the bongino report

Putin’s War in Ukraine Is Brutal – It Looks Like the Crimean War

The Russian army is fighting to hold on The Crimean peninsulaWe all wonder where it all leads. The majority of answers are speculation because there are too many possibilities. called “unknown unknowns.” History may have some clues. It’s not the first time Russia tried to seize those lands. However, the West has mounted a military response. We’ve been there before. Britain, France and Ottoman Turkey faced tsarist Russia in the Crimean War 1853-1856 over the same lands. Although the war is barely remembered, there are striking parallels to the present. These earlier events can be divided in three phases.

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First, Russia was plagued by a technological gap in the nineteenth-century war over Crimea. Nicholas I decked out his troops in fancy uniforms and declared Russia’s army unbeatable, a claim supported by the memory of Russia’s victory over Napoleon earlier in the century. Nicholas disliked Europe but didn’t know its strengths. A Moscow professor wrote that “We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice,” Nicholas reportedly wrote in the margin: “This is the whole point.” He was a deep-dyed expansionist, but Russia’s railroads were woefully inadequate, its telegraph system undeveloped, its field commanders had no spy balloons, and its soldiers lacked the percussion handguns with rifled barrels that were standard for the French and British forces.

Even though they were hopelessly outgunned and their generals outmaneuvered, Nicholas’ soldiers fought on, with a will that is absent among their counterparts today. Unlike Putin, Nicholas I was remorseful, yet his war dragged on for a year after the tsar’s death. This slow finale utterly discredited Russia’s military and the bribe-taking and corrupt officer corps that embodied it. Had Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey struck a premature treaty with Russia, Nicholas’ tyranny would have survived and the old order would have remained intact.

Second, the humiliating defeat and Russia’s faltering economy gave rise to the threat of domestic unrest. Nicholas’ thirty-eight year old son, Alexander II, had no choice but to launch what became known as the “Epoch of Great Reforms.” The young tsar defends his extraordinary programs declared That “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to abolish itself from below.” His team of like-minded people began to institute westernizing reforms in a variety of areas, including the judiciary and banking and even the military.

The capstone of Alexander II’s reforms was the abolition of serfdom. This system had condemned ninety percent of Russia’s population to a fate akin to slavery. Emancipation allowed peasants to use land, but it prevented them from moving to cities. Despite the shortcomings of its reform, Russia was able to end serfdom in two years. This happened before the United States freed its much smaller slave population and without the 750,000 deaths from the American Civil War.

Third, despite their brilliance and prudence, the Great Reforms didn’t last. Within a decade, Russia was once again enslaved by imperialist fantasies. The immediate cause for the fall of the nineteenth century reforms was the desire of Polish subjects to the tsar to have the same rights and privileges as Russians. Alexander II had abolished serfdom in Poland but was not about to accede to the Poles’ demand for decentralization and self-government. Others of the tsar’s subject peoples decided that they, too, wanted to gain more control over their destinies. From Central Asia to Finland, calls for autonomy and self government were heard by the end of 19th century. Alexander II’s successors down to the Revolution of 1917 responded with brutal clampdowns.

The Great Reforms died or were killed by the Polish crisis. It also unleashed Russian chauvinism, which led to the collapse of the Russian tsarist empire. Alexander II, his son, was assassinated on 1881. It was cultural and political imperialism that became the norm, and not self-government and decentralization. The fantasy of a centralised and homogeneous imperial power defeated the great cause for reform in tsarist Russia. It was also adopted by Lenin and the Communists after 1917, who used their newly formed Red Army as a means to enforce it on the people.   


What is the significance of the similarities between 1853-1855’s Crimean War and the current conflict in Ukraine today? And what lessons can be drawn from Russia’s failure in its nineteenth century war in Crimea, from the Great Reforms, and from the country’s reversion to autocracy?  

Both conflicts were motivated by imperial ideology. In both cases, Britain and France joined forces and are today joined by the U.S. as well as other European countries. In both cases, the Turks opposed Russia. They were not involved in the 1850s, but their participation in the Crimean theatre did not stop the tsar.  But today’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones have knocked out scores of Russian fighters, and their inventor, Selcuk Bayraktar, plans to erect a factory in Ukraine to build more.

Without Russia’s resounding defeat in 1855, it is inconceivable that the Era of Great Reforms would have followed. This may still be true today. To trigger a period for fundamental change, all conditions must exist as they did in 1856. These include the defeat of Russian forces at the field, the death of the tsar/leader with the discrediting and dismissal of his advisors and the fear of widespread unrest in Russia. While Putin’s fate remains uncertain, all the other conditions are emerging today. Like in the 1850s nothing could more likely derail future Russian reforms or prolong the imperial ideologies than for Putin somehow not to die in his war. And for his circle to be intact. Russia’s defeat and the discrediting of its ideology are absolutely essential for Russia to come to its senses and launch reforms.

If and when that happens, Russia’s new reformers will need the West’s support and patience. Russia will not accept any rushed efforts to influence its reforms abroad or to profit from its temporary weakness. If Russia’s new reformers seek advice or help from other countries, let them ask for it and, preferably, pay for it. The U.S. government as well as American foundations would be wise to exercise self-restraint during this period, just like they did after 1991.

The most sensitive issues that will arise in post-Putin Russia will be the same ones that dominated reformist thinking back in 1856: the definition of Russia’s national borders and the degree of decentralization and self-government to be allowed within them. What extent will the elective principle spread across Russia? It will be used only for safety? “Russian” provinces? Will it also apply to the unassimilated ethnic groups, even those that are part of the nominally Russian core. This core issue will be the foundation of all reforms by post-Putin.

Russia may emerge from this crisis with different borders than it is now, with different ethnic or geographic regions and jurisdictions within these regions that are largely self-governing. Boris Yeltsin was a key figure in this regard. called for The regions of the USSR “to grab as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” for the election of regional governors/mayors who would be responsible to local councils as well to Moscow. All of this was reversible by Putin. However, these issues will ultimately be decided by Russia.

What can be done to prevent Russia’s discredited chauvinists from reemerging a decade from now, on the heels of a post-Putin era of reforms? It is not difficult to do anything except make certain that the reforms are 100% Russian-led and not a foreign project. “project.” As well as new links in education, culture and security, it will help to respond positively when asked for new ties with post-Putin’s government. However, these and other measures will not eliminate America’s need. in President Reagan’s wordsTo. “trust but verify.”


What happens if Russia loses? Here we confront a fundamental difference between the two eras: Nicholas, broken by failure, conveniently died in 1855, clearing the way for a change of Russia’s leadership. He would likely have been overthrown if he hadn’t died. Putin is alive and determined to hold on to power. He lacks the resources to secure any Ukrainian territory he takes. He will face rebellion at home if he uses funds for that purpose. In other words, even Putin wins (which is less likely each day), he will lose.

In both of its wars over Crimea, Russia’s troubles trace to overconfidence. But today, unlike in 1853, some members of Russia’s officer corps and many influential publicists still believe they could prevail if the national leadership were not holding them back. This could, as in 1853, lead to an all-out war, an expanded draft or even the use nuclear weapons. These can happen with or without Putin. Leaders of a military coup will face the exact same restrictions as Putin. This will not be changed by the use of nuclear arms. However, domestic unrest is likely to escalate to the point of threatening revolution. A military takeover is likely to cause more fundamental changes within Russia’s polity, and demand for radical reforms.

How likely is it that such an upheaval will lead to a twentyfirst century version the Great Reforms There are several reasons to doubt. Deep levels of corruption have been exposed in Russia by the war against Ukraine. Whole sectors of Russia’s economy are riddled with fraud, peculation and outright criminality.

Putin also defeated all opposition. His security forces brought down Evgeni Roizman is a reformist and antiwar former mayor of Ekaterinburg attempted to poison Aleksei Navalny, and then jailed him Without access to his lawyer murdered Boris Nemtsov (ex-vice-premier) was the founder of an independent political party. Putin’s first “mobilization” Draft or the resulting document emigration The 370,000 young, highly educated Russians are the exact group that could inspire new reformist ranks.

All these factors being considered, there are powerful forces that might help bring about a new Russian Reformism. Russia’s military leadership is itself conflicted. There is one side, an aggressive war group; there are many officers who are horrified by the events in Ukraine and think that amateurs and zealots have destroyed the great traditions and Suvorov and Kutuzov. If they have their way, they would cut their losses, withdraw from the war, and begin the laborious task of rebuilding Russia’s disgraced army.

No matter which faction wins, reforms are almost certain. Putin, once a young, virile man, is now seventy. Today, millions of young Russians are educated and well-traveled. They love the developed nations of America, Europe and Asia and see the great power fantasies of Putin. Worse, they see Putin and his family as roadblocks that prevent their advancement. Many of those who fled to the USA will return if they see the dawning reform. And unlike the Great Reforms, they are open to change and can be found all over the economy, not just in the civil service, intelligentsia, or officer corps.

THE FATE of Reform

These are positive signs for a new era in Russian reform, but they fall under the category of “known unknowns.” But suppose for a moment that all turns out for the best and Putin’s successors turn out to be genuine reformists. What happens next? Will such a reform era survive and endure into Russia’s future? 

If Moscow’s fate in Ukraine/Crimea today follows the course of tsarist Russia’s humiliating failure in 1853-1856, Russians will find themselves pondering the same questions their forefathers faced. The ability of the Russians to resolve the age-old problem of how power is distributed between the center, the periphery and between society and the state will determine their success or failure. Only the Russians themselves can craft a solution to this Rubik’s Cube. If America and its European allies are asked to share their experiences, they should. Instead of demanding immediate change in many spheres, which was the case after the fall of the USSR, 1991, they should focus on the core issue and offer their insights while leaving it up to the Russians to adapt, ignore, or adopt their advice.

Frederick Starr, Chairman of Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at American Foreign Policy Council in Washington DC. 

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