20 years under Putin: a timeline

Started 100 years ago, the First World War was one of the deadliest and most extensive military conflicts in the history of humankind. Tens of millions of people lost their lives, four empires ceased to exist, and new ones sprang into being in the aftermath of this war. Its echoes reverberate even to this day. The distinguished scholar Alexander Yanov reflects on the lessons of WWI.


WWI era poster of the Russian empire calling to buy war bonds. Photo: marxists.org


A war without ideology

The First World War was a striking war for its futility. Even 100 years have not been enough to fully evaluate what it precipitated and how grave its consequences were. All its legacies turned out to be fragile, vague, and deceptive.

The main lesson of WWI can be found in its lack of ideological foundation. There was no driving idea behind this lethal battle between the greatest European empires—nothing but geopolitical interests. There were imperial ambitions, imperial fears, and retaliation for long-lost battles during past imperial wars, but there was no ideology.

The powerful German Empire could not stand its rival, the British Empire, because it was Britain and not Germany that commanded power over the seas and was the ruler of Europe (which then was the same as being the ruler of the world). The famous German geopolitical scholar Friedrich von Bernhardi wrote in his popular book Germany and the Next War (1912), “Either Germany will go into war now or it will lose any chance to have world supremacy.” He also wisely remarked, “The law of nature upon which all other laws are based is the struggle for existence. Consequently, war is a biological necessity.” Notice a remarkable similarity between Bernhardi’s quotation, written early in the twentieth century, and the discourse of our contemporary Alexander Dugin, an ideologue of the Putin regime.

In the years leading up to the First World War, France failed to reconcile its feelings of shame and anger following its defeat by Prussia in 1870. For many years, children in France would reiterate the words of the celebrated patriot Leon Gambetta, “Think of it always, but speak of it never.” The driving vision of the French Empire was revenge on Prussia.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was fearful of Serbia because of the support Serbia received from Russia. As Baron Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of the Austro-Hungarian General Staff, would explain to Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, “The fate of [the Austro-Hungarian] monarchy depends on whether South Slavs are united under our aegis or that of Serbia. In the second scenario, the Serbs will establish their own empire by seizing the entire Adriatic Sea coast and thus deny the Monarchy to have access to the sea.” In response, the crown prince promised to think about how to transform the empire’s dual monarchy into a tripartite monarchy by co-opting South Slavs and thus neutralizing Serbia.

For Serbs, such an outcome would mean that they would have to abandon their imperial hopes for a Greater Serbia. Even as early as 1908, while touring the Balkans, Pavel Milyukov, a Russian historian, political writer, and founder of the Constitutional Democratic Party, expressed the belief that Serbia was poised to start a war in Europe. His interaction with young Serbian soldiers allowed him to come to two crucial conclusions. First, “these young people show complete disregard toward Russian diplomacy.” Second, “the expectations of an imminent war with Austria evolved into the sense of anxious willingness to get into the fight; while the prospect of victory seemed easy and apparent to achieve. This morale appeared so pervasive and undeniable that trying to debate these events would have been absolutely hopeless.” In other words, the Serbs needed Russia as leverage in their attempt to bring down the dual Austro-Hungarian Empire and establish their own mini-state.

The English had their own plans. The British Empire did not want to give up its naval supremacy, because without it, this scattered kingdom would not be able to exist. Nor did it want to allow Germany to become the ruler of Europe. Germany was on a mission, however: the key idea of the Schlieffen Plan, authored by the head of Germany’s General Staff, was a rapid, month-long takeover of France and a lightning-quick victory over the rest of Europe. The plan also included the invasion of neutral Belgium—an outcome the Brits were eager to avoid, realizing that the occupation of Belgium would offer Germany a crucial base from which to launch an attack on the British Isles.

There is little doubt that in the current conflict in Ukraine, Putin’s Russia, like al-Baghdadi’s Islamic caliphate, is dealing with the fatal legacy of WWI. A century later, we are witnessing again a rigorous effort to piece together the Russian world, a task that, as history teaches, is bound to fail.

Russia seemed to be the odd man out in this company of ambitious empires, no one seemed to pose a visible threat to it. Apparently, British historian Dominic Lieven was correct in his observation that “from a rational point of view, neither the Slav project nor Austria’s indirect control of Serbia nor Germany’s control of straits would in the least justify the grave risk Russia took by having involved itself in Europe’s war.” Russia still nurtured the Slavophil dream of extending its dominion over Tsargrad (Constantinople), the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, and even the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. The ambition to see these dreams materialized led Russia to enter WWI.

For this explosive blend of imperial ambitions, visions, and fears, Europe paid an outrageous and exorbitant price. Nine million soldiers, sailors, and pilots died during WWI. Three times as many men were crippled or otherwise disabled, while five million civilians were left dead in the aftermath of occupation, bombing, and famine. There were also other consequences of WWI that we must not forget, such as the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915 and the deadly influenza pandemic known as the “Spanish Flu,” one of the most devastating pandemics in the history of mankind, which began in the last months of the war and took the lives of 50 to 100 million people.

Taken together, such was the price of the world war that lacked any ideological principles.


“Europe has gone crazy”

We cannot say, however, that no one could have predicted this nightmare. The first such person was Winston Churchill, a young Member of Parliament who had already experienced war firsthand in India, Sudan, and South Africa. On May 13, 1901, delivering a speech in the House of Commons, Churchill stated that “the wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings” and that such wars “can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors.” In Churchill’s opinion, Europe was facing exactly that kind of peoples’ war.

When in 1916 the famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton finally reached land after almost two years stranded among the Antarctic ice sheets, the first thing he asked was whether the turmoil in Europe, which had erupted when he was departing on his expedition, had ceased. The reply he heard was: “It looks like it will never end; all Europe has gone crazy.”

One year before, in 1915, Lieutenant Harold Macmillan, a future British prime minister, wrote to his mother that his soldiers “could never stand the strain of this war if they did not feel that this was more than a War—a Crusade, which will bring the end to all wars.” The idea that war itself could be permanently ended could have served as the ideology behind WWI. However, that ideology was quite ineffective, since it was unable to stop the revolutions in Russia and Germany from erupting and only proved Churchill’s prediction of the dangerous “exhaustion of the conquerors.”. But the most important proof of this ideology’s falsity was the fact that 21 years later, Europe was shaken by a new and bloodier war.


WWI’s legacy

If World War I entered the annals of history as a senseless massacre and one of the greatest geopolitical tragedies in history, provoking revolutions and leading the world into WWII, the Second World War was conversely full of meaning. That was the first war in world history that was fought to protect the ideals of global freedom and that ended with the powers of Good triumphant over the powers of Evil.

Many will argue against such a sweeping statement. Even my opponents will agree that WWI brought havoc to four European empires, namely, the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and German empires, and thus brought freedom to many nations. As a result of the demise of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland gained their independence. Nevertheless, the results of this war were not so clear-cut. It seems quite possible that following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both Hungary and Czechoslovakia came to regret their independence when, together with Poland, they found themselves satellite states of the Soviet Union. So too may the Baltic states, which were simply annexed by the Soviet Empire, have come to regret their freedom.

If WWI was a war without an ideology, WWII saw the clash of three philosophies. One group fought under the twin banners of liberal and socialist principles, while the other group gathered under the nationalist banner. The problem of nationalism is that those countries that fought on its behalf could not step outside of their national interests. Even the Axis powers were governed by their national interests and displayed no urgency to help their partners at crucial moments. To think, Japan could have attacked the Soviet Union from the east while the German army was approaching Moscow! However, even the defeat of the Soviet Union would not have changed the results of the Second World War. Germany would not have been able to hold on to all of its gigantic conquests and would ultimately have collapsed under their colossal weight. Germany, with its nationalist ideology, was doomed to isolation and thus to inevitable defeat.

The breakdown of centuries-old empires always exacts high costs, producing a sea of blood. Even a century later, the aftereffects of WWI can be perceived in the fierce battles in Syria and Iraq. The borders of these states were arbitrarily drawn by the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia (and later Italy) as part of the secret 1916 Sykos-Picot agreement, which aimed to define spheres of influence in the Arabic Middle East should the Ottoman Empire be defeated. This agreement, however, completely ignored the long history of violent feuds between the Sunni and Shiite Muslims. As a result, today the world must deal with individuals such as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a self-proclaimed caliph of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, who announced that he would “piece together the Sunni world” and challenge liberal democracy, the reigning ideology of the modern world. But al Baghdadi’s “caliphate” seems set to follow in the path of Hitler’s Germany—it is doomed regardless of the number of local victories that al-Baghdadi might have. No one—not Al-Qaeda, not Saudi Arabia—will help him in the crucial hour of history.

Another direct consequence of WWI is growing nationalism and authoritarianism in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule. Hastened by World War I, the Revolution of 1917 destroyed the Russian Empire; however, the Bolsheviks succeeded in piecing Russia together “with fire and sword.” The scars remained, though. The Revolution of 1917 caused the world to break into two blocs that later confronted each other during the era of the Cold War. As soon as the Cold War ended, history repeated itself with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is little doubt that in the current conflict in Ukraine, Putin’s Russia, like al-Baghdadi’s Islamic caliphate, is dealing with the fatal legacy of WWI. A century later, we are witnessing again a rigorous effort to piece together the Russian world, a task that, as history teaches, is bound to fail.