David Shribman: Starting wars is easy; the challenge lies in ending them

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 30, 2022

If Winston Churchill were here — and some of us saw him, or his latest incarnation, this month, addressing the U.S. Congress on the plight of his beleaguered and besieged country — he would not know whether the conflict in Ukraine is only beginning, or is nearing its end, or merely is at the end of its beginning. But as always, the world knows more about how wars begin than how they end.

This particular war began with an attack that was not like Pearl Harbor, a sneak attack that truly has lived in infamy. It was well broadcast in advance, a bit like the American attacks in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 — and watch how Vladimir Putin will defend his invasion as clear analogues, which they plainly were not.

We know what the Kremlin planned and how Ukraine responded — much the way the world did when other great powers had great expectations and great overestimates of the ease of their endeavors.

“The idea always is to go in, quickly seize power, and take out the head of state,” said Jon Huntsman Jr., who was American ambassador to Moscow between 2017 and 2019. “But then an insurgency begins. There’s always a wild-eyed interpretation in the capital of the invaders about how quickly they can move in, take over and be hailed as victors.”

How wars begin is the beginning and end of our understanding, and that is especially so with the war in Ukraine.

“I have no idea how this war will end, but a lot of people in decision-making positions must give it some thought,” said Thomas W. Dodman, a Columbia University professor who co-edited a French-language global history of war. “Wars don’t just end in an instant. Once you start a war, it is like being on a ship: You don’t just stop all of a sudden. Forces have been put in motion that can’t simply stop in a minute. And wars have afterlives — physical destruction or mental stress, affecting people for generations. A peace treaty doesn’t end a war.”

History has few examples of deft conclusions of war. Our own Civil War ended with a bungled, contentious Reconstruction. World War I ended with German troops still on front lines outside the country’s borders, fueling claims by Hitler and others that Germany was “stabbed in the back” and didn’t deserve the harsh peace that helped bring on the next war. That next conflict ended with a Cold War, whose end itself — listen carefully to Putin’s claims — so antagonized, stigmatized and marginalized Russia that its current leadership found a domestic pretext to strike out against Ukraine.

Gideon Rose, a former professor at Princeton and Columbia who was on the National Security Council staff in the Bill Clinton administration, wrote in “How Wars End” (2010) that “ending a war successfully involves establishing durable political arrangements for the territories in question.”

That did not happen after the two world wars and, in Russia’s mind, after the Cold War, either.

In those conflicts, as in the one underway, we might abandon our preconceived views of the way wars end. In fact, we might consider abandoning entirely the appealing idea that wars actually do come to a close. The notion that wars truly end is an artifice of diplomats, historians and the kinds of jubilant crowds in the streets that are preserved in memory, and in unforgettable photographs from World War II celebrations in Times Square.

“Transitioning from war to peace means demobilizing citizens, too,” said Bruno Cabanes, an Ohio State specialist in the cultural and social implications of war in the 20th century. “Citizens have to undergo grief. There is reconstruction to do, and that is very difficult, and so is the eventual reconstruction of relations between former enemies. That will be especially difficult in the case of Ukraine and Russia, where there are extremely strong national identities. It sometimes takes generations.”

This war is only a month in length so far. The Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland (1939-1940), which may provide a useful comparison to the current conflict, lasted 3 1/2 months, with the valiant Finns finally succumbing to superior military force, though retaining superior moral standing. But another possible point of comparison may be the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), which lasted 19 months and led to an abortive revolution in Russia. The world war beginning nine years later led to the real revolution, the abdication and then the assassination of Czar Nicholas II, and the establishment of a Communist government that lasted for three-quarters of a century.

There remain faint hopes that the early stalemate in Ukraine may prompt revulsion and revolution in Moscow, but specialists in Russian affairs play down that likelihood. Russia may not produce a victory, but the key to ending the actual fighting, if not the suffering, may be finding a way for Putin to declare at least a plausible victory — perhaps Ukraine again forswearing any entry into NATO.

“Wars often end if one side overruns another,” said Jeremy K.B. Kinsman, a former Canadian ambassador to the Russian Federation. “That isn’t going to happen here. What may happen is that both sides will be exhausted. Or the costs may be too high for one side and it has to find a way out. Autocracies end wars when the guy at the top ends the war. But no one wants to end a war as a loser. When Putin can say he’s achieved some of his intentions, it may happen.”

That hasn’t happened yet.

But what has happened is a vast rethinking of the global order. America’s focus on China as a rising power has been amended; Moscow, with its leader brandishing nuclear weapons, has reemerged as at least an equal threat to American power. The West — fractured by internal tensions, beset by social anomie and historical amnesia — has a fresh sense of unity and purpose. The world, consumed in consumerism, has awakened to a frightful new era, its zeitgeist given a name by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz: Zeitenwende, meaning the turn of an era.

“The world after this,” Scholz said, “is no longer the same as the world before.” He spoke for all of us.

(David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)