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The Historical Guide to Dealing with Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine


Published March 14, 2023

After World War I, international law was established that banned biological and chemical weapons and attempted to shield civilians from the horrors of total war. Many believed that the intentional targeting of civilian populations would end. The Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 shattered these illusions. Much like the experience of the 1930s, the invasion of Ukraine is shattering the illusion that aggression is a relic of the past, and a reminder that warmongering must be deterred by forceful resistance.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why was the invasion of Ukraine such a surprise to the West?
  2. Is the United Nations better than the League of Nations?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Our Spanish Civil War?” by Victor Davis Hanson via Independent Institute. Available here.
  • Watch “War Crimes in Ukraine: The Pursuit of International Justice,” with H. R. McMaster and David Schwendiman, on Battlegrounds. Available here.
  • Read “NATO’s Nordic Realignment,” by Thomas Henriksen via Defining Ideas. Available here.
View Transcript

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine showed the world that wars of aggression—where there is no justification of self-defense—are not a thing of the past.

And as we grapple with how best to respond to Russia’s invasion, a study of history should remind us of what is and isn’t effective when dealing with belligerent aggressor nations.

For example, after WWI, Western Europe wanted to prevent the atrocities of the war from ever happening again. “Rules of war” that had begun to take shape through various Geneva Conventions culminated in the League of Nations.

Prohibitions around biological and chemical weapons followed—along with the notion that civilians were exempt from indiscriminate slaughter.

But in 1936 the Spanish Civil War shattered these illusions. Both sides of the conflict murdered innocent people. Cities were bombed indiscriminately with no strategic rationale. Citizens who remained neutral were executed.

The Spanish Civil War raged for three years, cost a half a million lives, and left Spain in shambles.

The war revealed the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations to stop such atrocities, and the naivety of the belief that civilians were “off limits.”

WWII began only a few years later. Once again, the League of Nations was unable to prevent the war, and the Geneva Conventions were unable to stop the mass industrial warfare that resulted in the loss of over 55 million lives—the vast majority of whom were civilians.

Today, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the invasion of Ukraine echoes the shock the world experienced in 1936.

Despite ongoing progress in technology and social systems, war-time atrocities like mass civilian shootings and bombings to highly populated areas continue in 2022.

Vladimir Putin views civilians as acceptable targets and the Russian army commits frequent war crimes, while the United Nations has been utterly ineffective at brokering any peace in Ukraine.

Even during times of peace, it is important to realize that aggression is always lurking and ready to test the world’s tolerances.

It doesn’t care about international law and the rules of war, and it is only deterred by forceful resistance.

The barbaric side of human nature will continue to show its face, but there are ways to minimize casualties and avoid worst-case scenarios.

The US and its allies must have the willpower and resolve needed to respond to Russia’s war with Ukraine with force, threading the needle between supporting a sovereign state that was barbarically invaded and yet not entering into a direct confrontation with nuclear Russia, whose increasingly erratic leader commands an arsenal of 7,000 nuclear weapons.