history, the real world today

Stabs in the Back, Countered Knock-Out Blows, Ukraine and World War One

Meanwhile, in another cauldron of the unruly multipolar world, the Ruin of Ukraine continues. I am still holding back from commenting deeply on the Ukraine War, but there were some interesting comments I noticed during the week that coincidentally resonated with my reading 1916: A Global History. In that year, some political leaders observed the catastrophe of World War One, and urged a return to dialogue and diplomacy. Their efforts were rebuffed, and losing elites engaged in fantasies of stabs in the back and knock-out blows. History it seems is repeating in 2023.

In lieu of my own commentary, you might wish to read the always excellent Big Serge’s assessment of the state of the war in Ukraine, here on Substack.

Big Serge Thought

Escaping Attrition: Ukraine Rolls the Dice

It has been a while since I published anything long-form commenting on the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, and I confess that writing this article gave me a modicum of trouble. Ukraine’s much anticipated grand summer counteroffensive has now been underway for about eighty days with little to show for it. The s…

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3 days ago · 514 likes · 261 comments · Big Serge

Heroic resistance and plucky counter-offensives have become stuck in the mud of a grinding “war of attrition”, perhaps reminding us all that the calculus of attrition underpins every war. Big Serge writes that

“Ukraine had aspirations of breaking open this grinding front and reopening mobile operations – escaping the attritional struggle and driving on operationally meaningful targets – but these efforts have so far come to naught. For all the lofty boasts of demonstrating the superior art of maneuver, Ukraine still finds itself trapped in a siege, painfully trying to break open a calcified Russian position without success. Ukraine may not be interested in a war of attrition, but attrition is certainly interested in Ukraine.”

He also comments that the disaster of the counter-offensive and the disappointing realisation that Ukrainian people are losing the West’s war against Russia (as blithely admitted by a bevy of American politicians during the week including that Mormon man of peace, Mitt Romney) is leading to a game of blaming anyone but the USA. Various former serving American military officers are out there saying the Europeans or Ukraine just did not repeat the brilliance of America’s blitzkrieg in Iraq in 1991. They cannot admit that Ukraine might have followed American practice of all the other endless, lost wars. The psychological shock that America is addicted to war, but not so good at winning wars is one of the dimensions that I will write about in a few weeks when I explore the war dimension of the world crisis.

In any case, the blame game has begun. Big Serge comments that

One of the surest signs that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has taken a cataclysmic turn is the way Kiev and Washington have already begun to blame each other, conducting a postmortem while the body is still warm.

Zelensky has blamed the west for not delivering still more arms. Western experts mutter about Ukrainian ignorance of “combined arms warfare”, which as Big Serge says uses “jargon (incorrectly) to explain away problems.”

Alexander Mercouris of The Duran has also noted that Volodomyr Zelensky, appeared to lay the groundwork, in an interview on Ukrainian television, for a ‘stab in the back’ narrative. Such an excuse would shield the Kiev leaders from criticism, and redirect blame for defeat or even collapse collapse onto doubters and prevaricators in the West. If people had not questioned Ukraine’s requests, Ukraine would have won by now. If all the demands – even for nuclear weapons in February 2022 – had been granted, Ukrainians would not be fighting this war alone. Zelenzky offered this lame rhetoric to his increasingly demoralised public. The enemies within, and not the elites on top, caused the failure of the war, so says the stab in the back narrative. We will see in months ahead how well it works in Ukraine.

Such a narrative would, however, seem to work for the American war party, including Joe Biden, as he struggles to avoid another embarrassing defeat or collapse such as occurred in Kabul in 2021. Biden can now blame the peace party in the West, and not the war party in the West Wing. He can offer a cover story to the zealous Ukrainian diaspora who vote in the US, but do not die on the steppe. He can shame any doubters, when the time comes for Zelensky to flee Kiev on an American plane, just as the Afghan leader fled Kabul with overflowing sacks of cash. The myth of Zelensky can be richly maintained in exile, with no questions asked about all those undisclosed accounts. The US and the Kiev regime, it seems, is preparing to blame Trump and the Global South for losing Kiev.

Of course, the stab in the back narrative is a reference to the stories that emerged in Germany in 1918 to explain away the reversal in fortune in war. It is likely an ancient archetype wherever and whenever there have been degraded elites defeated in war. But we also see echoes of other regrettable rhetorical archetypes from the Great War in the repeated lines that the West will “support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” and in the now deflated hopes that the Ukrainian Spring/Summer Counter-Offensive will deliver a knock-out below to Putin’s fragile, despotic regime.

In 1916 there was a peace party in Europe and the Atlantic world too. They despaired at the losses of all states, and looked for a path to negotiation, even if it meant admission that the statesmen of Europe had made disastrous miscalculations in choosing to fight their war. In Britain, one leader of this peace party was Lord Lansdowne, and he wrote a controversial piece that laid out the case for returning to the negotiation table, and pulling back from the that monumental war of attrition. Lansdowne pointed out the appalling losses, and questioned whether it was worth the sacrifice. He proposed a “thorough stocktaking” of military and foreign policy, to prepare the British Government, indeed the British Empire, to enter negotiations. He wrote:

“we ought at any rate not to discourage any movement, no matter where originating, in favour of an interchange of views as to the possibility of a settlement.”

When similar sentiments have been expressed today by people as diverse as Jeffrey Sachs, Kishore Mahbubhani, John Mearsheimer or myself, the peace party have been anathematised as Putin puppets. And so it was in 1916 in Britain.

Then Prime Minister Lloyd George countered that Britain was committed to “fight to the finish.” Today NATO leaders profess to fight for “as long as it takes”. Lloyd George also determined that Britain and its allies would pursue the “Policy of the Knock-Out Blow.” It met the same fate as the Grand Ukrainian Counter-Offensive, and indeed the sanctions from hell that, in 2022 in Western minds, would turn the rouble into rubble and quickly sap Russia’s war effort. Woodrow Wilson made overtures in support of Lansdowne’s plea for negotiations. The liberal Lloyd George told the progressive Wilson to butt out, and used an old trope of ethnic prejudice that prevails today, with just the letter ‘p’ dropped from the slur. “Prussian military despotism,” he said, was:

“broken beyond repair… Peace now or at any time before the final and complete elimination of this menace is unthinkable… It will not take 20 years to win this war but whatever time is required it will be done” [quoted in Keith Jeffrey, 1916: A Global History (2015) pp. 365-366.]

It is eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric of “as long as it takes” on Ukraine. The lesson? This stance is a feature of stubborn decision-makers, and the opting decisions of war.

Perhaps today American elites might detach from this doomed path, and look at some of Woodrow Wilson’s words from 1916, when he offered to mediate peace. Wilson reflected on the cost of war:

“If the contest must continue to proceed towards undefined ends by slow attrition until one group of belligerents or the other is exhausted, if million after million of human lives must continue to be offered up until on the one side or the other there are no more to offer, if resentments must be kindled that can never cool and despairs engendered from which there can never be recovery, hopes of peace and of the willing concert of free peoples will be rendered vain and idle.” [quoted in Keith Jeffrey, 1916: A Global History (2015), p. 367]

I doubt they will, not until they feel the pain of defeat themselves. But I will continue to speak in favour of the path for dialogue and diplomacy, for as long as it takes.


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