Guest Post: “The Russia/ Ukraine Crisis: History Counts for the Russians”

With tens of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, and President Biden telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that the US and its allies “will respond decisively if Russia further invades,” this highly-volatile situation ought to be getting everyone’s attention. 

Fortunately, my old friend Bill Knightly has done a lot of thinking about this dilemma, and he’s sharing his views with us.  Informed by his many years of uniformed service, as well as further Department of Defense experience as a civilian, he argues that we need to better understand the crisis’ historical setting.

In essence, he does what military people do, that is, “red team” the issue.  In this instance, he invites us to take into account the history of the region and especially that of NATO in order to better understand why Russia might think it needs to do what it is doing.  Only by thoroughly understanding their mindset can we best fashion a strategic response optimized to serve our interests while defusing what is a very dangerous situation. 

Usefully, he unflinching offers us a list of some very hard questions we need to ask ourselves as we formulate our approach.  Lots of food for thought here!

The Russia/ Ukraine Crisis: History Counts for the Russians

by William Knightly

                Tchaikovsky’s rousing 1812 overture is a musical tradition at many American 4th of July fireworks celebrations, complete with thundering cannon fire as part of the composition. Ironically, this stirring music was written to commemorate an event in Russian history. The overture celebrates the epic battle of Borodino fought just west of Moscow to turn back Napoleon’s massive invasion of Russia in 1812.

               Napoleon was not the first nor would it be the last to invade of Russia. Hitler unleashed 3 million German troops on Russia in June of 1941. Stalingrad became World War II’s equivalent of Borodino for the Russian people.  These catastrophic invasions are burned deep into the character of the Russian people.  Given this history, it’s hard to fault Russians for being obsessed with their security.  Russian leaders often harness the power of the collective national memory to rally the country in times of crisis.

Roots of the Ukraine crisis

                Even when autocratic leaders such as Vladimir Putin use the historic appeal of national security, it can  ring with legitimacy and have a powerful effect on the Russian people; which brings us to the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine. This complicated confrontation, transcends language, culture, and religion— the usually suspects in regional conflict.  

                The roots of the Ukraine crisis trace to the end of the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO set about stabilizing the countries of eastern Europe. This process included the integration of former Soviet client states into the NATO military alliance. Countries historically seen by Russian leaders as necessary buffer states were systematically added to NATO. From the West’s perspective, the strategy of expanding NATO eastward made strategic sense. It deterred a weakened yet still dangerous Russian state while guaranteeing the security of the former buffer states from Russian aggression.

                A weak post-Soviet Russia was in no position to block NATO expansion. From the Russian perspective, their country was, and is being slowly surrounded by the world’s most sophisticated military alliance. Between 1999 and 2020, 14 eastern European countries have joined NATO. This movement of NATO eastward was perceived by Russia as a national humiliation.

                This fact seemed of little interest to many political leaders in the West. Some Western leaders did object to NATO’s expansion strategy as unnecessary and robust debates ensued.  However, commencing in 1999, NATO expansion began and has moved steadily east. NATO’s expansion may have accelerated the rise of Vladimir Putin as he sought to regain respect for Russia on the world stage. 

Russia and strategic encirclement

                Today, potential NATO membership for Ukraine continues the strategic encirclement. Moreover, expansion to Ukraine potentially inserts the NATO alliance between Russia and its historic access to the Black Sea, and Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It’s hard to see how any Russian leader can ultimately accept this geographic chess maneuver.  Russia has viewed this region as part of its sphere of influence since the reign of Catherine the Great.

                As NATO moves ever closer to the borders of Russia proper, Putin has decided to make a stand in the Black Sea region. Conjuring up Russian history, Putin has claimed that Russia has “nowhere further to retreat to.”  He has moved upwards of 175,000 troops into the disputed border region. His capability is significant and the threat is real.  His intent to invade remains unclear. Its possible that this is Putin’s countermove to pressure NATO against membership for Ukraine.

The U.S.’ flawed approach

               Voices from both political parties in the United States have urged the administration to “get tough” with Putin. What this actually means in practical terms is unclear. One U.S. senator has actually said he would not rule out the commitment of U.S. ground troops in Ukraine. He even suggested the specter of nuclear weapons employment.

                Rhetorical hyperventilation is not helpful to decisionmakers and only raises the crisis temperature when clear strategic thinking is required. Miscalculations have led to unintended consequences throughout history. World War I is a graphic example of such miscalculations.   De-escalation rather than getting “tough” with Putin seems the better course of action in Ukraine to avoid potential catastrophe.  

Questions to inform strategic thinking

                There can be no doubt that informed and rigorous strategic thinking is needed more than ever.  A major military confrontation in Ukraine, heretofore unthinkable, would have incalculable consequences for Europe and the world.

                Henry Kissinger once counseled that in times of crisis we depend on thinking that has been done ahead of time. Western leaders need to do some serious thinking before this crisis stumbles its way to a disastrous outcome. 

                Perhaps the following questions might be a good start point to inform strategic thinking:

    1. What are the strategic risks and rewards that result from Ukraine NATO membership?
    2. Are the intended and unintended consequences that could result from NATO membership for Ukraine acceptable to NATO?
    3. Does history give Russia unique claims to its border security?
    4. Does Russia have a legitimate regional “sphere of influence”?
    5. Will the U.S population support American troop intervention if required to defend Ukraine as a result of NATO membership?
    6. Does western antipathy for Vladimir Putin cloud objective strategic consideration of Russia’s legitimate security interests?
    7. Are there effective means, short of NATO membership that support Ukraine security and sovereignty?

                The West and NATO in particular must decide what is genuinely in its strategic interests. Cynics might ask if NATO is being distracted by two corrupt and competing oligarchies when its real strategic interests lie in strengthening and securing its traditional frontiers and countering China’s global strategic ambitions.

Concluding thoughts

                Putin may be a tyrannical autocrat but he is not likely to be contemplating an invasion of Western Europe, the very scenario for which NATO was formed. Given this, NATO should move with caution and clearly define its strategic interests. Putin has defined his. Maybe the way ahead should take into account Russia’s legitimate national security interests. Perching NATO on Russia’s southern doorstep may feel good to some but in the end be a strategically needless provocation loaded with unintended consequences.

                It may be instructive that Russia’s most popular piece of music commemorates an invasion. Tchaikovsky’s overture distinctly captured both Russian pride and its deepest fears.  This is a country with a long memory that takes its history very seriously. Western leaders and NATO would do well to factor Russia’s painful history and legitimate security interests into its strategic approach no matter who is running the country.

About the author

Bill Knightly retired from the U.S. Army after a career of 30 years. His service world-wide spanned 23 different countries including multiple tours with units assigned to NATO. Among these assignments was a three-year stint as chief of the war plans division for the U.S. Army V Corps in Frankfurt, Germany during the hight of the Cold War.  Bill is a graduate of the U.S Army Command and General Staff College, The U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies and the U.S. Army War College Advanced Operational Fellowship Program. 

After retiring from the Army as a Colonel, Bill worked as a civilian for the United States Southern Command (Miami, FL), where his duties took him throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean basin.   He has also worked in private industry and has run his own small business. He now lives in Delaware where he lectures, writes and delivers podcasts on the history of northern Delaware and the surrounding region during the American Revolution.


The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army,  or any other governmental or non-governmental agency.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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