What Will a 22nd-Century Toynbee Say About Ukraine?

From a Wall Street Journal column by Matthew Taylor King headlined “What Will a 22nd-Century Toynbee Say About Ukraine?”:

What would a historian in 2123 make of the war in Ukraine? This is the sort of question that the great British historian of civilization Arnold Toynbee was fond of asking.

In a 1916 essay titled “British View of the Ukrainian Question,” Toynbee foresaw that Russia and Ukraine would assert their “separate individuality till the end of history.” Then, as now, Europe was at war, and the outcome was unknowable. But Toynbee sought to distill the probable from the ambiguous. And so, following Toynbee, even with the Ukraine war’s ending shrouded in mist, several preliminary conclusions can be ventured.

First, our future historian would note that Russia’s invasion has reified Ukrainian nationhood. Vladimir Putin’s assertion that the Russians and Ukrainians constitute “one people” has been rebutted in blood. Also swept away is Samuel Huntington’s characterization of Ukraine as a “cleft” country, divided internally and suspended civilizationally between Russia and the West. This was a plausible description in the 1990s, but the same conditions no longer endure. Millions of Ukraine’s Russian-speakers are learning the Ukrainian language, supporting the war effort, and spying behind enemy lines. Many Ukrainians chose to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, rather than the Russian Orthodox Jan. 7. To adapt Charles Tilly’s famous line about the state: War is making the nation, and the nation is making war.

This brings us to the historian’s second observation: As a result of the war, Russia is increasingly bordered by the West. Toynbee viewed Russian civilization as “a sister society, of the same Graeco-Roman parentage as ours,” but one that had “always put up a strong resistance against threats of being overwhelmed by our Western world.” Now, with formerly neutral Finland (along with Sweden) joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia has gained an 800-mile border with Western power. To the south, Ukraine is now a major regional military power in its own right. Even setting aside the formalities of European Union and eventual NATO accession, unoccupied Ukraine appears irrevocably attached to the West.

Our historian would also be attuned to the changes the war has brought about within Russia. In his 1947 essay “Russia’s Byzantine Heritage,” Toynbee observed that Russians had twice, under Peter the Great and the Bolsheviks, been compelled to Westernize themselves partially, “in order to save themselves from being completely Westernized by force.” Mr. Putin launched a third such effort in the early 2000s, but his reformist days are over; sanctions and emigration have hobbled the Russian technology and defense sectors. Import substitution does not a world-beating economy make.

Further, what Toynbee described as the “incubus” of the “Byzantine totalitarian state” has alighted on its host once again. Since December 2021, the Kremlin has closed the Echo of Moscow radio station and the nonprofit Memorial, two remnants of independent Russian media and civil society. As a result of these internal transformations, a poorer, less dynamic Russia now confronts a widening gap with two technologically superior civilizations on its borders—China and the West.

Westerners, for their part, have been surprised to discover that they aren’t “citizens of the world” but denizens of a distinct civilization whose principal defense is American hard power. At the United Nations in October, 143 countries voted to condemn Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, but according to the Kiel Institute only 30 countries have actually provided military aid to Ukraine—a coalition of the West stretching from Finland to Australia.

Compared with the status quo ante, the West has been strengthened and chastened. But it cannot rest on its laurels. Its ammunition stocks are being depleted. Germany’s Zeitenwende appears to be stalled. And the West hasn’t agreed on the nature of the “systemic challenge” posed by China, much less begun carrying out the kinds of concerted economic and defense strategies required to balance rising Chinese power.

The West’s major internal debate in 2023 is likely to be over the elements of a stable peace between Russia and Ukraine. Even if an armistice freezes the armies in place, what’s not to stop war from flaring up again in 2024, or 2034? Historian Stephen Kotkin writes that a decisive Ukrainian victory “might finally break the cycle” of Moscow’s “longstanding pursuit of a global position beyond its means,” leading Russia to become “a country that, while remaining a significant power because of its size and resources, invests in its people and long-term internal development.”

Toynbee, quoting Horace, gives a more pessimistic view of the Third Rome: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret. “You may throw Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.” As desirable as it would be to see the Ukrainian pitchfork prod Russia into becoming some kind of oversized France, it may never happen—not even if Kyiv inflicts on Moscow a generational defeat. To shake Russia from its ill-starred dream of dominating Ukraine, as France once awoke from its Algerian reverie, would take a Russian de Gaulle. Let’s hope our future historian can write of such a figure.

Matthew Taylor King is an ensign in the U.S. Navy and a former Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow at the Wall Street Journal.

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