The current conflict in Ukraine frequently elicits parallels with the first world war. It’s a comparison being made by politicians, journalists, analysts, and military personnel.
Coverage over the past winter months, for example, has focused on how Ukrainians are fighting in WWI-like muddy trenches in Bakhmut, while Russia suffers almost WWI levels of casualties.
It’s no surprise that commentators turn to these comparisons. The return of war in all its destructive might to Europe has awoken Western society’s cultural memory of war on this scale. Unfortunately, these comparisons are often unhelpful.
Many of the WWI comparisons stress the unmodern nature of what is happening on Ukraine’s battlefields. This leads to ignoring the modern nature of what is happening, even in Bakhmut, thereby potentially underestimating Russia and overestimating the differences between Russian and Ukrainian forces. And, most importantly, by making these kinds of historical comparisons, we detach ourselves from the war’s horrors and violence.
Unmodern and Modern War
It is striking how many of the WWI comparisons underline the crude nature of Russia’s military effort and the apparent failure, cold-heartedness, and irrationality of Russia’s generals. In these comparisons, WWI does not serve as the benchmark of modern war, but as the haunted image of primitive industrial warfare from more than a century ago.
Netflix’s recent prize-winning film Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front helped to bring this WWI image to the fore again.
What’s so characteristic of WWI, and seems so unmodern, is its lack of progress. Four years of fighting on small strips of land with little to show for it. Modern conventional war is expected to be fast-paced, such as Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the second U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (if we conveniently ignore the years of insurgency that followed), or like the fighter pilots in the film Top Gun: Maverick, to provide another cinematic reference. And while we have seen drones and other hi-tech tools of war on the news, we haven´t seen much progress on pushing back the frontline. Instead, we have seen images of trenches and read of massive casualties.
Western military planners have been obsessed with short wars for decades. One reason for this is the belief in swift results delivered by modern technology.
Yet the war in Ukraine is modern in the sense that it is what is expected in the given circumstances and conditions when roughly comparably equipped forces meet each other on the battlefield and do not have enough strength (yet) to fully overcome the other.
Underestimating Russia’s Objectives
One of the consequences of using the WWI comparison might be to miss the point of what the Russians are trying to achieve. The unmodern is, of course, closely associated not just with the war in general, but especially with Russia’s conduct. I don’t want to suggest that Russia’s tactical and operational conduct of the war, especially during the last few winter months, has been impressive and successful — quite the opposite. But by tying Russia’s conduct to a stereotypical image of WWI fighting, we might stop analyzing the full context. Russia’s conduct of the war is ridden with mistakes, but also rational when seen within the context of a rapidly expanded and ill-prepared military force, the dynamics of Russian politics, and the regime’s ideology.
At the operational and tactical level, the WWI comparison could prompt people to underestimate what Russia might be trying to achieve and how it attempts to adapt its force structure and tactical practice on the battlefield. One might also lose sight of the toll the current fight might be taking on the “more modern” Ukraine’s forces.
Finally, by focusing so strongly on battlefield failure and success (and seeing this through the prism of a stereotypical WWI image), we might miss Russian interpretations of strategic and political success. While taking Kyiv and not losing Kherson is more attractive than the alternative for the Kremlin, it is wise to question how the Russian leadership understands the war. Is it a war against Ukraine, or a war against the West that happens to be fought in and over Ukraine? And as a result what is it that Russia needs to achieve on the battlefield in order to achieve its strategic and political goals, both in the short, intermediate, and long term? While battlefield and strategic and political success are related, this connection is anything but straightforward. It might be the case that in its current assessment of the situation, a stalemate in eastern Ukraine serves the Kremlin’s purpose and (revised) goals.
Disengaging From Reality
For some, the war in Ukraine is a return to the barbarism of early 20th-century industrial slaughter. It serves as an indictment of Putin’s war and regime, but also stresses our own modernity: this should not be happening in 2023.
But that is a dangerous and misleading thought, as it isolates what is happening in Ukraine from our own times. What we see in Ukraine is not a historical horror show, it is the ugly face of full-scale modern war. Over the past decades, western society has become strangely unaware of what happens in a modern war. The war in Ukraine confronts us with these horrors.
It’s not that Western powers or other powers haven’t fought wars over the past 50 years. But since most of these were relatively small scale, and have been fought beyond the West (with the exception of the 1990s Balkan wars) and against non-western powers (or among non-western powers), coverage of those people and societies on the receiving end of modern weapons of war has been limited. Now, with war so much closer to home (as far as Europe is concerned) and between comparably equipped forces, we are starting to see the costs of a modern war.
When future generations look for something to compare the horrors of their new wars with, they might not choose Flanders Fields and turn instead to what happened in the fields of Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kherson in the 2020s. I’m sure the Ukrainians will.
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