Thucydides wrote several millennia ago during his coverage of The Peloponnese War that, “Identity of interests is the surest of bonds whether between states or individuals”.
This observation feels pertinent in relation to the origins of the current Ukraine crisis. Ukraine’s attempt to pursue membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), where member states enjoy a military and political alliance, an ‘identity of interests’, was deemed ‘an intolerable prospect for Vladimir Putin’, contrary to his perception of Russia’s interests.
Prior to this, deterrence in the form of the NATO alliance has been an effective tool for conflict mitigation however this alone has not prevented conflict escalating. The distraction of a global pandemic undoubtedly played a part and the change of administration in the US, together with the weakening of ties with Europe under Trump will also have contributed to the timing of the current conflict. The heavy dependence of Europe on gas supply from Russia has led to a reluctance to send troops, again self-interest prevails.
Commentators and analysts are asking if history is repeating itself. Thucydides continued relevance would suggest so. Following World War II a new world order emerged where the ‘old powers’ Britain and France were less important. Two new ‘superpowers’ in the form of the Soviet Union and the USA replaced them as political rivals with military might and strong economies. The Soviet Union refused to relinquish control of the countries they liberated from Nazi occupation which operated as satellite states under Soviet control and acted as a useful buffer zone between the Soviet Union and the West. The US viewed this as evidence of a Soviet agenda to spread communism throughout the world.
Cut to the late 1980s, and the Soviet Union under a new leader faced a number of serious issues as communist governments across Eastern Europe began to topple. The Soviet Union lost control over the satellite states and Gorbachev was blamed for the disintegration of the Communist Bloc and threatening Soviet Security.
Under Putin, Russia has once again started to reassert itself as a formidable power, mirroring behaviour and operations it undertook at the conclusion of, and immediately after the Second World War – for example, the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Ukraine as well as an active espionage programme including chemical attacks on former Russian agents abroad.
“Humanity’s greatest political achievement has been the decline of war. That is now in jeopardy.” – Yuval Noah Harari
As war is expensive, countries aim to avoid its costs and remain independent within sovereign borders. In the absence of a universally binding and verifiable agreement to abolish war, the best option has been deterrence. Deterrence as a military strategy is where one power uses the threat of reprisal effectively to preclude an attack from an adversary power.
However the conflict in Ukraine may well have far reaching consequences for the entire World. With no intervention from other countries, aggressors will feel they can wage war with impunity. What will that mean in relation to China and Taiwan, Iran and Saudi Arabia?
When the Ukraine was encouraged to decommission its nuclear plant after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, the West assured support which has not been forthcoming. For others observing the loss of nuclear capability can be equated with a loss of deterrence. If nuclear ambitions are halted countries lose their ability to issue threats which carry a greater weight and therefore are unable to protect themselves.
‘Identity of interests’ certainly persists but in its absence formidable military might and the threat of waging significant war is also an effective deterrent or conflict mitigation. In the absence of both we are still in a world where ‘never again’ is nothing more than an empty sentiment.
Yair Daren ( Bsc) is the Founding Director of Security Risk Specialists, he is an Ex IDF Lieutenant and a University of London Graduate in Economics & Social Policy.