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- War is death, sorrow, and destruction. It is impossible to view it in any other way
- But there are no easy wars, wars always last a long time. They are difficult to lead and difficult to end
- Wars do not “solve problems,” they only make things worse
- War is also very expensive, and these costs cannot be justified
- Without wars, the world will only get better
I am a journalist and expert at the Carnegie Fund. Until recently, I was the deputy editor-in-chief of the Carnegie.ru website, which stopped operating in April. I specialize in Eastern Europe – its past and present.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked with its scale. Until recently, it was difficult to imagine that in the 21st century in Europe, fighting could take place with such casualties and destruction. What is happening looks like real madness for which a rational explanation cannot be found.
However, in the bloody senseless Russian-Ukrainian war, there is nothing exceptional. It is very similar to many recent armed conflicts, both in Europe (such as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s) and in other parts of the world.
I will try to explain why states repeatedly resort to war against each other, despite the fact that it results in far more losses than gains for all sides involved. To do this, I will analyze the main arguments of those who view war as something deeply irrational. Each argument will be presented as a separate section, which you will read now. At times, it may seem provocative (especially in light of the invasion of Ukraine). However, my task is to explain the logic of war to you. Contrary to common belief, it does exist.
The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have given humanity a lot of bloody examples of how destructive modern wars can be. And for all participants.
The goals for which countries engage in armed conflicts soon begin to look like mere trifles against the price that must be paid for military action. Nevertheless, wars start again and again. Isn’t this sheer sadism and madness?
Yes, undoubtedly – especially if you look at them from the perspective of a detached observer. Or from a historical future, when it is already known how things will end.
However, those who make the decision to start a war look at it in a completely different way.
War is death, sorrow, and destruction. It is impossible to view it in any other way
It may sound paradoxical, but those who decide to start a war do not do it out of any particular bloodthirstiness or ethnic hatred. And not even out of a desire to acquire other people’s land and resources. No – people who have achieved such high positions are, in a sense, even too rational to be guided by such emotions (or only by them).
They start a war because they are convinced that sooner or later they will have to fight anyway, but time is against them, so it’s better to start now. Then the situation may become much less favorable.
To start a war today in order to avoid a more bloody and destructive war tomorrow is precisely the idea that becomes the cause of most modern conflicts. The scariest thing about it is that it arises not from the worst, but from the best qualities of those who make decisions. In their worldview, everything seems to suggest that unleashing a destructive war can be done with the noblest intentions – out of humanism, not sadism.
One of the best illustrations of where such logic can lead us is the First World War. None of the five major warring nations were led by sadists or psychopaths. On the contrary, they were quite well-intentioned, and in some cases even worthy individuals. Nevertheless, this did not prevent them from unleashing a slaughter on a scale the world had never seen before.
Historian Christopher Clark, an expert on German history, outlines in his book “Sleepwalkers” the logic that led Germany to the suicidal decision to start a two-front war. It’s difficult to argue against this logic, especially if you try to forget what you already know about the outcome.
Imagine this. You have a huge Russia beyond the eastern border: its economy and population are growing rapidly, and its army is being modernized. Due to the conflict in the Balkans, Russia declares mobilization, and Germany sees two possible explanations. The first is that Russia is simply bluffing; it does not intend to go to war now and will wait ten years, when it becomes even stronger. The second is that Russia is not bluffing and is really preparing for an imminent war. Whichever of these versions turns out to be true, Germany’s only way out is the same. It needs to start the war as soon as possible, because delay increases the risk of losing.
The other powers reasoned in a similar way: if they don’t start the war right now, in the future they won’t be able to conduct it from such advantageous positions. Another year or two, and France will not be able to keep both Russia and Britain on its side in the war for Alsace-Lorraine. In turn, Russia risks losing the support of France and Britain in the fight against German influence over the Ottoman straits so dear to it. And so on.
The fact that the First World War began in the Balkans confirms this logic. Both Germany and France were determined not to miss such a good opportunity to fight each other – after all, it was in the Balkans where their allies’ interests clashed (Austria-Hungary and Russia, respectively). In the future, both of these allies could have refused to participate in a war that would start somewhere else, far from their interests.
The temptation to prevent a large and losing war by means of a small and victorious war is so tempting and universal that in the early 1980s, American strategist Edward Luttwak wrote an entire book on this basis. It is called “The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union,” and in it, Luttwak convincingly argues that the USSR will attack China in the coming years.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union was at the peak of its military might, with only a decline ahead. This was especially true in comparison to China, which, on the contrary, was gaining strength. What should all the accumulated Soviet power be spent on? The United States? But they are far away and well armed themselves. Another matter is to launch a preemptive strike against the Chinese, in order to avoid a Chinese attack on the USSR, which could turn into a real catastrophe in the future.
Now this prediction seems absurd, but at the time it really seemed logical. And it is quite possible that this war did not happen simply because there were no strategists in the Soviet leadership who evaluated the situation in the same way as Luttwak.
As it can be seen, in order for the principle of preventive war to work, there is another condition that must be met – it is necessary to be certain that the potential enemy (for example, a neighbor) is preparing to attack. Such certainty is formed very easily. Countries watch each other, each sees how the other is building up their army – and poorly understands why.
Actually, it is not necessary to observe specific armies here. Even entire states are not needed. It is enough to have distrust and a lack of understanding of intentions in principle to decide that these Kosovan Albanians, Karabakh Azerbaijanis or Irish Catholics are having too many children – and eventually they may replace us. That is why it is better for us to push them out of here right now before there are too many of them.
But there are no easy wars, wars always last a long time. They are difficult to lead and difficult to end
A small victorious war is much more possible than one might think.
This is another reason why the logic of preventive war is so widespread among rulers. Little victorious wars are called that because they are quick and with minimal losses. They are remembered much worse than big, unsuccessful, long and bloody wars.
For example, in the 21st century, US military interventions became almost synonymous with failure. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – what was planned to be a swift operation inevitably turned into prolonged combat with significant losses and results that had little to do with the initial goals.
But the readiness of the United States to send its army abroad did not arise out of thin air. It grew out of many successful interventions, which were just small and victorious. Simply since then they have either been forgotten or remembered mainly from the perspective of the losing side.
Here are a few examples: the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, Desert Storm in 1991, operations in Bosnia in 1995 and Yugoslavia in 1999. One could argue whether or not the actions of the Americans were justified from a moral and legal standpoint. However, these arguments do not change the fact that in all of these cases, the goals were achieved quickly and without significant losses.
For a war, two sides are needed – and if a small victorious war did not happen for one of them, then, most likely, it will happen for the other. Argentina’s failed attempt to capture the Falklands turned into a small victorious war for Margaret Thatcher. Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait ended in the success of the American “Desert Storm”. And the desire of Mikhail Saakashvili to quickly resolve the issue with South Ossetia allowed Moscow to conduct a victorious five-day war in Georgia.
Putin’s Russia has gained considerable experience in small and victorious wars: the Second Chechen War, the Georgian War of 2008, Crimea and Donbass in 2014, and Syria in 2015. From Moscow’s point of view, at least, all of these conflicts fit the definition of small and victorious: they did not create any problems for the Russian leadership in terms of public support or resources expended.
This experience is one of the main reasons why the invasion of Ukraine was so poorly prepared. In full accordance with the English proverb about the habit that breeds carelessness (familiarity breeds contempt).
Wars do not “solve problems,” they only make things worse
Here it is worth returning to the thesis that the decision to start a war is made by people who believe that all other options in this situation are even worse than war.
Moreover, it is impossible to determine exactly how much this view was mistaken in one conflict or another. In reality, no one can give ironclad guarantees that refusing to begin the war at that particular time and in that particular form wouldn’t lead, for example, to an even more destructive war later on. That is, for a preventive war, it is enough to have faith in its justice.
And yet we can rely on historical experience and comparisons to try to assume that the decision to start a war in one case or another was a mistake. But again, it is easy to reason about mistakes looking from a historical future, where everything is already known. It is much more difficult to assess the situation while in the midst of a crisis.
Let’s say in 1992, the leaders of the Bosnian Muslims understood perfectly well that declaring independence for Bosnia would inevitably lead to a confrontation with the Serbs. But they were also confident that this clash was far from the worst scenario (especially if the West provided support). The much more terrifying prospect was to remain a minority in a truncated Yugoslavia under the thumb of then President Slobodan Milosevic.
Apparently, their assessment was wrong: what seemed like the lesser evil often turns out to be a greater evil in practice. The Muslims of Sandzak, who did not fight for the independence of their region and remained in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, experienced many hardships in the nineties – including pogroms and extrajudicial killings. But their troubles pale in comparison to the horrors and aftermath of the Bosnian war.
Another example is Americans who fought for almost 10 years in Vietnam to save the country from communism. This decision led to great losses for the United States and monstrous ones for Vietnam, but did not prevent the victory of the communists.
Just a decade later, the Vietnamese Communist Party itself, without any American coercion, began capitalist reforms in the country. Would Vietnam have transitioned to capitalism without American bombing? Quite likely. But there are no guarantees.
War is also very expensive, and these costs cannot be justified
Indeed, any – even the smallest and victorious – war is costly. But almost always, it is funded with state money – which is shared, as if it belongs to no one. Those who decide to start a war rarely have to pay for it from their own pockets.
Moreover, any money spent on war does not burn on the battlefield like Nastasya Filippovna’s promissory notes in the fireplace. They go to someone as very specific income. Someone always earns on army supply and equipment, especially during the war, and quite a lot – including due to opaque payment procedures and non-market supply. After all, it is difficult to understand the real cost of a fighter or a tank when it is believed that there are no direct alternatives to them.
Finally, military operations create favorable conditions for many criminal ways of making money. Looting, racketeering, smuggling, human trafficking and organ trade – entire business empires grow on all of this, which are directly interested in prolonging the conflict.
For example, the Tamil Tigers, who fought for years for the creation of an independent Tamil state and separation from Sri Lanka, turned their separatist project into a successful full-cycle business. The more they fight, the harsher the Sri Lankan authorities treat ordinary Tamils. The more Tamils flee to Europe. The more willing Europeans are to give Tamils asylum. The more numerous the Tamil diaspora in the West becomes. The more this diaspora donates to the Tamil Tigers. The more the Tamil Tigers fight – and so on in a circle.
However, all of this does not mean that modern wars start as if on a picture from a satirical magazine “Crocodile”: sinister arms manufacturers in hats deliberately foment nations in order to earn as much as possible on military orders. After all, if desired, army budgets can be inflated even in peacetime, and the business empires of smugglers and racketeers are rather a side effect of protracted conflicts that were not started by them.
Wars are not started to make money. They are started (let us recall the thesis with which this text began) to avoid even greater losses – which, in the logic of rulers, are quite possible if they do not strike first here and now.
These calculations often turn out to be fundamentally wrong. A significant part of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s took place in the struggle for cities, which seemed extremely important for future successful development to the warring parties. When the future came, it turned out that no one wants to live in these cities – everyone left to work in Germany. But it’s always easy to be smart and insightful in hindsight.
Without wars, the world will only get better
Certainly, it is a matter of how to achieve this.
Humanity has been pondering for a long time whether it is possible to completely eliminate wars. One of the most popular solutions is stated as follows: “Democracies do not wage war against each other.”
Proposed by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, this idea fits well into the American concept of exporting democracy. Additionally, it sounds beautiful and logical. After all, if wars inevitably result in benefits for a few and losses for the majority, truly responsible leaders who are accountable to their constituents will never start them.
Unfortunately, in practice it is not so. And the fact that the United States no longer considers as democracies the countries with which they are at war, does not make this rule work. On the contrary, history provides many examples of warring democracies.
For example, almost all of the prominent participants in World War I were quite democratic countries. And by that time, Austria-Hungary had already established universal suffrage, making it even more democratic than the United States at that time. But this did not prevent them from declaring war on each other.
The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s began after the democratization and were in many ways a consequence of it. In the first free elections of 1990, more moderate parties with regard to the national question were defeated in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Within a year or two, nationalist rule led these republics to war.
The democratic structure of Georgia and Abkhazia does not prevent them from being ready to resume hostilities at any moment. The first Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s occurred during a time when both countries were enjoying unprecedented democratic freedoms (in the case of Azerbaijan – both before and after).
Therefore, a more realistic proposal appears not from Kant, but from American writer William Faulkner. He believed that wars will end once people forget the word “homeland.”
Yes, the idea of us as part of some imaginary national community has opened unprecedented organizational possibilities for humanity and has allowed us to reach a completely new level of development. But it also created conditions for the First and Second World Wars and for many other bloody conflicts in various parts of the planet – from the Basque Country to East Timor.
Humanity has managed to live for more than a millennium before the concept of nation was invented – and with it, national mobilization. Most likely, it will live to a time when the concept of nation is forgotten as unnecessary.
Education, urbanization, and declining birth rates are already leading various societies towards a situation where people have less and less desire to risk their own lives for the real or imaginary interests of their imagined community.
Of course, setbacks in this process are still possible – but most likely only temporary.