The War in Ukraine is a World Peloponnesian War

Sparta’s fear

The first Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years, 431 – 404 BCE. Athens and Sparta, the two most famous cities of the ancient Greek world, were the chief adversaries. The Peloponnesian War, however, divided ancient Greece between the allies of Athens and the allies of Sparta not merely in mainland Greece but throughout the Mediterranean. There were about 2,000 Greek poleis (city-states) in the fifth century BCE. And since Greek cities were independent countries, the Peloponnesian War was an international conflict.

The Peloponnesian War gave rise to the person that wrote its history. This was Thucydides, an Athenian general who in 424 -423 BCE failed to prevent Spartans from capturing Amphipolis in Thrace, an important ally of Athens. The Athenian Assembly punished Thucydides with 20-years of exile. Thucydides, a wealthy mine owner, used his exile to study the war. He recorded the battles and atrocities as well as the decline of civilized standards among the combatants. He stressed the strategies of Athens and Sparta and described the consequences. The result of that detailed and objective study is The Peloponnesian War, a masterpiece of writing, reason, history, and political theory. Thucydides said his history was for all time. It is.

Thucydides loved Athens and had a deep respect for Sparta, the Greek superpower of the fifth century BCE. The war wounded Thucydides. He knew why the war started. He said fear was the spark of the war. Sparta was fearful seeing Athens becoming stronger by the day and influential in the Aegean and beyond.

Pericles, the Athenian leader behind the greatness and expansion of Athens, failed to involve Sparta in his coalition for the protection of Greece from Persia. This was a vast empire that invaded Greece twice. Athenians and Plataeans defeated Persia at Marathon in 490 BCE and Sparta and Athens together defeated Persia at Salamis in 480 BCE.

Thucydides could see the conflict was unnecessary yet destructive of human lives, property, and virtues. The fighting Greeks were becoming barbarians towards each other.

The relevance of Thucydides

Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War remain relevant. Students and generals read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War but fail to understand it. This is especially true in the United States that likes to think of itself as the sole superpower, the Athens of the fifth century BCE but without the civilization of Athens. While Athens ignored Sparta, it did not try to surround Sparta with enemies. Sparta in our times is Russia.

American exceptionalism?

Since WWII, US presidents (and their military advisors) continue to ignore President Eisenhower’s warning of the military-industrial complex. Instead, they have become allies of the munitions manufacturers who have made war a business. Presidents have also followed an ideology of US primacy in international affairs. They speak and act as if the world belongs to them, at least as if they control it. The US President sees himself as a planetarch, leader of the planet.

The war in Ukraine fits this model perfectly. It is the outcome of 30 years of American hegemony projected against America’s principal antagonist in Eastern Europe, Soviet Union / Russia.

In the late 1980s the leader of the Soviet Union / Russia, Michail Gorbachev, started dismantling the Soviet Union. American Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Walker Bush promised Gorbachev the United States and its NATO allies would not enter into Eastern Europe. US Secretary of State James Baker promised Michael Gorbachev that there would be no NATO expansion at all, “not one inch eastward.”

Yet these promises did not last long. President Bill Clinton in 1995 bombed Yugoslavia and Serbia, an ally of Russia. There followed other American policies that threatened Russia: the unilateral withdrawal of the United States from a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia. And just as important, the incorporation into NATO of former Soviet Union states: In 1999, Chech Republic, Hungary, and Poland; in 2004, Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia, and Slovenia.

As if these aggressive acts were not enough, the US in 2014 funded the overthrow of the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The crime of Yanukovych was his neutrality towards both Russia and NATO. This offended President Barack Obama who wanted Georgia and Ukraine into NATO in order to make Russia impotent by surrounding it with hostile forces. Obama received advice on the Ukraine and Russia from Joe Biden, his Vice President, and two State Department ideologues, Jack Sullivan, and Victoria Nuland. Now, in 2023, this trio (Biden, Sullivan, and Nuland) are vigorously fighting America’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. Nuland is now Deputy Secretary of State. In the hot days after American money overthrew Yanukovych in Kiev, Nuland was caught on the phone talking to the American ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt. They were scheming about the members of the new Ukrainian government. Pyatt said something about the European Union, EU. Nuland said to Pyatt, “fuck the EU.”

The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, was well aware of American meddling in his neighborhood – and he was afraid. He had warned America repeatedly to stay clear of Ukraine but to no avail. As a result, Putin took over and incorporated into Russia the strategic Crimean peninsula whose city of Sevastopol has been a safe port for the Russian fleet for centuries. This triggered billions of American assistance to the right wing Ukrainian government. American forces trained the Ukrainian military and, in a real sense, prepared Ukraine for the Russian invasion of February 2022. But the war in the Ukraine started in February 2014 with the American-funded coup against Yanukovych.

America started the war in Ukraine

In late 2014, John J. Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, condemned the American intervention in Ukraine. He said, “The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”

Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University, agrees with Mearsheimer. In speeches and articles he succinctly catches the nature of the war in Ukraine, illuminating its origins and potential consequences. On February 26, 2023, he wrote:

“We are on a path of dire escalation and lies or silence in much of the mainstream US and European media. The entire narrative that this is the first anniversary of war is a falsehood that hides the reasons of this war and the way to end it.  This is a war that began because of the reckless US neoconservative push for NATO enlargement, followed by the US neoconservative participation in the 2014 regime-change operation. Since then, there has been massive escalation of armaments, death, and destruction. This is a war that needs to stop before it engulfs all of us in nuclear Armageddon.”

Sachs is right. He has read Thucydides with profit. He understands the forces unleashed by war. If civilized Greeks could become barbarians by war, imagine what war is doing to us, not exactly inventors of civilization. Like Thucydides, Sachs reports from personal experience. His long international reputation as an economist brought him in touch with world leaders who in many instances revealed to him their secret fears of neoconservative American hegemonic policies. In a lecture Sachs delivered in early March 2023 at Oxford University, he admitted that some of his Chinese students are high ranking officials of China, perhaps they are running China. So, when Sachs says Americans caused the war in Ukraine he is telling the truth. The madness of NATO expansion to the borders of Russia forced Putin to invade Ukraine. Sachs heard the stories of American and European policy makers and those of Putin. He is like Thucydides, carefully documenting the origins of the war; he is upset by the near industrialization of the mentality of American policy makers (President Joe Biden, Jack Sullivan, and Victoria Nuland) thinking of Americans as blessed by some kind of exceptionalism, bringing Christianity to the world. President Donald Trump also wanted to make America great again. Sachs bemoans these scandalous and dangerous myths and acts of madness. He hints there’s a widespread absence of virtue among the heads of media and the boosters of the war in America and Europe.

I was also shocked and astonished how American newspapers and televisions (including those of the Public Broadcasting System, PBS) defend the American intervention in the Ukrainian War. They all blame Putin. They all speak of the one-year war. The newspapers devote large space for their made-up stories about Russia. It’s as if the country has learned nothing from its endless wars against poor countries in Southeastern Asia and the Middle East. In Afghanistan alone America spent two trillion dollars, all for nothing and destruction. Why? How is it that the editors of these media can talk about democracy when their own country has been employing undemocratic methods for “regime change” anywhere in the world when states challenge our own economic and political doctrines? Are we devolving to a society of holy Inquisitions fighting wars on terror? Back to the dark ages spreading democracy to the converted?

Mearsheimer suggested the conflict in Ukraine can end by making Ukraine a “neutral buffer.” And Sachs urges Biden to pick up the phone and call Putin, telling him there will be no NATO in Ukraine. Yes, both of these ideas would end the bitter war. But how probable are they? I have heard President Biden speak of defeating Russia. The Russians hear Biden, too. Congress is pretty much appropriating more and more money for more armaments for the war. Under these political conditions, how is the war supposed to come to an end?

Remember Athens fought to the bitter end. It run out of money to pay its troops. Thucydides was so heart broken he stopped writing his history in 411 BCE, after the disastrous Athenian expedition to Syracuse and 7 years before the end of the war in 404 BCE. Thucydides has no advice for people armed with nuclear weapons. He was against the war, all the way to the end. That is his relevance. End the American escalation before it forces Russia to wipe out Ukraine. Would then the United States risk its own survival to revenge Ukraine? I don’t have an answer for such a potential dreadful outcome. Nuclear war is darkness and death.

Not a Pax Americana

I like to believe American scholars and scientists and educated people in general value their survival and the survival of their country and the survival of our Mother Earth. They should start marching for peace. Popular resistance to the war is our only practical way of ending the epidemic of war. They should also be inspired by the peace proposal of President John Kennedy. He had also faced the Soviet Union / Russia in Cuba in 1962. But in contrast to President Biden who keeps badmouthing Putin and Russia, he spoke to the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and defused the dreadful and almost deadly missile Cuban crisis.

President John Kennedy realized that stockpiles of almighty nuclear weapons undermined peace and civilization. No doubt he remembered Eisenhower’s warning. He said peace was better than war. In a Commencement Address, reminiscent of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, he delivered at the American University in Washington, DC, he defined what peace meant to him. This was June 10, 1963. He said America ought to seek peace:

“Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children–not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women–not merely peace in our time but peace for all time… based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions–on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. There is no single, simple key to this peace–no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process–a way of solving problems.”

Exactly right. Kennedy also advised Americans and Soviets to respect each other and to strive for arms control and peace, indeed, one day to do away with arms and war. He recognized the extreme danger of conflict between nuclear powers like the United States and the Soviet Union / Russia. He warned nuclear-armed states to be very careful in dealing with each other. Don’t provoke with insults or military exercises and actions. President Biden could learn a thing or two by reading Kennedy’s peace speech. Kennedy said:

“[N]uclear powers must avert… confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy–or of a collective death-wish for the world.”

No doubt, Kennedy had read Thucydides. In fact, he tested his knowledge at the Cuban Missile Crisis. His peace proposal should be a required reading. It even included the rights to health. “And is not peace,” he asked, “basically a matter of human rights–the right to live out our lives without fear of devastation–the right to breathe air as nature provided it–the right of future generations to a healthy existence?” Kennedy peace proposal could end the war in Ukraine. And it might in fact create the foundations of a new world order.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.