If Putin is looking to history to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he should also heed the words of one of history’s great literary figures in John Donne.
Prior to the first shelling that marked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the casual observer of world events could have been forgiven for thinking it was all another one of Vladimir Putin’s power plays. It might have been an act right up there with his 8-goal ice hockey efforts or penchant for entertaining photographers shirtless, much to the ongoing delight of meme creators around the globe.
Russian troops had been amassing on Ukraine’s border since November the previous year, ostensibly for training exercises. Putin’s demands in December for a ban on Ukraine entering NATO were perhaps overshadowed by the rise of the Omicron variant, and as NATO ships and fighter jets deployed to the region, there was still a commonly shared analysis that an invasion would result in further sanctions and that the costs outweighed the gains.
As the fog is lifted, Putin’s invasion speech mourning the demise of the Soviet Union, castigating a promise-breaking NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, declaring United States containment as threatening Russian survival, and references to Nazi Germany’s attack on the ‘Motherland’ in 1941, the speech and its messages begin to take on the clarity of hindsight. As William Faulkner wrote: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
Research from the Clingendael Institute shows that Putin has increasingly and repeatedly used the history of the Russian Empire in his speeches and conveyed the belief that the Baltic regions are a part of Russia and that they will return to the fold. This type of zealotry goes beyond strategic descriptions of nations such as Ukraine as Russian ‘buffer states’ or as belonging within its 'sphere of influence’. Putin is a true believer in declaring that the territories, nations, and peoples lost in the dissolution of the Soviet Union are still Russian, whether they know it or not.
One group that perhaps never received this strategic message are Russian soldiers, with videos spreading across the internet of captured soldiers phoning their families telling them for the first time that ‘yes mother, I am in Ukraine’, to the surprise of both parties. Social media has been filled with unverified videos of Ukrainian farmers towing away Russian tanks with tractors, the invading military using ‘ready-to-eat’ meals that expired in 2015, and the Ukrainian President wearing army fatigues and spending time amongst his soldiers.
While Ukraine seems to be winning the battle in the information domain (with the assistance of entities such as Anonymous and Microsoft) the nation is facing rising casualties and is combatting a superpower with a host of weapons it still has yet to deploy.
Russia has further been implementing an information war domestically to influence public opinion, banning words such as ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ in reference to the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine. Other measures have been implemented to obfuscate Russian military actions, such as banning the use of electronic devices like smartphones to stop the spread of information on what soldiers are doing and where. The control of information on what soldiers are doing, how, and where, as well as accurate data on numbers of casualties, are all geared towards delivering a message to the Russian people that this is fine, things are going to be okay. Perhaps the strategy is working, considering Putin’s approval rating is the highest it has been since 2018 and is slowly climbing.
Putin knew already the measures that would be used in response to invading Ukraine, and the Russian state is acclimatised to living and working under the yoke of sanctions since the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Russia had accumulated foreign reserves of $US630 billion, albeit with the flaw that half of these funds were held outside Russia and are now seized. In looking beyond the traditional sanctions placed upon an invader, Putin could perhaps have benefited from looking a bit further back in time than the collapse of the Soviet Union, continuing past Napoleon’s Russia campaign, right to the 1600s and a poem by a former soldier John Donne:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has resolved Europe against Russia’s taking a ‘part of the main’ to be washed away by the Black Sea. The European Union agreed to send €500 million in arms and aid to Ukraine, the French finance minister declared ‘economic war’ on Russia, while Germany has reversed a historic policy of never sending weapons to conflict zones and has suspended the major gas line project Nord Stream 2. Nations such as Italy, Spain, and Belgium are preparing to send lethal aid to Ukraine, while others such as Greece and Poland are providing support to refugees. Ukraine’s bid for membership to the European Union has now advanced and another former Soviet republic, Moldova, has taken the chance to apply.
As Europe and the world turns against Russia in ways that likely weren’t in Moscow’s game plan, another power with historic territorial ambitions appears to have also been caught off guard by Putin actually going ahead with the invasion. Beijing has sent confused messaging to its citizens in Ukraine, first advising them to advertise their Sino-ties and then later to hide them, and abstained, rather than opposed, a United Nations vote deploring Russia’s actions despite their ‘no upper-limit’ relationship with one another.
China actually enjoys a significant relationship with Ukraine, becoming the top importer of Ukrainian barley in 2021-22, and Ukraine accounts for a third of Chinese corn imports. Ukraine was China’s third largest weapon supplier from 2016-20, behind France and Russia, and Chinese entities have agreements to build substantial infrastructure and energy projects in the country. These commodities may now add to Russia’s own existing agricultural power and bargaining ability in working with China’s rising power, if the Russian state takes control of these resources.
While Beijing may lack the military capability to invade Taiwan, warfare as a means to take hold of China’s manifest destiny in taking back the island is likely off the table anyway. China’s power resides in its high place within an interconnected world, a position that may not suit its interests if countries cut ties, impose sanctions, and find other avenues for acquiring all the resources and transactions that Beijing currently dominate. China can still employ hybrid warfare to meet its goals, and still has the tools and commodities to coerce other states into following its directives.
For now, states with dreams of conquest and visions of taking back historic territories may do well to look to the rest of John Donne’s poem as prescient of the potential ramifications of going to war:
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Shaun Cameron is an Australian postgraduate student in International Relations and National Security. He has a background in academic research, psychology, and teaching.