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Why a war treatise written in 5th century BC can explain the conflict in Ukraine

Arjun Subramaniam writes: The fine print of Thucydides’s narrative rests on the trinity of fear, honour and interest -- a framework that fits most of the ongoing contemporary conflicts.

Written by Arjun Subramaniam |
Updated: March 3, 2022 9:19:25 am
It is quite possible that Vladimir Putin climbed the escalation ladder more out of an apprehension of instability on Russia’s western periphery, comprising Ukraine and Belarus, rather than a direct fear of any military threat from NATO. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The ghost of Thucydides is astride a hypersonic platform and roams the world with abandon, even as leading powers, rising powers and resurgent powers search for space in a complex and chaotic global geopolitical order. Joining the melee are states that lie on the periphery of the influence of these states and are drawn into the conflict. The near-impotence of a bloated United Nations to ensure a rules-based world order, enforce the much-touted Responsibility to Protect (R2P), rein in the permanent members of the UNSC and hold them accountable for their actions, and prevent powerful and autocratic nations from blatantly employing force and coerce weaker states to do their bidding in the garb of restoring historical constructs, reflects this downward spiral in global affairs.

An icon who is studied in detail at war colleges across the world is Thucydides, a Greek general and historian from the 5th century BC, who superbly chronicled the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta. This set of wars threw up several lessons for posterity in laying out a template for the geopolitical and behavioural drivers of conflict between an established power and a rising power. On another plane, the fine print of Thucydides’s narrative rests on the trinity of fear, honour and interest — a framework that fits most of the ongoing conflicts and less-than-war scenarios that seem to be playing out in contemporary times even if they do not conform to his classical rising power vs established power paradigm.

The nearly eight-year-long conflict in Ukraine that remained in the grey zone but formalised concepts of hybrid war, finally erupted into a full-scale conventional invasion of a struggling neighbouring country by a former superpower, Russia. While there is little justification for Russia’s widespread use of conventional force that has led to the death of hundreds of civilians, destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and a possible refugee crisis, American realist scholar John Mearsheimer — and others like him — suggested in a provocative and Nostradamus-like piece called, ‘Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault’ in Foreign Affairs in 2014 that “US and European leaders blundered in attempting to turn Ukraine into a Western stronghold on Russia’s border”. He went on to predict that should the US and its European allies continue to “exacerbate hostilities with Russia and devastate Ukraine in the process”, everyone would come out of the chaos a loser.

Among the military analysts who argued as early as 2017 that the US would do well to deal sensibly with Russia and reflect on coercion and deterrence on the wings of the Thucydidian paradigm of fear, honour and interest was Dr Joel Hillison who teaches at the US Army War College. It is quite possible that Vladimir Putin climbed the escalation ladder more out of an apprehension of instability on Russia’s western periphery, comprising Ukraine and Belarus, rather than a direct fear of any military threat from NATO. Not known for his statesmanship or global vision, Putin’s muscular responses seem not to have factored in the consequences of his actions. In this respect, Russia’s actions demonstrate strategic irresponsibility even if it has shown operational intent in executing its military campaign.

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A few years ago, and using the same Thucydidian analogy, Graham Allison, the respected Harvard political scientist-turned applied historian, stirred a hornet’s nest in his book Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s Trap? by suggesting the US and China were destined for war. By the conservative paradigms of war, Allison may have cried wolf too soon even as US carrier groups continue to roam the oceans like heavyweight boxers, daring the Chinese to do something stupid with their much-hyped “carrier killer” missiles. The truth, however, is that the US and China have been at war for much of the last decade, even if that war is undeclared and understated. In this matchup, it is fear, honour and interest that dominates the relationship between the two preeminent global powers.

What of the emerging India-China adversarial relationship that seems to have gained some traction within Chinese strategic circles after years of disdain from Beijing towards its southern neighbour? The asymmetry of power between the two large Asian neighbours is too large to suggest that the current acrimonious relationship conforms to the template of a contest between an established power (China) and a rising power (India). However, the drivers point exactly in that direction. Honour and ego that defy logic complement one another in the inability of both nations to come to terms with the border issue. When this is combined with the clash of interests on different planes in which China perceives India as a “spoiler” and the latter sees its influence in South Asia being eroded, there seems little convergence on any issue.

Finally, to fear (apprehension as a corollary) — though both nations have demonstrated reasonable poise during confrontational situations, there seems to be a clear erosion in strategic patience over the past few years. This may partially be the result of China’s apprehension that India will abandon its posture of strategic autonomy and bandwagon with the US in a military alliance, while Delhi’s fears of continued “salami-slicing” of its territory present a clear and present danger to Indian sovereignty.

The consequence of all these is an increased securitisation of India’s northern borders, lowered conflict thresholds, an increasingly assertive PLA behaviour and military build-up in Tibet, and India’s proportional and robust military posture. Fear, honour and interest reign along the Himalayas and around the Indian Ocean making for a dangerous cocktail that could lead to serious conflict in the not very distant future.

This column first appeared in the print edition on March 3, 2022 under the title ‘The gathering storm’. The writer is President’s Chair of Excellence at National Defence College and a retired air vice-marshal.

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