When the fighting stops, what then?

  • Themes: Ukraine

The history of the closing stages of the First World War offers no easy lessons to Ukraine if it seeks a path to peace.

German troops marching through Russia during the First World War.
German troops marching through Russia during the First World War. Credit: GRANGER - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

If strategy is all about weighing bad and worse options, then making peace, while at war, is just that. Rare are the occasions in which one side holds all the aces and will be able to impose a peace deal of its own choosing. And even then, the more draconian the imposition, the greater the hatred generated on the loser’s side. We have learned that this can be nurtured for a generation, or longer. As Clausewitz recognised, ‘In war, the result is never final … even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil.’

In late 1917, the Russian empire was going through the throes of its revolution, due in large part to its terrible performance in the First World War. While a socialist government was set up in Kiev (now Kyiv), the leadership of the revolution in Russia was captured by the more extreme Bolsheviks, who set up government under a Central Executive Committee of the Soviets in Petrograd (today known again as St Petersburg). Both the socialist government in Kiev and the Petrograd government engaged in armistice and then peace negotiations with the Central Powers.

The strategic decisions that Russia faced in 1917/18 bore similarities to the dilemmas modern Ukraine is facing today. The most obvious was: should it stop fighting, accepting the loss of 780,000 square kilometres of its more densely populated territory (more than three times the territory of the UK), with more than a third of its population, or continue? As Trotsky, Russia’s chief representative at the peace talks in Brest-Litovsk (now in Belarus, then part of Ukraine), wrote back to Petrograd, ‘our country was weakened and exhausted; the continuation of the war, a failure to bring it to a conclusion, would have still further weakened and exhausted it’. Then, the chances of reversing the military defeats were slim for Russia alone; but in contrast to Ukraine today, it had allies also fighting Germany, and Petrograd had to speculate who would win on the western front. At the time, the outcome of the Great War was quite uncertain. Meanwhile, strikes were breaking out among sailors and soldiers in the German armed forces and in several Austrian and German cities. Were Russia’s opponents in the peace negotiations about to be overthrown by revolutionaries in their own camp? (Putin seems to have counted on such action by a Fifth Column, both in Kyiv and in the Donbas in February 2022, although neither materialised.)

The Petrograd government suspended negotiations on 10 February 1918, believing the conditions of the Central Powers to be unacceptable (even though the latter were not, as yet, demanding reparations), on the advice of Trotsky, got the impression that the Germans would not go back on the armistice because of this. He was mistaken: on 18 February 1918, Germany renewed its offensive, pushing even further into Courland (today’s Latvia), so that when the armistice and peace talks were renewed, Russia had to accept even greater territorial losses than foreseen in the original peace treaty they had refused and, in addition, hefty reparations.

The other question that recalls the quandary of Ukraine today is that of referenda. Back then, Russia had to decide whether to buy into the principle of self-determination, popularised by President Wilson in his 14-point declaration earlier that year. If they did, they were likely to lose all territories under German or Austro-Hungarian occupation at that point. Rightly or wrongly, they suspected that referenda would go against Russian rule in the Baltic States and Poland.

Ukraine presented a special case. Initially, on 20 November 1917, the revolutionary socialist government in Kiev made a confusing pronouncement, smacking of a compromise among dissenting members: it proclaimed the foundation of the new Ukrainian People’s Republic, but ‘without separating from the Russian Republic’, with the aim that ‘the whole Russian Republic may become a federation of free and equal peoples’.  By 1 February 1918, however, the Kiev government was at odds with the Petrograd Bolsheviks, who, in the meantime, had set up a rival Soviet government in Kharkov. Thus, the Kiev government proclaimed the independence of the new Ukrainian People’s Republic from Russia. It is interesting to note what the Russian Bolshevik government said about the potential independence of parts of the former Russian empire.  On 23 Nov 1917, the Petrograd government stated ‘that this right of the Russian peoples to their self-determination is to be extended even as far as separation and the formation of independent states’. On 12 Dec 1917, Trotsky proclaimed ‘the right of all peoples to decide by referendum whether they will belong to one or another state as a whole, or whether they will retain their independence’ to be a basic condition for the pursuit of peace negotiations. On 22 December 1917, the Russian delegation proposed that, ‘National groups which before the war were not politically independent shall be guaranteed the possibility of deciding by referendum the question of belonging to one state or another, or enjoying their political independence’. Yet, by then, the Russian Bolshevik government had sent forces into Ukraine to oust the Kiev government. Any reference to Ukraine disappeared from Trotsky’s statements, while he reiterated the commitment of his government to respect the outcome of the plebiscites in the German-occupied Baltic republics and Poland (and the independence of Finland). The Bolsheviks now waged war to bring Ukraine under Soviet control.

Now think of the long-term outcomes. Germany, by relaunching an offensive in the east in February 1918, lost precious time to move its forces to the western front and, of course, lost the war there. Ukraine lost its newly gained independence in 1921, when Ukraine’s Soviet Republic, having ousted the socialist government from Kiev, opted for membership of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR). There were at that time two Socialist governments in Ukraine: one a more moderate but nationalist one in Kiev, and the other based in Kharkov, which was Bolshevik and called itself a Soviet.

Barely a generation later, in late 1939, the USSR, under Stalin, reconquered all the lands it had lost in 1917/18, bar Finland, which managed to field a staunch defence. Meanwhile, another dictator kept Stalin’s back free by launching his own aggressive war – against Poland, the independence of which the German delegation had negotiated in 1917. In war, the result is never final.

Turning to the present, imagine for a moment that Ukraine is able to expel the armed forces of its big neighbour Russia – one of the world’s three leading military powers, with the largest nuclear arsenal – from all its territory, including Crimea. Imagine also, Russia confirming this in a peace treaty. How long do you reckon it would take until Putin – or even a subsequent government – would start planning for the next war to reverse this treaty?

Imagine the much more likely scenario of Ukraine’s leadership wanting to cut their nation’s human losses, every one of them a human tragedy, and settling for peace bought with a cession of territory, allowing Russia to claim that it had achieved its (more limited) aims of securing Donbas and gaining recognition for the annexation of Crimea. L’appétit vient en mangeant, and few dictators will stop when they see they can get away with expansionism. Kyiv would still beckon, in Russian minds, as the ‘cradle of Russian civilisation’.  Meanwhile, the more that western media celebrate Putin’s backtracking from his apparent original aim of recovering all of Ukraine for his new Russian empire, the greater the grudge he and his faithful supporters, not to mention the humiliated Russian military, will harbour. Even such a peace could lead to further war, another assault by Russia on ‘rest-Ukraine’. Hitler called what remained of Czechoslovakia Rest-Tschechei after he had been handed the Sudentenland at the Munich Conference in September 1938, claiming simultaneously that he had no further expansionist ambitions. Barely a month later, he gave orders to occupy the Rest-Tschechei  in the following March.

In war, the result is never final.


Beatrice Heuser