History is Not Bunk: the Ukraine War and a Cautionary Tale

Photograph Source: LCpl Andrew P. Roufs, USMC – Public Domain

Reportage and commentary about the invasion of Ukraine has often sought to place it in a historical context, to cite historical parallels and so forth. And this is especially important for Americans whose general knowledge of history—even their own—leaves something to be desired. If you asked a representative sample of Americans to simply locate Ukraine on a map the results would probably be fairly modest. After Mexico and Canada things get challenging.

This is a problem. Some knowledge of the history of Ukraine, Russia and Europe is necessary to understand how those opposed to the invasion should respond, no matter whether you are Joe Biden, a European leader, the head of NATO or—well, the rest of us.

By far the most common parallel with the Russian invasion cited in the media is with Hitler and Munich and World War II. The next event commonly mentioned is the Russian role in the Syrian civil war. Except to explain Russian tactics in Ukraine, that is of no help in understanding the causes of its invasion or any outcome. Russia was in Syria at the request of the Syrian government and the initial uprising there soon became a multi-sided civil war in which however there were only two possible victors, Assad or ISIS. What makes it even more dubious is that two nominal allies of the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, were aiding ISIS though with as much subterfuge as possible. Not much was needed as far as the coverage of the Syrian civil war since complications like that did not fit well with simplistic coverage of good guys and bad guys that is the norm in the mainstream media for nearly all events outside the borders of the US.

The comparisons with Putin and this invasion with Hitler and WWII are specious, misguided and if taken seriously, likely to be harmful. For a long time Hitler has been the immediate point of comparison for all autocrats, dictators and general bad guys with respect to the international system put in place by the US after WWII. This comparison should be retired—though it won’t be—if for no other reason than it risks losing sight of the profoundly monstrous nature of the man and what he brought about. Putin is not the second coming of Hitler. To begin even with a discussion of Putin’s personality is to begin in the wrong place.

There are two events that are more relevant. The first of these is the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The second is the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

I will begin with a cautionary tale which per Santayana is why we should read history. The cautionary tale involves a tactical mistake I made in expressing my opposition to the war in Iraq that was similar to one of the mistakes the US made before its invasion. I neglected to know my opposition.

The story of the US invasion of Iraq invasion and the war that followed began with 9/11. When I saw the second jet crash into the second tower of the World Trade Center I knew the attack would be used to justify all manner of things and it was no surprise when Bush called Iraq part of his “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union speech. By fall he and his cabinet were making the public case for the invasion of Iraq. And in March 2003 the invasion was launched against a background of mass demonstrations in opposition around the world and even in the US.

By 2004 the US occupation of Iraq had turned into a war many times worse than the invasion. In June I was asked to be part of a panel in an event for alumni weekend that fall at the university where I teach. The title of the panel was “Iraq: Where Do We Go from Here?” I agreed thinking it would be a good opportunity for me to say that it was folly from the beginning, based on lies and sold to a public most of whom were ignorant of the history of Iraq and the Middle East. The panel was organized by a trustee Gwen who was a Wall Street banker—the point of alumni weekend mostly being to get alums to donate to their alma mater.

My mistake was that I agreed without asking who else would be on the panel. I assumed that some of them would be apologists for the invasion and therefore opponents, but I gave it no more thought. My mistake—not really knowing who my opponents would be—was one made by Bush et al and now it seems also by Putin. It was late September before I thought to look into who exactly the other panelists were. What made me do it then was that the next day I was to be part of a conference call with Gwen and the other panelists when all of us would brief each other on what we intended to say at the event—which itself was only a week away.

I found out then that one panelist was a former ambassador whose closest brush with the Middle East was, as I recall, Panama, another was a Wall Street investor who in the immediate wake of the invasion went to Iraq to help ‘reform’ the Iraqi economy, the third was an Arab, a professor at the University of South Florida who would represent the Arab view. He was a Maronite Christian. To have such a person represent the Arab view on any subject was misleading to say the least. In a word, they were all third or fourth-rate neocons and I realized I’d been had.

The next day Gwen called and said, “Hi Dan”— I liked the bonhomie of first name basis although we’d never met—and I said, “Hi Gwen.” Which was the last thing I said that no one objected to.

The professor was absent—he was on Fox News that afternoon. When it came my turn to speak I said, “I’m going to talk about all the lies that were told to sell this invasion to the American people.” Which was as far as I got. At that point the two other panelists chimed in, saying almost in a chorus, “There were no lies told—” To that I said, “The hell there weren’t and that’s what I’m going to talk about.” At this point Gwen spoke up. “Daniel, we really don’t want to talk about what has happened. The point of the panel is to talk about where we go from here.” To which I said, “You can’t talk about where we go from here until you know how we got here.”

I then told Gwen that the format of the panel was designed to sandbag me and there was no way that was going to happen. She denied that and pleaded with me to stay. It was a Thursday and I said I’d think about it over the weekend and call her Monday. The next morning I got an email from her saying she and the other panelists had discussed the matter and agreed that perhaps it was for the best if—feeling as I did—I withdrew. She made it sound as though she were concerned about my health. I wrote back and said, Fine. Whatever. After I hung up I realized that from my standpoint it really was for the best because all the flyers listing me as a panelist had already sent out. And—not to put too fine a point on it—I was the only one with a respectable PhD (Princeton) and I was being used to lend credibility to what otherwise would seem a camp sing-along in honor of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Now Gwen would have to explain my absence. I don’t know how she explained it. She probably said I was ill. Which in a way was true since the whole thing made me want to throw up. So much for cautionary tales. At least for the time being.

Despite polls in the US that show a decline in the public’s trust of the press, most people still take the coverage of the war at face value. Regrettably the most skeptical segment of the populace are Trump supporters, QaAnons et al who replace the half-truths and lies of the mainstream press with their delusions which are much worse. A Russian friend said something relevant about this sorry state of affairs—she had moved to the US after the Soviet Union fell apart and by the time we met she had lived here for many years. She said, “In Russia we knew the press was all propaganda. Here the propaganda is much more effective. People read it and don’t even know it’s propaganda. It was moving to the States that made a Marxist out of me.”

As I said the most useful parallel for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the US invasion of Iraq.

The similarities between the US invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine are several. The first of these is that it appears Putin’s calculations—like those of Bush et al—were shaped by a good deal of wishful thinking. Aside from the cooked-up intelligence and lies which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney seemed to really believe US troops would be welcomed in Iraq and for a brief moment a single event must have confirmed this naïve notion. This was the famous scene when US troops assisted Iraqis in toppling the big statue of Saddam Hussein and there was an outpouring of gratitude for their help. That show of gratitude was of course short lived. It disappeared as soon as the crowd dispersed. Putin’s other miscalculations notwithstanding, I wonder if he expected a similar feel-good photo-op in Kiev when it falls. I doubt it, but then again I didn’t think he would invade Ukraine.

Now in the second week of the war it appears Putin’s miscalculation in this regard was even greater than the miscalculation the US made before invading Iraq. That invasion began on March 20, 2003 and Baghdad fell twenty days later on April 9. After that, for a period of time combat was reduced to mostly of mop-up operations outside the capital. The Russian invasion began on February 28 but all signs indicate that the resistance will not disappear with the fall of Kiev even should Russia crush the Ukrainian military. The main reason for this is that Ukraine is a country largely united behind their government whereas about 80% of the Iraqis were opposed to their government, that figure being the Shias who make up 60% of the population and the Kurds who make up 20% of it. From what has happened so far it seems that the Russian invasion and occupation will, if anything, be a greatly accelerated replay of the US experience in Iraq. In Iraq it took about three months before armed resistance began to appear in the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’—the three western provinces of Iraq. This was only a month after the “Mission Accomplished” photo-op. It seems likely that armed resistance by civilians and the remaining Ukrainian military will continue after the fall of Kiev. In Iraq it took about nine months before the Shia sorted themselves out and joined in the resistance. In the case of Ukraine there will probably be no such lapse. When the Ukrainian military is defeated—as seems likely now should the war continue into April and May—its members will simply join the existing civilian resistance. Here too the case of Ukraine is worse for Putin. In Iraq there was no real civilian resistance to the invasion and worse still the Ukrainian army is larger and better armed than was the Iraqi army.

The prospects for a Russia occupation are also worse than those were for the US occupation of Iraq. While Russia will find some help from the Russian speaking population in eastern Ukraine as the US did with the Kurds, there are still other differences between the two situations that will make the Russian occupation more difficult. One factor stems from the greater coverage the Russian occupation will get since Ukraine is in Europe and Iraq is in the Middle East. The US was able bring to bear the full brunt of their military on centers of resistance like Fallujah and Ramadi, but the press coverage of their assaults was hampered by the ploy of ‘embedding’ reporters in military units. Still the coverage brought widespread condemnation around the world. There will be much greater coverage of a Russian occupation. Their assaults on Ukrainian resistance will be televised and posted on the internet and as consequence will arouse even greater international anger than did US military assaults on places like Fallujah and Ramadi. Another factor—missing the case of Ukraine—limited the opposition to US actions in Iraq: the indifference and outright racism of many in the West. The US was killing brown-skinned people which it has been doing for a long time. In the US and Europe—the US especially—a large part of the population is indifferent to the deaths of brown-skinned people. A not small number are even pleased by it. Unfortunately for Putin, Russia will be killing white people mostly and that will cause greater anger.

Now to the second piece of history that should be taken into account here, the Cuban Missile Crisis. This suggested itself to me when Putin on February 27 reminded anyone who had forgotten it that Russia possessed a nuclear arsenal. In this Putin said both too much and too little. It was taken as a threat, but I suspect he also intended it an allusion to the Cuban Missile Crisis. If I’m right, Putin’s purpose was to show that now the tables are turned. If so here too Putin seems to have miscalculated, underestimating journalists’ grasp of history, for—if I am right—to this point no one seems to picked up on the allusion.

The memory of that event is part of the problem. The popular history of that event is —pace Henry Ford—bunk. In that story, Khrushchev put nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy then imposed a blockade on more missiles, threatened to invade Cuba to destroy the missiles already there and failing that use nuclear weapons. But a more accurate account begins earlier, as Putin surely knows. And it is not bunk.

Before the crisis Russia agreed to Castro’s request for nuclear missiles in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the US had already deployed nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy. At that time Russia had at most 75 ICBMs capable of hitting the continental United States, while the US had 170 capable of reaching Russia from the US in addition to those in Turkey and Italy. Russia by any measure was far more threatened by a US attack than the US was by a Russian attack. By placing nuclear missiles in Cuba Russia was trying to catch up to the US.

The crisis was resolved when Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles. In press accounts Kennedy agreed in turn not to launch an invasion of Cuba or allow the US to be a launching point for an invasion. Press accounts of the resolution in the US and Europe did not mention that Kennedy agreed to remove the missiles in Turkey and possibly those in Italy too—which from the Russian standpoint must have been the more important concession.[1] That omission made it appear as though Khrushchev had, in the words of Dean Rusk, ‘blinked.’ But the truth was far from that.

It may be that some politicians understood Putin’s allusion to that distant crisis, but let it pass without comment for reasons that my account should make clear.

What do those two events as historical preambles suggest now? I would say that what really should be done is dismantle the entire structure of global finance capital and the outdated rickety structure of nation-states which are the real cause of such crises. Only through some form of global governance can the greatest threat to everyone on earth, climate change, be solved. But that won’t happen soon. So back to reality and real politik. What should our own corrupt and imperfect democracies do?

Based on these cautionary examples I would say that for the time being simply more of what they are already doing, continue humanitarian and military aid, continue sanctions. One nation should be singled out for pressure, China. Here too something like what I said about Hitler is apposite. Stop vilifying China which serves the interests of no one except the arms industry. China cannot be pleased by the invasion of Ukraine—at the very least it disturbs the world markets. Its abstention from the UN resolution is a good sign and show the political savvy and caution of their leadership. On March 10 a small item in the news was that China has told Russia it will no longer supply it with aircraft parts. It may seem small, but any small change China makes is significant. Now in the case of Russia this is especially so. China is the one country able to exert real pressure on Putin. Any end to the war that comes from international pressure will have to involve Peking. That is now a global reality.

What the US and its allies should resist are any actions that escalate the conflict. Foremost among these would be imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. That would mean a war between the US and NATO and Russian that would be difficult to limit to Ukraine. Another European war is the last thing the world needs. Even threatening a no-fly zone would be a mistake. The US has a long record of empty words on various subjects—human rights, democracy, respect for borders etc—without adding more to that record. Most people in the world only pay attention to what our government says because they must. Not because they believe it.

In the long run opposition by the Russian people is probably the best hope for ending the war. Demonstrations began immediately and those demonstrations have continued. On Sunday March 6, at least 5000 arrests were made of anti-war demonstrators. This appears the be the largest number of arrests yet, though a week later the same rights group OVD-info reported only 668 people arrested. Comparisons with opposition to the Vietnam War are tricky at this stage. But offer some help. The escalation of the war began in 1965. In March 3,500 Marines were sent to Vietnam. By the end of the year there were about 200,000 US troops in the country. Yet opposition to the war really only began to grow in 1967. By late that year only 45% of Americans supported the war. The Tet Offensive in January 1968 was the nail in the coffin. After that support for the war fell to 26%. It would seem that the sanctions and isolation of Russia might hasten the growth of opposition to the war and to Putin. How fast that might happen remains to be seen. But there are other signs that offer some hope.

Many prominent Russians even inside Russia have condemned the invasion. There were also resignations of people in the state-run media a day or two after the invasion began. Something more surprising occurred on March 9. A state-run TV program The Evening With Vladimir Soloviev, began with Soloviev repeating Lavrov’s claim that the story of Russia’s bombing of a maternity hospital this week was “fake.” But then his guests gave gloomy appraisals of the invasion. Andrey Sidorov, a deputy dean at Moscow State University, said:

“For our country, this period won’t be easy. It will be very difficult. It might be even more difficult than it was for the Soviet Union from 1945 until the 1960s… We’re more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union, we’re more dependent on imports—and the main part is that the Cold War is the war of the minds, first and foremost. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union had a consolidating idea on which its system was built. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia has nothing like that to offer.”[2]

After the gloomy assessments of his guests Soloviev’s program ended as most US news programs do with what called a ‘sunshine spot’—a cheery piece after thirty minutes of bad news—the sunshine spot in this case was a clip of Tucker Carlson. Then on March 14 the situation on state-run television news got worse yet in when a producer on the Channel One suddenly appeared behind the anchor saying, “Stop the war. No to war” and holding a sign that read. “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” At the bottom of the sign it read in English, “Russians against the war.” Within an hour the clip was all over the web and the name of the brave editor Marina Ovsyannikova was known around the globe.  If there is opposition in the state-run media, we can assume there is already opposition elsewhere in the government and probably the military too. The next day it was reported that 300,000 hackers all around the world have signed up in what is called the IT Army of Ukraine who will attack various Russian state websites.

The opposition is also seen in the exodus of Russians. On March 12 the BBC reported on the exodus of Russians to neighboring states, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia being the most common destinations since the EU, Britain, Canada and the US are off the table. An unnamed Russian economist estimates that as many as 200,000 have already left. This seems possible since more than 25,000 have gone to Georgia and the Armenian government estimates 80,000 have arrived there. Most are leaving to express their opposition to the invasion and to Putin, but some are also leaving out of fear since even before the invasion they had been vocal in expressing their opposition to Putin. From the interviews with several in Tbilisi they are younger Russians, most are under forty, and they are well educated.  The headline of the article terms it a “brain drain.” One of the men interviewed was an IT specialist who said, “The only way we can protest is to leave the country, take our skills and money with us.”[3]

Many videos featuring captured and demoralized Russian soldiers will be seen on the internet by many Russians despite the crackdown on social media. The Ukrainians have opened up a hot line for Russians concerned about the relatives in the military. At the same time they have given Russian prisoners access to social media to post messages. A captured Russian officer was videotaped and asked what message he would like to send to his soldiers and to people in Russia. He said of the military leadership: “Frankly speaking, they tricked us. Everything we were told was a fake. I would tell my guys to leave Ukrainian territory. We’ve got families and children. I think 90% of us would agree to go home.”[4] In the same article Russian prisoners of war said they were told they would be greeted with flowers and cheers—another echo of Iraq. A different time and place, the same lies.

As I write, Wednesday evening March 16, Lavrov has announced that there is progress in talks between the two countries. He said there is agreement by Ukraine that it will not seek membership in NATO and will remain neutral but will be allowed membership in the EU. If this proves true then there is hope for a ceasefire and the outlines of an agreement to end the war. If the negotiations fail then the future is grim with events pointing towards more war followed by a Russian occupation.


[1] There was disagreement among people in the Kennedy administration about this point and historians still differ about it.

[2] https://www.thedailybeast.com/even-russias-state-tv-admits-ukraine-disaster-has-putin-in-trouble?ref=scroll

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60697763

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/04/russian-soldiers-ukraine-anger-duped-into-war

Daniel Beaumont teaches Arabic language & literature and other courses at the University of Rochester. He is the author of Slave of Desire: Sex, Love & Death in the 1001 Nights and Preachin’ the Blues: The Life & Times of Son House. He can be contacted at: daniel.beaumont@rochester.edu