Every war must end, but no war need end quickly. Neither world war makes the top 10 in longevity. The nearest parallel to the Ukraine war is the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), fought between a smaller but more advanced nation and the superpower of the age, the world-spanning Spanish Empire. It persisted for 80 years because the Spanish kept losing, but there was so much ruination in that declining power.
The 18th-century wars, fought by rival European monarchs who could all converse in French with each other, were enviously admired in the bloody 20th century. They had allowed commerce and even tourism to persist — utterly unimaginable even in Napoleon’s day, let alone during the two world wars. These wars ended not in the utter exhaustion of collapsing empires, as in 1918, nor in infernal destruction, as in 1945, but instead with diplomatic arrangements politely negotiated in between card games and balls.
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The 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War and French America, for instance, was not drafted by the victorious British Prime Minister John Stuart, Earl of Bute. Rather, it was written by his very good friend, the French foreign minister Étienne-François de Stainville, Duc de Choiseul. It was he who solved the three-way puzzle the French defeat left, by paying off Spain with Louisiana and Britain with money-losing Canada, and regaining the profitable sugar islands for France, which still has them.
And rather than winners charging the losers with incurable bellicosity, as Versailles did with Germany, or stringing them up individually as war criminals, as in the ending of 20th-century wars, 18th-century winners were more likely to console the losers with something just short of “better-luck next time”. In a century during which there was war every single year without exception from 1700 to 1800, if one war ended, another necessarily started or at least persisted, allowing a “next time” soon enough.
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By contrast, the ensuing 19th-century wars held no lessons at all for the 20th century, which was equally bereft of a Napoleonic superman at the start and ample tropical lands easily conquered later on. The Crimea expedition in the middle was mostly a counter-example of how not to wage war. The Franco-Prussian war was just as sterile. All it proved was that there really was only one Helmuth von Moltke who could win wars by parsimonious force, unlike his homonymous nephew, who lost a five-year war in its first five weeks; and that there really was only one Otto von Bismarck, who crowned his incomplete 1871 unification of German lands by refusing to unify all Germans, lest the world combine to make a bigger Germany smaller.
Clearly only the 18th-century precedents apply to the Ukraine War. Neither Putin nor Zelenskyy speaks French, but neither needs it to converse in their Russian mother-tongue. If they do not actually talk (Putin demurely said that he could not possibly be expected to negotiate with Kyiv’s drug addicts and Neo Nazis), their officials certainly can, and do so often.
When it comes to the persistence of commerce in war — the habit that Napoleon wanted to break with his Blocus Continental against British exports — every day, Russian gas flows to the homes and factories of Ukraine on its way into Western Europe. Ukraine transfers money to Russia every day, even as Putin attacks his faithful customer. And Ukrainian wheat is now shipped past Russian navy vessels to reach the hungry Middle East, after a negotiation unthinkable in 20th-century wars, or in Napoleon’s either.
In Russia, sanctions have certainly diminished easy access to imported luxuries in local franchised shops, but they still arrive via Turkey at a slight premium — or discount, depending how much Moscow previously marked them up. All over Russia, the sanctions have been felt in all sorts of ways because the country was actually more internationalised than anyone realised. (I arrived in Tomsk at 6am one winter morning, the temperature minus infinity, and the one place to eat was McDonald’s.)
But unlike China, which must choose between fighting and eating protein — some 90% of its chicken, pork and beef is raised on imported cereals — Russia produces all its own staple foods and can therefore fight and eat indefinitely. Neither does it import any energy, as China must.
In other words, just as Russian propaganda has claimed from day one, the sanctions cannot stop the war materially. They have, though, played a large role in the flight of tens of thousands of elite Russians, once again diminishing the human capital of the largest European nation — as the Bolsheviks and Civil War did a century ago, and the opening of borders did again a generation ago. Still, the sanctions might yet cause trouble in the West, if the winter happens to be unusually cold. This is a subject on which Germany — which so enthusiastically applauded Angela Merkel for closing nuclear power stations and preferring Russian piped gas over American and Qatari liquified gas — has remained strangely silent.
As for tourism, after a cascade of restrictions on Russian visitors, in August, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex announced that a total of 998,085 Russian citizens had legally entered the European Union through land border crossing-points since the beginning of the war, with more arriving by air via Istanbul, Budapest, and central Asian airports. Other Russians have continued to holiday in the Maldives and Seychelles via Dubai, on the sound 18th-century principle that a war should not prevent gentlemen from taking the waters, or diving into them in this case. The confiscation of yachts from several Russians accused of proximity to Putin generated quite a bit of schadenfreude to the yacht-less everywhere in the early summer, but did not deprive a great many other Russians from the use of their bedsitters, apartments, houses, palaces and chateaux all over Europe.
This war, in short, will not end because of Russian suffering: it is not exactly the siege of Leningrad.
So how can the war end? Herakleitos of Ephesus wrote that “War is the father of all things” — even of peace, since it exhausts the material resources and manpower necessary to keep fighting. It thereby induces the acceptance of lesser outcomes — even capitulation — as the costs of better outcomes keeps rising.
There is another kind of war termination — the kind that is peddled to innocent students in “conflict-resolution” classes, the kind that gains international applause and Nobel Peace prizes: war-ending not obtained by exhaustive war but by the benevolent intervention of third parties. This end can never yield peace. Its only product is frozen war, as in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the perpetual imminence of renewed war dissuades construction and the return of workers from Germany.
Peace achieved by the exhaustion of resources is the most durable form of peace because deprivation is better remembered than other people’s deaths. But of the two belligerents, only Ukraine can run out of material resources. Except now it cannot, because the United States has seemingly added Ukraine’s sustainment to its other entitlement programmes — a commitment augmented by whatever contribution the British and northern European countries care to make, and the relative pittance given by France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
In the days of Herakleitos himself, war was the father of peace principally because it killed off young warriors, forcing a relaxation of conflict until the next generation grew to military age. It was that process that weakened Sparta’s strength. In World War Two, the Germans were clearly running out of men by the end, when 16-year-olds served on anti-aircraft gun crews, and the Volkssturm conscripted men up to age 60. Some 5.3 million died in uniform, including 900,000 men born outside Germany’s 1937 borders, both Austrians and Volksdeutsche conscripted by the SS, which never acquired the right to conscript in Germany itself. The ever-worsening manpower shortage forced the SS to betray its most basic principle by recruiting non-Aryan troops, not only Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army of 130,000 at its peak, but also SS Turkic, Indian (ex POWs), and Arab units recruited by the Palestinian Mufti Amin al-Husseini.
As for the Red Army, it lost millions in defeat and pell-mell retreat in 1941 and then again in 1942, losing still more men on the offensive at the end. But in 1943 Russian generals no longer impatiently marched men over minefields instead of clearing them, nor sent them to attack without artillery support and tanks. By 1944, it was the Russian artillery that conquered battlefields by fire, and that is how Russia did not run out of men, even if its demography remained skewed for decades.
The Allies were never in such straits because the British evacuated from Dunkirk more than two-thirds of their soldiers in 1940, then drafted many South Africans and Indians for their North African misadventures. By late 1942, at El Alamein, they had vastly superior artillery in lieu of infantry, with more of the same in Italy from 1943, when fresh Americans, the French Army’s Moroccan Tirailleurs and Goumiers, and the free Polish II Corps did most of the hard fighting.
So it was not until 1944 that the exhaustion of the British army’s appetite for fighting emerged in insistent demands for the massive aerial bombardments of any significant resistance, or at least energetic air support at every turn. Having started much later, most American servicemen were not even tired when the war ended, with total losses individually tragic but demographically unimportant. This was even more true of all later American fighting, until now.
In Ukraine, so far there is no question of war-ending manpower losses. In spite of a declining population, the number of male Ukrainians who annually reach military age is at least 235,000, or 20,000 per month. Ukrainian casualties, both killed or invalided out of action, have not exceeded 5,000 per month. As for Russia, colourful stories that relate the use of mercenary units and the lucrative contracts offered to combat volunteers are not true indicators of a manpower shortage: every month more than 100,000 Russian males reach military age, while the monthly average of killed and invalided wounded is under 7,000.
So the stories reveal something else: Putin’s refusal to declare war, fully mobilise the armed forces, and require conscripts to serve in combat, suggests he fears the reaction of Russian civil society. Yes of course Russian civil society had been silent on the war, or near enough. But its silence is not the silence of the grave signifying nothing. It was a very eloquent silence: fight your war but leave our sons alone.
Putin started the war on February 24 with an ultra-modern, high-speed, paralysing coup de main based on the soundest principles of “hybrid warfare”. This works beautifully in war games, and is beloved by beribboned generals who have never fought patriotic Europeans in arms. Having expected, therefore, to take Kiev in one day, and all Ukraine in three or four (that was, of course, the forecast of the CIA, too), Putin discovered abruptly that he could not.
Because Putin did not stop then, he cannot stop now. We might be headed for another Seven Years’ War. It did not seem like that when the Ukrainians counter-attacked in August, and Putin briefly considered retreating to Donetsk and Luhansk, as he signalled overtly. Then seven months after starting his Six Days’ War, Putin finally mobilised the trained reservists he needed on day one.
War is only a great teacher for those who fight it, and the new Russian troops — perhaps 200,000 will show up of the 300,000 recalled — will have to catch up with the Ukrainians, who have been studying war all year. So, Putin will soon need to send more troops, at the risk of more popular resistance at home. But if Putin can persist, we should fight the war in true 18th-century fashion: with the most vigorous material support of Ukraine’s war, but not necessarily with every possible sanction, to keep some in reserve to deter Russian retaliation that may weaken our allies’ resolve. Ukraine itself imports and pays for Russian gas every day.
And yes, it would be nice to find another Étienne-François de Stainville, Duc de Choiseul to find an elegant way out of the war, perhaps by staging face-saving plebiscites. Because to hope for Putin’s fall is not a strategy.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Strategika, an online journal of strategy and military history published by the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.