering with shortage and hunger as a result of the pandemic.
However, the consequences are far more wide-ranging than what this means for the poor people of Ukraine and Russia. Some Central Asian countries rely on remittances from workers sending money home. Those sources of funding will now collapse, with unpredictable results for the people of the region.
Leaders in these states will be looking nervously to the north for signs that Russia’s new imperial ambitions may not be sated by Ukraine: talk of spheres of influence, buffer zones and pushing back the West will be focusing many minds across the region, as will be the case in the Baltic states.
Geopolitical shift to the East
Then there is the new world order that has been emerging over the past three decades, whose axis lies not in the West but in Asia.
China’s role over the past 10 days and in the coming weeks is crucial, as Beijing seeks to balance its own interests of non-interference on the one hand and a deep strategic partnership with Moscow on the other.
Although many observers only have eyes for China, there are other strong currents that we should be paying careful attention to. The US, as well as the UK, has long courted India as a cornerstone for a much needed commercial, political and military vision for the Indo-Pacific.
Delhi’s refusal to speak out about Ukraine, its abstention at the UN Security Council and the close personal friendship that Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and Putin share should focus minds in London about how easy it is to talk about “Global Britain” and how much work is needed to turn this into a reality.
That can be underlined by the fact that the United Arab Emirates, for many years the West’s closest partners in the Gulf, likewise chose to abstain, despite urging to condemn Russia’s actions.
Can the West wrest the initiative?
The wheels of history turn all the time. Certainly, there have been momentous moments in the recent past. The scenes in Afghanistan last summer marked a new chapter in global affairs as the US, UK and Western partners pulled out after 20 years in the country.
The attacks of 9/11 that had sparked the intervention both there and in Iraq clearly had implications that changed the world. The magnitude of what has happened in the past 10 days, and the fears of what lies ahead, is at least comparable to that dreadful day – and likely more significant.
We are not entering a period that is volatile, unpredictable and dangerous, even if the past 10 days have served as the most shrill of alarm bells. Like the Kennan Telegram of 1946, all this has been building up for years. It is just that we have finally woken up.
That may be too late for the poor people of Ukraine; but this does not stop if – or sadly when – Russian tanks make it to the centre of Kyiv.
Peter Frankopan is professor of global history at Worcester College, University of Oxford, and author of The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World
This column first appeared in the Telegraph on 5 March 2022