During most of the 18th century, the nations of the world engaged in a wild amount of wars. While most of the attention has been focused on the behavior of the European powers, there were similar wars among the powers of Asia and Africa as well, although these conflicts are much less well known. And while some of these conflicts were decisive, most of them were not. In most of them there were attempts to solve longstanding problems through military means and the formation of coalitions and the raising of popular armies to fight against foes that threatened the destruction of all that was held dear, while diplomats in distant cities bargained away colonies and trading posts like monopoly properties.
One of these conflicts reminds me of what is going on right now in Ukraine. During the 1700’s, the nation of Ayuttaya had fallen on hard times, a shadow of its former greatness. About two-thirds of the way through the 18th century an aggressive Burmese dynasty first managed to unify what is now Myanmar and then worked through the Thai puppet kingdom of Lanna based out of Chiang Mai to encircle and completely destroy the Ayuttaya state. Doing so, though, did not lead to victory for Burma over Thailand. Instead, while the old regime was wiped out, first a homegrown hero named Taksin sounded the resistance and then the first member of the current Thai dynasty ended up regaining Thai independence and soon pushing Thai control over Lanna, expanding a new Thai kingdom to and beyond its current borders. What had seemed at first to be a smashing victory over a demoralized enemy ended up bringing about the ruin of the Burmese state, which soon fell victim to British control, its dynasty ended while that of Thailand’s still endures.
In diplomacy there are two principles by which a negotiated peace may be obtained. Many wars, especially those famously indecisive wars of the 18th century, ended up as status quo antebellum. In this case there was a draw agreed to and a cessation of conflict and everything returned, as near as possible at least, to the status before the war. No land changed hands, and everyone could hold their heads up high about having given war the old college try. The second principle was uti possidetis, where each side kept the land it had obtained during war. During the 1600’s, for example, this principle ended an Anglo-Dutch war where the Dutch gained Suriname and England gained New York. The first principle, on the other hand, is what led to the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, where French gains on the continent allowed it to keep the fortress of Louisburg that had been captured in North America, to the anger and frustration of American colonists who disliked that their efforts were negated by British weakness in Hanover. It remains to be seen what kind of peace will end the current war in Ukraine.
Much depends on what Putin’s endgame is. What is it he is after that could not be obtained through continued negotiation? As of right now, at least, Ukraine is at least formally a neutral nation, its efforts to join NATO thwarted by opposition from France and Germany in something that requires unanimous agreement. Ukraine is no more able to retake its lands in Crimea or Donbass than it has been since 2014. If Ukraine and its people are growing more stridently anti-Russian as a result of the behavior of Putin, that is his fault. If Putin is increasingly unable to achieve the results he wants from Ukrainian elections, that indeed is his fault as well. And furthermore, his aggression in Ukraine may be pushing nations like Sweden and Finland, which have long celebrated their neutrality, into the welcoming arms of NATO which would be happy to have both of those nations as a means of making the northern flank of NATO far stronger, which would be to the benefit of the otherwise vulnerable Baltic states. None of this makes Russia’s geopolitical status any better.
When speaking about matters of geopolitics and diplomacy, we must be aware that the only people who matter are the people who make the decisions. As a world traveler I have frequently been hassled by angry locals who are upset for one thing or another that the United States has done or not done over the course of its history as it relates to their country, which has gotten them worked up to a great degree. To these queries I reply calmly that the majority of Americans have generally benign ignorance about the rest of the world and wish it well and do not happen to have any interest in ruling or ruining other places, nor much knowledge about where such places are and who lives there and what languages are spoken. Whether or not this is a calming thought is hard to say. While Americans will send hopes sand prayers and fond feelings for the people of Ukraine and there may be more substantive aid in intelligence and weapons and supplies from various institutions and other countries, whatever peace Ukraine finds from Putin’s Russia will have to depend on its own courage and martial skill. What peace that ends up being remains to be seen.