Reading Barbara Tuchman’s masterpiece “The Guns of August” again, in these times, is an educational experience. She brilliantly documented the series of interlocking events that lead to the declaration of war by the belligerents in the First World War and the onset of conflict in August 1914. Even if you are not a history buff, it is a wonderfully written work – when it came out in 1961, the Pulitzer Committee created a separate General Non Fiction category so that they could award it. The book influenced politicians like President Kennedy who encountered Soviet belligerence almost as soon as he took office. And then when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, the book helped inform him of the danger of the world sliding into a global nuclear conflagration. 

Europe is the crucible for much that is good in the world, but it is also the blast furnace in which the major fault lines in the world have been cast. Ideology has little role to play.

The Kaiser, the Prime Minister of the UK, the President of France, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the Tsar of Russia, who dominated the European stage between 1900 and 1914, at least were not hypocrites. There was no talk of shared values and systems. It was all about power. A restive Germany that had newly joined the ranks of European powers in 1870 was seeking to dominate. Its natural ally was the (largely) German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite ties of blood between the monarchs who ruled four of the five powers, it was down to the Germans wanting land for expansion, with the support of the Austrians who had their own aspirations to own all of the Balkans. (They did – in the form of a loose association but now wanted full control. It’s complicated and the study of the Austro-Hungarian multinational Empire is fascinating in itself.) Naturally, this expansion was going to come at the expense of the French and the Russians. 

Tuchman’s account of the final thirty-seven days is literally like watching a slow-motion train crash. There were no ideological or religious motives – just land, power and influence, and the monstrous ego of the Kaiser.   The ideological element came in when Hitler declared War on Poland but there again, the Western powers were less concerned about the anti-semitism of the Nazis and more about keeping a balance of power. 

The Cold War seemed to be a simmering brew of ideological positions – democracy v authoritarianism, capitalism v communism.  In reality it was about the balance of power.  The global struggle between the West and Communism which was fought out amongst the newly decolonised third world was little more than good old imperialism masquerading in new clothes. 

Western economic orthodoxy of free markers imposed on these nations often meant little more than access to raw materials and markets for the West, which immediately created a two-tiered society in the former colonies. Democracy implied a fig-leaf of institutions that repeatedly elected the same set of pro-western puppets who would cater to the demands of the West. The type of person did not matter – after all, did not Franklin Roosevelt supposedly describe the despicable dictator of Nicaragua Antonio Somoza as “He may be a son of a bitch, at least he is our son of a bitch”. 

At least the Soviet Union did not preach democracy – they talked of class war. But like the Soviet Union, class war was good as long as a local set of nomenklatura loyal to the Soviet Union held the reins of power in a one party state run by the Communist Party and supported by the thugs of the local army.

The end result was the same.

The recent events in Ukraine came as no surprise.  What was the end of the Cold War and the dominance of the United States was, in retrospect, nothing more than the slow tightening of the noose around Russia by the West, who were never again going to allow the Russians to stray outside their borders. Justifiable, perhaps, in one sense.  The Soviet Union wreaked terrible havoc amongst her own citizens in the 1930s. Millions died in the purge of the reactionaries and in the forced farm collectivization drives.  While the Soviet Union fought Germany matching ferocity for ferocity, the Soviet troops did little to endear themselves to the local populations of the countries they liberated in 1945.  Very few have pleasant memories of the Soviet Union. 

In effect, while the USSR collapsed and Russia’s economy and power fell off a cliff, the West continued to execute on the plan to contain the former Soviet Union.  There had to come a point where the Russians got the memo. That probably happened in 2014 when the Ukrainian Government began pressing for NATO membership knowing fully well that the Russian bear on the East was not going to be too happy.

All along the calculation seems to have been that no one in Russia would risk casualties, economic sanctions, the loss of reserves and being cut off from the modern economy (like SWIFT and Visa) by taking military action.

Until President Putin just upped the ante and decided to invade.  People do not understand just how deep the resentment against NATO expansion runs in Russia – especially the fact that Ukraine seems to be doing everything to deny its Slavic links. Not least of which is to allow the existence of some rank evil Nazi formations like the Azov Battalion in the east, whom Facebook had banned until two days ago.  And then unbanned them because they were anti-Russian.

Since the unthinkable has happened, there could be many more such unthinkable consequences. Meanwhile the economic isolation of Russia has begun. SWIFT access is being cut off – which means Russia cannot pay for purchases or receive moneys for exports. Most exports and imports have been embargoed. Visa and Mastercard have cut off international connectivity. Local alternatives for most things exist, and given that Russia has things everyone wants, trading arrangements that do not require SWIFT will come up. May be this is the time a Central Bank Digital Currency running on blockchain will emerge. After all Russian technical talent is very very good and they do not lack ingenuity. It’s just that they will have to get used to not being able to travel to the West as easily as they did, spend money in the West and have homes and property there. Of course, the reason these gazzilionaires liked London and Paris is because no one believes that Russia would preserve and protect private property. Not least these oligarchs. So everyone has a fortune stashed away for the day the security people come calling.  

Will this mean the end of Putin? I think so, at some point. The change when it comes will happen the way rulers have changed in Russia in the past.  There will be a denunciation and a new man will take over, try and undo some of the kleptocracy Putin encouraged to stay in power. It is too much to expect that all of a sudden, the Russian people will rise up and become a Western democracy.  We should not expect too much. But expect that fundamental re-alignments are about to take place.

So why read Barbara Tuchman at all? When the current confrontation began, the term “Munich” was thrown around all too casually by the foreign ministries of the NATO countries. It refers to the meeting that took place in Munich in September 1938, when Prime Minister Chamberlain of the United Kingdom supposedly “surrendered” to Hitler and let Germany divide up the Czechoslovak Republic. Do not surrender to Putin, they say. Rather than evoke this half-baked, historically inaccurate analogy, they would do better to go back and understand why President Kennedy read every page of Tuchman. He was afraid that if events were left to themselves, the interlocking set of events that lead to the Cuban Missile Crisis could very easily lead to a nuclear war. It was not just President Kennedy who had this fear at the front and centre of his mind, it was also the Soviet leader General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had seen the horrors of the Second World War first hand as a political commissar in the Soviet Army, and privately, he did not want the world to slip into a nuclear exchange. After all, they were “eyeball to eyeball”, as the then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it. As the recent history of the Missile Crisis by the Ukrainian historian Serkhi Plohi details, when the chance arose to establish a back-channel out of the public eye and bypassing their own diplomats, both leaders took it. The interlocutors were the Attorney General Robert Kennedy (and the President’s brother) on the US side and a lowly KGB official on the Soviet side stationed in Washington DC. They ensured a nuclear war was avoided with a de-escalation that made Khrushchev come off second best in the public eye. The actual deal – which involved the US removing missiles from Turkey – was never publicised.

I hope the two sides are talking.

6 thoughts on “Reading Barbara Tuchman

  1. Very insightful and pertinent essay Ravi. The way events have developed though , I wonder whether any of the leaders today have even heard of Barbara Tuchman. This crisis has been building steadily since the 2014 Crimean action. And the fact that no one has been able (or willing) to reel it back in shows an astounding lack of statesmanship. The world is facing the prospect of a nuclear winter and yet there doesn’t seem to be a credible alternative available to either side to back down gracefully. I desperately hope that there is a back channel and a Robert Kennedy and some low level KGB spook of our times are talking to each other.


  2. I will gently disagree on some of the slant in this post. There is an impression after reading this, that there is some justification for Russia’s position and that the “West” shares some of the blame.

    I disagree.

    There was a time during the cold war when NATO was a military bloc, capable of an offensive and could be seen as threatening to somebody outside it. Not today. The United States has no appetite for military action anywhere and the other countries in NATO would not embark on anything without the US. In today’s world, at least in the free world, public opinion is a major deterrent, almost as good as nuclear deterrence. Nobody, amongst the West, is going to be able to launch a war and get away with it. I dare say Iraq’s invasion by the US would not have happened in today’s world.

    NATO is no threat to anybody and whether Ukraine is in NATO or not should make no difference to Russia.

    Russia on the other hand (and I will add China here), is a real threat. Russia’s behaviour in Syria, the annexation of Crimea and now the behaviour in Ukraine is inexcusable. There is zero justification for war. In my opinion, the response from the West has been impeccable. Ruled our military intervention, but throwing everything else, and more, at Russia.

    Could it escalate ? Yes, it can given the state of Russian leadership at the moment. But I argue, the world is a safer place because of NATO than it would have been without it.

    I am sceptical that Russia will find homegrown alternatives to mitigate the impact of economic sanctions. Sure, they will try but it will have limited effect. I don’t think any country can stand alone as an economic island in today’s world.

    I would have bought Barbara Tuchman’s book immediately on your recommendation, but I am just so weary of reading anything about wars and conflict – truly the most miserable of human inventions – that I will give it a pass !


    1. We have to disagree. NATO was not a peacekeeping agency and neither was the Warsaw Pact. When the Warsaw Pact disintegrated there was no raison d’etre for NATO. The fact that is systematically scaled down was not an act of charity – it was because of threat perception from the former Soviet bloc. As those threats scaled down it was no longer necessary to keep thousands of tanks and missiles on German soil.

      There is no such thing as good behaviour in the wars in the Arab world. Every Western power is guilty of it and Russia is no exception.

      I do not believe Putin is a good and innocent man. But there is a palpable sense among Russians that NATO on your doorstep is a step too far.

      But do read Tuchman. Its a pleasure.


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