Will Ukraine be Remembered as the War of Surprises?Roundup
tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations emeritus at the Powell School, City College of New York, director of the Grand Strategy Program at Defense Priorities, and Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.
Some wars acquire names that stick. The Lancaster and York clans fought the War of the Roses from 1455-1485 to claim the British throne. The Hundred Years’ War pitted England against France from 1337-1453. In the Thirty Years’ War, 1618-1648, many European countries clashed, while Britain and France waged the Seven Years’ War, 1756-63, across significant parts of the globe. World War I (1914-1918) gained the lofty moniker, “The Great War,” even though World II (1939-1945) would prove far greater in death, destruction, and its grim global reach.
Of the catchier conflict names, my own favorite — though the Pig War of 1859 between the U.S. and Great Britain in Canada runs a close second — is the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748). It was named for Captain Robert Jenkins of the East India Company who, in 1738, told the British House of Commons that his ear, which he displayed for the onlooking parliamentarians, had been severed several years earlier by a Spanish coast guard sloop’s commander. He had boarded the ship off the Cuban coast and committed the outrage using Jenkins’s own cutlass. If ever there were cause for war, that was it! An ear for an ear, so to speak.
If I could give Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine a name for posterity, I think I’d call it the War of Surprises, because from the get-go it so thoroughly confounded the military mavens and experts on Russia and Ukraine. For now, though, let me confine myself to exploring just two surprising aspects of that ongoing conflict, both of which can be posed as questions: Why did it occur when it did? Why has it evolved in such unexpected ways?
It’s NATO’s Fault
Though a slim majority of experts opined that Putin might use force against Ukraine many months after his military buildup on Ukraine’s border began in early 2021, few foresaw an all-out invasion. When he started massing troops, the reigning assumption was that he was muscle-flexing, probably to extract a promise that NATO would cease expanding toward Russia.
Some context helps here. NATO had just 16 members at its Cold War peak. More than three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has 30 — 32 when Finland and Sweden, which sought membership after Putin’s invasion, are allowed to join. Long before Putin became president in 2000, Russian officials were already condemning the eastward march of the American-led former Cold War alliance. His predecessor Boris Yeltsin made his opposition clear to President Bill Clinton.
In October 1993, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher prepared to travel to Russia, James Collins, chargé d’affaires at the American embassy in Moscow, sent him a cable warning that “NATO expansion is neuralgic to Russians.” If continued “without holding the door open to Russia,” he added, it would be “universally interpreted in Moscow as directed against Russia and Russia alone — or ‘Neo-Containment,’ as Foreign Minister [Andrei] Kozyrev recently suggested.”