Ukraine and the Unlearned Lesson of History

In the words of Karl Marx, the theorist of communism, history reveals itself “the first as tragedy, then as farce”. Another 19th century philosopher Hegel said that “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”.  It seems that today we are witnessing another confirmation of these profound thoughts.

What is happening in Ukraine is not an isolated event that arose either by misunderstanding or as a result of one man's ill will. It would be wrong to assume that Russia's attack on Ukraine was due to an unfortunate miscalculation by the Russian president. On the contrary, all current events are a logical step in the centuries-long history of the Russian state, which has always been aimed at imperial expansion and the conquest of foreign lands. 

The conquest of Siberia, Central Asia, countless wars with Turkey, with Sweden, with Lithuania, with Austria, with Persia, with Napoleonic France, with Finland, with Afghanistan — it’s only a small list of the Russian wars of aggression. Russia has never been interested in developing its own country and improving the lives of its people, but only in expanding its territory at the expense of its neighbors. Putin's power is not a legacy of past traditions, but an inseparable continuation of centuries of the Russian expansion, one inseparable chain of colonialism from the time of Ivan the Terrible, to Alexander the First, to Stalin, to Brezhnev and now Putin.

The vast majority of Russians (about 70%) support the war in Ukraine and are not concerned about any moral constraints in this regard. According to the old wisdom that “every nation deserves the government it has,” it is not Putin who usurped power in the country and sends the Russian men to war, but he is exactly what meets the traditions and aspirations of the Russian people, exactly the government that the population of this miserable country wants and deserves.

What if we try to break Hegel's cynical observation about history and assess the war in Ukraine through the prism of relatively recent events? Recall 1938, when Hitler first annexed Austria to Germany and then invaded the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia on October 1 of that year under the pretext of “protecting the German population from oppression.” Not only did Austria not resist, it gladly joined Germany. Czechoslovakia at the time was the 7th world economy with advanced industry and agriculture — a tidbit for Hitler. But it, did not resist and did not go to war with Germany over its territory. Moreover, neighboring Poland too under the pretext of protection of the Polish population decided to snatch a piece of Czechoslovak territory and occupied Zaolzie.

How did other countries react? The United Kingdom and France tried to avoid confrontation with Germany at all costs and decided to appease Hitler, hoping that the territories he took would curb his appetite and he would go no further. The government of Neville Chamberlain tried to persuade Czechoslovak President Beneš not to resist and to give Germany everything it wanted. Beneš resisted at first and even declared a mobilization. However, on September 28 in Munich, U.K., France and Italy surrendered Czechoslovakia without her consent and signed an agreement with Germany. Chamberlain returned to London extremely pleased and proudly waved a piece of paper with Hitler's signature, “I have brought you peace!

What happened next? Less than a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and it was the beginning of World War II in Europe. However, it wasn’t just European countries that hid their heads in the sand like ostriches and hoped that the weather would carry them through, an isolationist mood was also strong in the USA. America was busy with getting out of the Great Depression and did not want to get involved in the overseas wars, believing that “it’s none of our business”. Yet, it had become impossible to isolate from the rest of the world and Pearl Harbor woke America from her sweet slumber.

And what would have happened if France and U.K. had resisted and supported Czechoslovakia, if not with troops, but at least politically and economically, and Czechoslovakia itself had resisted with arms? Historians are nearly unanimous in this regard — there would have been no World War, there would have been no loss of tens of millions of lives and the world today would be a very different world. Appeasement of an aggressor is a sure path to doom.

Now let's go back to our days and compare them with those of 85 years ago. As a KGB agent, Putin studied the history of World War II and learned well the lesson of the past: the West has no will to resist and will go to any lengths to avoid confrontation with an aggressor. This is exactly what has unfolded in the last 20 years as Putin has waged small wars of invasion: with Chechnya (1999-2009), with Georgia (2008), with Ukraine (2014), and in Syria (2015).

The countries of the free world reacted anemically to Russian aggression, limiting themselves to diplomatic protests and imposing symbolic sanctions on Russia.  Like Hitler in 1938, Putin realized that he had a free hand and could continue his expansion in Ukraine. Ukraine is an obvious tidbit for the aggressor: it has well-developed agriculture, heavy industry and rich deposits of minerals, especially a lot of lithium, a valuable metal for modern industry. But then the unexpected happened.

Ukraine offered fierce resistance and the Russian blitzkrieg failed. The U.S., U.K., France, and other countries initially behaved just as they had 85 years earlier — they were willing to accept the de facto defeat of Ukraine and the expansion of the modern Russian empire. However, the grandiose failures of the Russian army and the unexpected successes of the Ukrainian army forced Western governments to reconsider their positions. Ukraine received economic and military aid, first in small bits, then in more powerful streams, and Russia was subjected to sanctions unprecedented in history. And not only Western powers, but even China also refused to support Russian aggression.

However, it seems that not everyone has learned the lessons of the past. While in England Churchill's  legacy is strong and thus the United Kingdom is now doing everything possible to help Ukraine, in France, in Germany and especially in the United States the voices of opposition are increasingly heard: “this is not our business,” “we need negotiations with Russia to end the war as soon as possible,” “give Putin what he wants, and the war is over”. Even Trump recently stated that he would end this war in a couple of days. How would he end it? Very simply: He would end aid to Ukraine and force onto it peace on Putin's terms, hoping, like Chamberlain, that after that there would be peace for a long time to come.

Never before in history has coercing peace led to peace. It's about time we realized that! If we let Putin get even a small fraction of what he wants, it will just take a little time and he or his successor will move again with war, and not only to seize more territory in Ukraine, but also in Poland, Germany, and then all over Europe. To concede to Putin now is not to prevent the war from spreading to other countries. It is a guaranteed step toward the next wars of conquest. This has always been the case; it is in a Russian tradition. Russia is incapable in sustaining a stable productive life; it can exist only in a state of permanent war. As the wise Churchill once said: “The baby must be strangled in its cradle.

Ukraine, for all its problems and shortcomings, today is an outpost of the free world. Its victory will be a victory over aggressive Russia, which is cancer on the body of humanity. This tumor cannot be persuaded, it must be starved economically or destroyed physically. Defeating Russia, no matter how much it costs, is the only way to prevent a hot WW3, and without military and economic aid from the West and especially from the United States, this is impossible. We have to understand that by helping Ukraine, we are helping ourselves and our children.

In recent history we have already seen tragedies more than once, should we repeat past mistakes and turn history into a farce? Only I am afraid that it will not be funny at all.

Jacob Fraden’s website:

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