The purpose of history is not to learn from it in the sense that it prevents us from making the same mistakes. When did that ever work? 1812 would suggest the dangers inherent in attacking Russia, but the lesson was not learned in 1941. The pattern repeated itself with Russia able to endlessly retreat and accept limitless punishment only to finally unleash devastating counterattacks. But why should the Germans have learned the lesson of 1812, when they had their own lesson from a little more than twenty years earlier. The German Army decisively defeated the Russian Empire in the field in 1917/1918. They were able to advance as far as Pskov and Rostov on Don and in the process captured Kiev, Minsk and Kharkov. If their fathers could do this why could not their sons? So which lesson do we take from history? The lessons are frequently contradictory. It is perhaps for this reason that we do not learn.
It is not so much that history teaches us to avoid certain mistakes. We will continue to make mistakes. Rather it explains the present and gives us the key to understanding what is happening right now. Certain problems that exist in the modern world such as frozen conflicts can only be understood through history. In this way they can perhaps be melted.
If you look at a map of Europe in 1900 it is quite remarkable how much has changed. How can it be that so many countries have come into existence? Why are there so many borders now that didn’t exist in 1900? In the vast majority of cases the map we have at present is because of war.
In 1900 there was no sovereign independent nation state called Poland. Polish people looked back at their history and hoped that one day they would get their country back, but the prospects must have looked bleak. They had revolted in 1830 and in 1863, but these revolts were crushed. Briefly Napoleon had created a Grand Duchy of Poland, but it wasn’t properly independent and it lasted for only eight years. The problem for Poles was that the place they considered to be Poland was divided between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary. So even if a revolt against Russia had succeeded, it couldn’t have given them Poland, at least not all of it. The Poles were like the Kurds today, divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, a people without a country.
How could Polish people fight three great powers at once when they didn’t even have an army? The situation in 1900 must have seemed completely hopeless. Yet within twenty years there was a Poland again.
If we look at the boundaries of Poland today it, shows something crucial about how the map of Europe has changed in the past one hundred years. The initial map of an independent Poland only happened in the first place because of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Imagine if the Russian Empire had been able to hang on for just one more year. Do you think the allies would have rewarded Russia for four years of fighting by taking away part of their territory? Instead Russia would have been granted parts of Austria/Hungary Germany and possibly Constantinople. Everything Russia had been fighting for throughout the nineteenth century might well have been theirs if they could only have held on for one more year. In that case too it is likely that Poland would never have come into existence again.
So the first condition for Polish independence is that Russia has a revolution that causes the Russian Empire to collapse. The second condition is that Russia or rather the Soviet Union loses the Polish Soviet War (1919-1921). What right legally did the Poles have to annex Lemberg (Lvov) from Austria Hungary and Vilna (Vilnius) from the Russian Empire? Why should Poland be allowed to turn East Prussia into an island divided from the rest of Germany by a corridor to the sea. Of course all of these territorial changes were eventually made legal by treaties. But it wasn’t law that created the territorial changes. It was war. If Poland had lost its battle for existence after the First World War, there wouldn’t be any boundaries to have treaties about.
The Second World War also changed the boundaries of Poland. First Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1939. It has always baffled me why the UK and France declared war on Germany for invading Poland but not on the Soviet Union. What was the difference? Eastern Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union illegally. It is for this reason and this reason alone that the present boundaries of Ukraine and Belarus are as they are. If it hadn’t been for Stalin’s actions in 1939, Vilnius would not be the capital of Lithuania and Lvov would not be the centre of Ukrainian nationalism. Belarus too would now be much smaller if it had not been for the Red Army’s actions in 1939.
All of these boundaries have been subject to law and treaty. The reality on the ground is eventually accepted. But the reason for these boundaries is not law. It is war.
Poland lost large chunks of its eastern territory in 1939, but it was compensated for this later by gaining large chunks of territory from Germany. Again this happened because the Soviet Union was able to defeat the German Army in the field. German territory was then annexed and given to Poland. German people were driven from their homes while Polish people moved from their former homes now in the Lithuanian, Belarussian and Ukrainian Republics of the USSR and settled in towns that had formerly been German for centuries. Eventually treaties were made that justified these territorial changes. But all of this law is simply ex post facto reasoning. It was the fighting in the Second World War and the agreement between Churchill Stalin and Roosevelt that created the present boundaries of Poland. What right did the Soviet Union have to take away Polish territory in 1939? None whatever. What right did the Soviet Union have to take away German cities like Breslau and Stettin? They had the right of conquest. Dress it up all you will, but that is what it amounts to.
We accept without question that history changes maps. If you look at the evolution of Europe’s map since ancient times you will find huge changes caused by population migrations and war. Why do we have a place called Hungary? The reason is that a central Asian people called the Hungarians moved there. No doubt there were people living there already, but they were conquered. This is how the world works.
But while we accept that history can change maps we think that history has stopped. After 1945 we decided that territorial changes were no longer permitted. If maps were to change this could only be due to democracy and law. It is for this reason above all that we have frozen conflicts.
The breakup of the Soviet Union has left us with a rather odd map. Conflicts in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine and others have left us with de facto boundaries that are unrecognised in law. Russia fought a war with Georgia in 2008. Georgia lost and part of its territory was in effect annexed by Russia. Likewise Russia fought a war with Ukraine in 2014 and parts of Ukraine were annexed by Russia. Historically this is all very straightforward.
Look at the map of the Balkans before the First World War. It was the Balkan Wars that created the map.
In the First Balkan War (1912-1913) Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro united against the Ottoman Empire. But then everyone including the Ottomans ganged up on Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War (1913). Everyone wanted a piece of the European territory that had just been liberated from the Turks. But no-one could agree on whose claim was just and whose was unjust. Once more the issue was decided by war. Eventually there was a peace treaty that reflected the reality on the ground. Most of the boundaries in Europe have a similar story. It is in this way that boundaries have evolved.
But somehow since the Second World War we have ceased to learn how history works. We think that our method of solving conflict is far superior. Does anyone really think that it is superior to keep Crimea, the Donbass, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a permanently frozen situation? Is it really likely that at any point in the near future these territories will go back to Ukraine and Georgia? The only way that would happen is if someone fought a war with Russia and annexed these territories back. I find that prospect rather disturbing.
The idea also that we must have permanent sanctions until Russia gives back whatever territories it annexed is also troubling. Russia won’t give them back. They will wait for as long as it takes. Within living memory the Russian people have gone through suffering that is unimaginable in places like Britain. Do you really think they will give up their territory because it’s a little harder to obtain Parmesan cheese nowadays? But these sanctions mean that there is permanent tension between Russia and the Western powers that are imposing them. The relationship between the West and Russia is worse than it was even during the Cold War. At least then there was détente and an acceptance that there was a Russian sphere of influence that the West didn’t interfere with. Right or wrong great powers still do have spheres of influence and strategic red lines. No doubt they have no right to these, but they always have and probably always will. Frozen conflicts mean frozen wars, but such wars can heat up. This is the danger of failing to solve these conflicts. Long term sanctions against Russia, and they will have to be very long term, simply mean that we have a long term cold war that could heat up at any minute. Is this really safer, than accepting the reality on the ground?
There are many long running territorial disputes all over the world. For example, there is a dispute over the Russian Kuril islands just north of Japan. Does Japan really think that Russia will give back these islands? The justification for their being part of Russia is exactly the same justification as that which gives Russia the right to southern Sakhalin or indeed East Prussia. Late in the day the USSR declared war on Japan in 1945. It then used that war to annex some Japanese territory including the Kuril islands. This justification is exactly the same as the one which justifies the changes to the boundaries of Poland. If the Japanese have the right to claim back these islands then so too do the Germans have the right to claim back Stettin.
People have to accept the reality that is on the ground. Imagine if Poles were today sitting in refugee camps outside Lvov. Imagine if these Poles were lobbing rockets into Lvov. What if Germans on the river Neisse were still complaining about the land that they had lost? What if they sometimes went to Warsaw and blew themselves up to complain that they had been hard done by? How would the Russians respond if Germans demanded that they were given Königsberg back and if they backed up this demand with terrorism?
The same principle applies to all of these frozen conflicts. You have to accept the reality on the ground. It might be unjust. It might even be illegal. But much of what we accept today about the borders of Europe is the result of injustice and illegality. Israel exists for exactly the same reason as Poland exists. Israelis fought for the existence of their state and they won. Territory that formerly belonged to Jordan (West Bank), Syria (Golan) and Egypt (Gaza) was conquered by Israel because Arab armies continually tried to conquer and destroy Israel. This is no more unjust than any other conquest in history. Or is OK for Russians to annex territory in war but not Jews?
We try to solve disputes diplomatically. But diplomacy sometimes fails. This too is part of human nature. We are no different from those people we read about in history books. Wars happen. They are a way of solving disputes. Because of war sometimes populations change. This also is part of human nature. If people cannot bear to live together then they will have to live separately. Sometimes this solves the problem.
We cannot keep conflicts frozen forever for the reason that we do not want to reward war. We have been rewarding war since history began. Do we suppose that history has stopped. The reality is that rewarding war today is no more nor less risky than it ever was. Sometimes it encourages new wars, sometimes it leads to lasting peace. Maintaining frozen conflicts means that these places remain forever a flash point. It is time above all to make peace with Russia. It is too dangerous not to. Russia has responded to sanctions by lashing out wildly. You wreck our economy, we’ll poison you and wreck your elections and do anything else we please. They can. They could annex the Baltic states in an afternoon and nothing but nuclear weapons would stop them. So be grateful that there is just maybe the possibility of peace negotiations.
This is going to happen eventually anyway. In the end Donald Trump will lose interest in continuing the Cold War. It is too expensive and he is too isolationist. The rest of us too will if we have any sense make a deal.
Ukraine made a terrible mistake when it revolted against a president who had been elected. Who knows what Ukraine was promised by the EU and by the US if it went down this route? But I’m sorry, you lost. Crimea will never be part of Ukraine, nor probably will the Donbass. The Russians will eat grass before giving them back. They can. They have done so before. We won’t. That’s the difference. I think maybe you need to speak Russian to understand this.
Russia no doubt owes some financial compensation to Ukraine for its loss. But we must have a peace treaty that reflects the reality on the ground, because this is not going to change.
The West and Russia must guarantee each other’s security and we must receive assurances that Russian misbehaviour will cease and receive compensation for it. We must work towards cooperation again. We have common enemies who we ought to be fighting together rather than separately. But above all rather than freeze conflicts we must be realistic about them. The de facto that is not going to change should melt the de jure and there will be the peace.
This piece was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2018/07/melting-frozen-conflict.html