History is rhyming in Ukraine


Mark Twain is reputed to have said that “history does not repeat itself, but if often rhymes.” As I watch Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grind onward, I think the phrase is more than apt. And I am sadly reminded of my CIA experiences, as Moscow’s whole approach is textbook 1980s KGB and Soviet military standard issue. Learned and honed in the first Afghanistan war, it’s been updated with more modern “delivery” systems — but, it rhymes pretty well. 

First of all, make no mistake, Moscow couldn’t care less what Western politicians and the chattering class have to say. They are inured to it by a history that sees the West as a constant, deadly threat — the painfully searing large-scale invasions of 1812, 1914, and 1941 carved deep into their memories, and a 45-year Cold War, which they lost because of leadership failure, a 21st century version of the German WWI “stabbed in the back” thesis.

{mosads}Second, the Ukrainian and Western use of social media has been useful to spread the message in the West — but ultimately limited in overall effect inside Russia. While we’ve seen some penetration, Moscow is closing down most internet access to the outside world. And Moscow shows a perfect and perfected ease in internal population control through propaganda, arrests, and intimidation of opponents.

Chattering class and rumor aside, don’t count on any popular uprisings or palace coups.

Again, this is about history. Russians like order from the top. And you don’t maintain absolute leaders for 500 years by allowing opponents a moment’s rest or by engaging in free debate. The “Big Lie” — like it or not — works in “fertile soil.” The “Big Terror” of crossing the leader — who has a choice between maintaining power and his death a la Gadhafi — is real and works too. And “Big Threats” — like the use of nuclear weapons so well used in the Cold War — still maintain their ability to cause fear, raise doubts, and sow division in the West.

No fear of grinding war

Third, Moscow is perfectly willing to grind out a war with mounting casualties.

The Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 cost the Soviet Union 20 million — literally decimating the population.

And while Russians withdrew from Afghanistan, remember they took 17,000 killed over nearly 12 years.

Grinding wars also produce their cruelties, which the Russians may not be able to control — or frankly even want to control — such as their soldiers killing and brutalizing the local populations. Young soldiers in the field experience the ugly, dehumanizing conditions of warfare and are primed against an enemy killing them at close quarters; it can lend itself to all kinds of atrocities. And, frankly, this gives the Russians a terror factor that serves their purpose, scaring potential Ukrainian partisans and driving out local populations.


The Russians are also more than willing to use anti-personnel devices.  All is fair in a Russian war. They have deployed everything from cluster and barrel bombs in Syria, for instance, to booby trapped toys in Afghanistan. And don’t forget the easy willingness to use concentration camps and selected executions. Again: keep the civilians in line or show how they can be eliminated. 

Fourth, as for refugees and their plight — again the Russians do not care, as it serves to their advantage. Millions of refugees streaming across borders means fewer people for them to fight and fewer partisans to monitor after taking over an area. It also means more people for us to care for in refugee camps in Poland and elsewhere. Also, and this is the old spy talking, there are Russian spies and co-opted persons among those refugees. Tough to sort that out.

Finally, Western sanctions have a limited effect, and the Russians know it. Economic suffering is a chronic condition that rarely results in fatality, and certainly not quickly. The Russian economy, barely the size of Canada, a nation with a fifth of its population, is fairly isolated from the West anyway, save oil and gas sales. And allies like China can soak that up fairly quickly. 

Moscow also knows the lesson of the Soviet bloc days and the unconvertible ruble: Trade what you can with willing partners. In my experience, there is always a way to get “hard currency” — through gold sales, sanctions-busting sales of oil to “special customers,” and under-the-table borrowing from a cooperative country (Germany in the Cold War days, China today.)

As for personal sanctions, they are feel-good exercises. If history has shown us anything, Russian oligarchs are great at hiding monies in places unimagined.

Rhyming does not mean repeating 

So, again paraphrasing Mark Twain, history is not repeating in Ukraine, but it sure is rhyming.

{mossecondads}Let me also say: Western history indicates we can win against the Russians.

However, it took over four decades to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and we did it with long-term, consistent, large-scale military and economic aid. Dithering over types of weapons and how deep our involvement shows weakness to Moscow. We must make them understand through our deeds that their adventurism and brutal crimes in Ukraine will be costly in terms of time, treasure, and people.

In the final analysis, Ukraine is not going to be solved in a week. A month, or maybe a year. But Russians understand strength and resolve.  Anything less than total commitment — we will lose.

Ronald A. Marks is a former CIA officer who served as Senate liaison for five CIA Directors and intelligence counsel to two Senate Majority Leaders. He currently is president of ZPN Cyber and National Security Strategies, a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center at The Atlantic Council and visiting professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Tags Afghanistan Armed Attack Cold War countering Putin countering Russia KGB political repression in Russia Political repression in the Soviet Union Russia Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russian losses Russian military Russian propaganda Soviet Union Soviet–Afghan War Ukraine Vladimir Putin WWII

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