Opinion Articles

Arming Ukraine: lessons from the European conflicts of the twentieth century

  • RSS Feed Icon

Since the start of the full-on war in Ukraine, the NATO allies, including Britain, have committed tens of billions of pounds in military assistance, although the speed and quantity of deliveries lagged behind what Kyiv had asked for. Now, as the war is burning through its second year, and Ukraine’s courageous and determined resistance has recently turned into a counteroffensive, the European and US military commitment is increasing substantially. The meeting of NATO defence ministers in early June promised billions more in military aid to the embattled country.

This step-up comes with a new willingness to transform the entire European defence sector. With US backing, European governments are developing plans to boost their military production in order to continue supplying Ukraine and ensure their own defence capabilities and conventional arms stocks in what is expected to be a lasting political stand-off with Russia. The war in Ukraine is effecting a major change in European defence policy after decades of reliance on the US.

In the UK, the second largest arms supplier to Ukraine after the US, this approach has its vocal critics. They condemn the increases in state military spending and oppose the government sending any military aid to Ukraine. They advocate instead better diplomacy and recognition of Russia’s security concerns provoked by the NATO expansion. Such arguments, however, not only seem oblivious to the reality of Russia’s military aggression and the political thinking that underpins it, but also ignore several important, if familiar, lessons from history.


Lessons of Appeasement

The most obvious one is that appeasement does not bring peace. Treating Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as an expression of its NATO anxieties that need to be viewed sympathetically is akin to conceding that Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia was driven by a legitimate security concern. Of course, the British and French acceptance of Hitler’s claim, enshrined in the Munich Agreement of September 1938, was in part driven by the hope that this concession would contain Nazi expansionism. Instead, it encouraged it. Within months, the German army marched through the rest of Czechoslovakia and within a year through Poland, eventually brining war to the rest of Europe, the USSR, and the world. Putin’s Russia had its Munich moment in 2014, when its annexation of the Crimea, citing similar ethnic and historic pretexts as well as fraudulent referendum results, brought on Western condemnation but did not become a red line.

The 1938 Munich Agreement was not the first act of appeasing Hitler. Another valuable lesson on this and the role of international arms supply might be drawn from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), a conflict that has arguably more instructive parallels to the war in Ukraine than the often-cited Cold War (which never led to any fighting on the European soil). Unlike Ukraine, the conflict in Spain had domestic causes; much like Ukraine, it became a fierce battleground where broader international tensions played a major role in determining the outcome. Both sides in the war received considerable foreign assistance. But while the Soviet military supplies to the Spanish Republic were irregular and hindered by the international embargo imposed by Britain and France, the arms provided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to Franco’s Nationalist rebels were of superior quality and reliably constant. Although not the only factor in Franco’s victory, this disbalance in foreign military assistance – and the refusal of Britain and France to provide any aid to the Spanish Left government – played a decisive part in destroying the Republic and helped weaken the European democracies in the process.


Lessons of the Spanish Civil War

If anyone drew any lessons from Spain it was Stalin. He was a ruthless dictator who unleashed terror on his own people, not sparing even members of his family, and his industrialisation and collectivisation policies tore through the fabric of Soviet society, uprooting and destroying millions of lives. But Stalin also understood that the next war, the one with Nazi Germany, would be a ‘war of motors’, and his brutal industrialisation and armament policies of the 1930s enabled the Soviet Union in the 1940s to withstand the onslaught of the modern German army, even if only by the skin of its teeth and at enormous cost in human lives. And while Soviet soldiers were fighting and dying on the battlefield, the US boosted the Soviet war effort with materiel and military aid via its massive Lend-Lease programme. By 1944, the joint military production of the Soviet, American, and British economies was roughly three times that of Germany. The Soviets alone produced more of the key types of ammunition from tanks and aircraft to mortars and Tommy guns than Germany did during 1941-1945. The Nazi war effort was also handicapped, as Bruce E. Pauly tells us, by Hitler’s initial refusal to invest in weapons whose production took longer than two years, because he assumed the war would be over by then. In short, the war against Nazism was mainly fought and won by the Red Army, but the Allies’ vastly superior joint military production and long-term commitment helped ensure it had the resources to do so.  


Lessons of the Cold War

It is tempting to search the Cold War that followed for lessons it might offer us in the present circumstances. After all, that conflict, which was triggered by the Allies’ disagreements over Germany, was similarly rooted in the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union. It remains relevant, albeit in a new way: Russia’s assault on Ukraine is an attempt to redraw the geopolitical lines that formed in the wake of the Cold War. And Putin’s stabs at nuclear blackmail bring back the Cold-War anxieties of nuclear Armageddon.  

But it is also worth remembering that after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides rejected nuclear sabre-rattling and sought to cooperate on nuclear arms controls. Despite several crises, not a single shot of the Cold War was fired in Europe. When armed conflicts did flare up, they were elsewhere on the globe, often closely entwined with decolonisation struggles, and, crucially, fought using conventional, not nuclear weapons. Those sides that were better supplied with foreign military aid tended to have the upper hand.

None of this is to draw simple analogies between complex historic and current events. No two historical situations are identical. But Russia at present displays many signs of behaving like a traditional expansionist, aggressive imperialist state, albeit with the very non-traditional factor of social media, that sets more store by military force than diplomacy. Moscow’s sights are on the former Soviet republics, and this clouds the issue of armed support for Ukraine for those who place those countries in the sphere of Russia’s ‘legitimate’ interests. Yet, those states themselves do not consider Moscow’s interests sufficiently legitimate to justify a Russian take-over. Even in Belarus, where Aliaksandr Lukashenka has handed over much of the country’s sovereignty to Moscow, a complete absorption of the country by Russia is supported by a grand total of 4% of the population. But if Ukraine is anything to go by, this may not dissuade Putin.

While many in the UK and elsewhere in Europe today might be uncomfortable about the rise in military spending, especially at a time of economic struggles, the reality of Russia’s unprovoked imperialist aggression against Ukraine leaves the West with few options but to provide meaningful military support to the embattled country. This is a matter of European security as well as European political values. The right of Ukraine’s people to defend themselves against foreign invasion and to determine their own future as a sovereign state cannot be denied. If we claim that we support them in defending this right, then we must put our money where our mouth is.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

Related Policy Papers



Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More