AD 2024 as 1938 – Why a Russian Victory Would be Bad for Most Africans

The countries of Western Europe might be losing their direct memory of continental war, but the same is not true of the Baltic states where freedom came in the early 1990s.

4 March 2024 ·   8 min read

AD 2024 as 1938 – Why a Russian Victory Would be Bad for Most Africans

The year 1938 is an apposite metaphor for 2024 – of a world poised on the brink of a devastating war. The pieces are all there: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; tensions across the Taiwan Strait; America increasingly divided and isolated; the Middle East divided along sectarian and tribal lines, between radicals and nationalists; a resurgent populism in Latin America; and an Africa slowly sliding off the map into state failure, military juntas and regional wars across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and into parts of western, eastern and central Africa.

It feels, as one senior Nato officer has remarked, “less a post-war than a pre-war world”.

This state of affairs should not be someone else’s business.

As Trotsky grimly remarked, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Critical choices about defence, foreign policy, national posture and the allocation of spending by leadership and publics alike will determine a future either of war or peace.

For those on the periphery of the global economy, on the margins of the concern of richer states and publics, this carries even greater possible costs.

If 2024 is not to become the anniversary of a modern Munich, the cusp of a Third World War, the free world will have to act and deliver differently.

Ukraine, too, will have to recognise and act on its own mistakes.

There are many challenges to avoid history repeating this devastating cycle.

For one, unlike 1938, when the costs of inaction and failure were fresh in living memory, spurring a reaction among the free world of rapid industrialisation and rearmament, for most citizens of the West, contemporary war is a distant concept, one mostly fought by others, by professional armies in distant lands, public consciences only occasionally disturbed by combat statistics and other horrific media scenes.

The last generation of soldiers to fight in World War 2 is vanishing, and with it, the vigilance inspired by direct knowledge.

It is easy to excuse war as someone else’s problem; to translate its grim realities into debate about faceless value chains, technology, theories of inclusion and exclusion, a confusion of acronyms, commercial interests, ideological differences and geography.

Of course, war is a profoundly human act best told through the stories of individuals and their choices, stories which unerringly echo the past. And it’s a theatre in which leadership had a disproportionate impact, for good and bad.

Baltic states

The countries of Western Europe might be losing their direct memory of continental war, but the same is not true of the Baltic states where freedom came in the early 1990s.

Kaya Kallas is the highly articulate and energetic prime minister of Estonia.

For her country, a Russian victory in Ukraine is not an academic question about the relative merits and demerits of the West over the East. Not that it should be anywhere, save for the band of autocrats who envy Vladimir Putin’s absence of competition and unrivalled wealth.

Kallas’ commitment to the cause of Ukraine is unsurprising.

Estonia, a tiny nation of 1.3 million perched on the freezing waters of the Gulf of Finland, has long felt the even colder embrace of its giant neighbour.

Should Russia succeed in Ukraine, it is expected to turn its attention to the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, all of which have embraced democracy and advanced the wealth of their citizens, while Russia has sunk further into the mire of crony autocratic state capitalism.

Just 106 years ago, on 24 February 1918, Estonia declared its independence from Soviet Russia. A war with the Soviets immediately followed, ending two years later with the Tartu Peace Treaty which guaranteed Estonia’s independence.

Well, until 1939. The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August that year divided up Eastern Europe between the two powers, with Estonia placed in the Soviet sphere. Occupied by the Russians from June 1940, by the Nazis after June 1941, and once more by the Soviets from September 1944, Estonia was “Russofied” over the next five decades.

The Estonian flag was forbidden; Russian was made the country’s official language and a reign of terror was imposed.

Even during the first year of Soviet occupation, more than 8,000 people – including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers – were arrested and one-quarter of them were executed and many of the remainder moved to gulags in Russia.

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Of the 50,000 Estonians forcibly mobilised into the Soviet army, nearly half died of hunger and overwork. Estonian monuments were destroyed.

In Tallinn’s military cemetery, today alongside the defence headquarters, most gravestones were overlaid by the Red Army, a crude analogue for much of what the Soviets set out to do across the Baltics.

Even after the end of World War 2, the terror continued.

A memorial plaque on the former KGB headquarters on Pikk Street in Tallinn reads: “This building housed the headquarters of the organ of repression of the Soviet occupational power. Here began the road to suffering for thousands of Estonians”, where “enemies of the state” were interrogated and tortured and then executed or sent to a Soviet gulag.

A Soviet-era joke has it that this was the tallest building in Estonia: even from the basement, you could see Siberia.

In total 23,000, or 2.5% of the Estonian population, was deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1953, of whom some 13,000 perished.

Kallas’ mother Kirsti, six months old at the time, was one of those sent to Siberia with her mother and grandmother, only returning to Estonia 10 years later. Kallas’ paternal great-grandfather became the commander of the Estonian Defence League during the Estonian war of independence.

Kallas has been outspoken against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and an advocate for increased defence expenditure and ratcheting up sanctions against Putin’s oligarchy.

The Estonian Defence League is once more central to the resilience of the local defence plan.

She reminds us of the importance of alliances, especially for small states, and paradoxically, the importance of agency, no matter the size of states. In so doing, she highlights the parallels with 1938.

“If we have learnt anything from the 1930s,” says the prime minister, speaking at a Brenthurst Foundation event on The Art of War and Peace this week in Tallinn, three things stand out.

“Europe is a very small continent, where war can spread very, very fast. If some countries think they can escape untouched, it is not true.”

The second lesson is that “when aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it anywhere in the world”.

And third, “America tried to be isolated in the 1930s and 1940s… it ended up also very costly for the United States. Isolationism is not an effective strategy in the end, if we have learnt anything from history.”

Hence her call for countries of Nato to “go from slogans to actions” by increasing defence spending and ramping up production.

She points out that in the Cold War, in 1988, countries spent at least 2% of GDP on defence, because “there was a Cold War and the threat was real. Now there is a hot war in Europe, and still some countries think that it is far away.”

The Estonians have calculated that if Nato countries could spend just 0.25% more of their GDP on defence, Russia’s war in Ukraine would rapidly end.

For Estonia, the threat posed by Russia is profound and perilous: few don’t remember that 24 February is also the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

While Ukraine has recently suffered setbacks in the field, illustrating both its lack of munitions and the extent to which the Russians have rearmed, remobilised and learnt from recent mistakes, all is far from lost.

The Ukrainians are not helpless. They are mounting continuous “active defence” against Russian forces. But something will have to change if the Russians are to be pushed back and out.

Six-sided strategy

A six-sided strategy to do so would have to involve all elements of strategy – informational, military, economic, legal – as well as all levels of action, from the tactical through the operational to the strategic:

  • Transform the narrative. Cynical denial of Putin’s true motives needs to be replaced with a more realistic appraisal of his goal of building an autocratic empire, whatever the cost in blood. The true cost of a Ukrainian failure needs to be understood. Ukraine’s is a profoundly anti-colonial struggle against a ruthless aggressor.
  • Side with democrats, everywhere. If the West and Ukraine want Africans to side with them, given that Russia’s invasion is an assault on the rules-based international order that underpins democratic freedoms and values and international peace and stability everywhere, then the West needs to stand with African democrats (and citizens) who are fighting for the same freedoms and values in their contexts. These values and principles have to equally matter for African lives, not just Ukrainian (or European) lives.
  • Take the fight to Russia, specifically through drone and missile attacks on Russian soil. This should include increasing levels of tactical proficiency by recruiting a cohort of younger soldiers.
  • Choke Russia’s war machine by increasing pressure on Western companies supplying parts and financing, and advocating for the release of $300-billion in frozen Russian funds to help pay for the cost of the war. If Putin is continuing to fight, it means he can afford it.
  • Deal with corruption and impunity. It’s hard to convince taxpayers of other countries that you stand for something different, and that your system of governance is improving, when corruption is widespread, by the government’s own admission.
  • Prepare for a post-war world, by advocating for the establishment of war crimes tribunals, just as Nuremberg was first discussed in 1942. On 1 November 1943, the Soviet Union, UK and US issued a declaration warning the Nazi leadership of their intention to “pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth … in order that justice may be done”. Again, such measures demand even-handedness in dealing with grave violations of international law (for instance, by Russia, by African dictators/oppressors, or in the Middle East) without fear, favour or hypocrisy.

Ukraine’s supporters, including those in the “Free South” (that part of the wishy-washy “Global South” that prizes democracy and human rights), will also have to step up.

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Alexei Navalny’s murder should make it clear what sort of regime is Putin’s, as should his army’s ghastly acts against Ukrainian civilians.

Russia is today antithetical to basic human rights and freedoms.

Its actions are familiar to many post-colonial societies traversing the same tricky path that Ukraine has had to negotiate over the past 30 years in breaking the shackles of Russian imperialism.

Ukraine has battled since its independence in 1991 to emerge in its current, increasingly democratic form through the painful step changes of the 2004 Orange Revolution and the Maidan protests 10 years later.

Costly sacrifice

In a pattern familiar to Africans, this maturation has demanded costly sacrifice as civil society has made its own space in competition with the legacy of the Soviet-era state, a process of generational as much as governance change.

Artis Pabriks is the former Latvian minister of defence and deputy prime minister. “A loss [for Ukraine] would mean that Russia would not stop,” he says, “and imminent danger of the next wars, not necessarily immediately in Nato, but perhaps in Transnistria or Georgia.

“It would also lead to large deterioration of trust in the [already damaged] West”, while “Russia will be much more aggressive and unstable”.

That “Ukraine would never be totally defeated”, however, with a long period of guerrilla warfare in prospect, has other long-term social, military and economic costs, and not just for Europe.

Like many, Pabriks sees the Russian action in Ukraine as part of a developing trend, starting with the occupation of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia in 2008, and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Unchecked, Russia has carried on regardless, piecing together its old empire, using Nato’s increase in membership (by application, not recruitment) as a pretext.

There is also a need, in supporting Ukraine, to correct fallacies about Russian potency.

While it is true that its leaders – from Ivan the Terrible to Putin the Merciless – have a callous attitude towards human life, this does not make Russia invincible. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Russia’s leaders are both vulnerable and fallible to the consequences of military defeat, as they were in the 1905 war with Japan (which spelt the end of the absolute monarchy), the 1918 armistice with Imperial Germany (which ended the constitutional monarchy in Russia) and the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan (which helped to end the Cold War).

A version of this holds that assistance to Ukraine will only provoke Russia. Yet defence is not provocation.

On the eve of his departure from Munich on 30 September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain said: “My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time … Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

A nice quiet and long sleep it was not.

Ukraine has been fighting on behalf of all of us who enjoy freedom and want to keep doing so.

An emboldened, revanchist Russia can only have a negative impact on autocratic wannabes, from Caracas to Cairo.

Giving in to aggression only spurs one-way traffic. Just ask Chamberlain, the Czechs and Poles, among others. The Russians understand force – and its limits – better than most.

Kallas’ favourite quote is by Yale’s Timothy Snyder, who says: “To become better, a country must lose its last colonial war.” The opposite also holds true.

And Russia is not going to lose its colonial war in Ukraine without citizens elsewhere being willing to pay a price for the maintenance of their own freedoms.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick.

Photo: Wikimedia