war in Ukraine

Professor Kimmage and Commentary on the War in Ukraine

Michael Kimmage is Ordinary Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Catholic University.  He is currently a visiting fellow of the German Marshall Fund and (in 2014-2017) he was a member of the Office of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State.  As a historian of the Cold War, American diplomatic history, and U.S.-Russian relations, he has been much in demand leading up to and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.  He has offered his perspectives on the war and its implications in articles written for (among others) Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, and The New Republic, and he has appeared in interviews and panel discussions, ranging from CNN, Newsweek, and National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies.  Here, he reflects on his role as a historian offering commentary and analysis on the present day.

The war Russia initiated against Ukraine on February 24, 2022 took most people by surprise. Ukraine is not a well-known country in the United States, and although there was a war that began – between Russia and Ukraine – in 2014, by 2022 it had long ago faded from the headlines. Presumably it had stalemated, and the world had moved on to other crises: most of all the pandemic that dominated the news in 2020 and 2021. Two qualities have distinguished the 2022 war. One is its scale, the first major European war since 1945, and the other is its mysterious origins. This could seem to have come out of nowhere, without context, without reason, without history.

Historians are trained to think about the past. For good reason, they are not trained to think about the future or about the present; but one of the things that makes history interesting is its connection to the present. Why is it that we want to know about history? That of course is a question being asked in the present tense. This kind of question takes on special salience at a time of war, since wars are fought on the battlefield and they are also fought over the question of who started the war, for what purpose and with what moral justification. In the United States, the Vietnam War faltered when Americans began to doubt their government’s explanation for why the war had been necessary in the first place. By contrast, nobody really doubted the meaning of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and thereafter. Nazi Germany further clarified this meaning when it declared war on the United States shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The origins of wars – perceived and real – can matter as much as the wars themselves.

As a historian who works on the Cold War and at times on the history of Russia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I found myself in public demand once the war started in February 2022. In my writing and public speaking, I tried to accomplish three ends: to remind people that the war has a long and complicated history, which is to say the origins of the war, which is still in its early stages; to provide some signposts for the understanding of this war; and to resist false and simplistic historical paradigms for examining the war.

A historian need not always answer questions. Posing questions is often sufficient. When it comes to the history of the 2022 war, there are many rich questions to pose. One concerns the history of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, to which the territory of today’s Ukraine (an independent country since 1991) is integral. What has driven the Russian and Soviet effort to control this territory? – a question to which there is a military answer and a cultural answer, an answer that touches on Russian norms of security and an answer that touches on Russian views of Ukraine, Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture. Another key question of the current crisis is that of Ukraine and the larger European border between East and West. This takes us back to World War I, which began as a conflict between the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires, both of which were controlling Ukrainian territory in 1914; and to World War II, which Hitler launched in part to acquire territory – Lebensraum he called it – that belongs today to Ukraine. I have done what I could these past six months to ask these two questions.

Signposts for a chaotic and terrible war can be difficult to locate. I have come up with two, which have taken me to a grim generalization about the tendency of this war. Vladimir Putin did not begin this war for trivial reasons (in his own eyes). He concluded that Ukraine was moving too far to the West, that it was drifting away from Russia and that Russia was losing leverage. He concluded as well that Europe and the United States would not have the patience to support Ukraine over the long haul, that they were too internally divided, too self-absorbed and too unconnected to Ukraine to follow through on their verbal commitments. As a non-trivial war for Russia, Russia will do everything it can not to lose. For Ukraine, the war is existential. Should Ukraine fail militarily or should Kyiv give up politically and diplomatically, Ukraine would have to acquiesce to being a rump state or perhaps to not being a state at all – but to being a colony of Russia’s. Hence, Ukraine will fight for a very long time. It may accept a cease fire at some point but that will only be a reprieve in the longer war. The generalization, then, is that this war could last for decades, much as the Korean War ended to some degree in 1954 but in truth has been ongoing from 1950 down to the present day.

History teaches us not to accept mono-casual explanations. No big historical event has only one cause. Even small historical events reveal on closer examination a multiplicity of causes. Yet governments are often addicted to such simplifying explanatory schemes. The Kremlin has blamed the war on Western overreach and the one-sided expansion of the NATO alliance. Others have been tempted to blame the war on the psychology of Vladimir Putin. And on and on such reductive analysis can go. The job of historians, and we are just beginning it, will be to sift through the intersecting causes of this war and the confluence of reasons for its coming about. This in turn will help us to see the intersecting confluence of effects the war is having: on inflation in the United States and Europe (because of higher energy costs); on hunger in Africa and the Middle East (because of higher food costs); and on the world’s alliance structures (Russia and China as one bloc and the United States, Europe and Japan as another). In history’s natural complexity the complexity of today’s international scene is mirrored.

Journalism is the interface between historical scholarship and the rough-and-tumble of politics and war in real time. Journalists are in a rush, and when they speak with historians historians have the chance to slow them down. At the same time, historical thinking needs an audience. The normal audience is in classrooms, and for certain subjects it is in the public sphere. (Many Americans love presidential history.) The war in Ukraine has put the Cold War, the history of Ukraine and the history of Russia into the public sphere, and it has been a privilege these past six months since the war began for me to engage the sizable audiences that are seeking to be informed about the war. They bring their curiosity. All we historians can do is to bring them a bit of history in return.