Putin’s Siege of Mariupol Highlights Fragility of Peace


An invading army surrounds a European city, cuts its supplies, bombards it and demands surrender.

Is it 1346? 1631? 1870? 1941? Or 2022?

The answer is one of the answers above, and all of the answers above. The Russian siege of Mariupol is shocking not because it is unprecedented, but because it is so traditional – a crushing, brutal form of warfare all too typical of European history.

If you refer, for example, to the headquarters in Vienna, the next question is which? The siege of 1485 (during the Austro-Hungarian War), 1529 (during the first Ottoman attempt to take the city), 1683 (during the second) or 1945 (when the Soviets pushed west at the end of the Second World War) ?

The Hundred Years War featured countless sieges. Henry V, the English king of Shakespeare fame, ruled over two dozen from 1417 to 1419. Joan of Arc became a legend at the siege of Orléans and was captured at the siege of Compiègne.

“No form of land combat has been more common than siege, across the sweep of human history from the first known wars to the bequest of Leningrad in 1941-44,” Paul Lockhart writes in his short story Fascinating history of military technology, “Firepower.”

During Vladimir Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said he was behaving “in a 19th century fashion”. The truth is that Putin behaves in the manner of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It is confirmation that progress is not inevitable and that peace and order are fragile.

Human nature means that remorseless, power-hungry men will always be with us, no matter how bad we think we have become.

Russia’s operation in Mariupol, the strategically located port city on the Sea of ​​Azov, was obviously bloody. He didn’t even pretend to honor basic decency, let alone modern rules and standards of warfare. The Russians cut off food, electricity and medical supplies, and reduced the freezing city to rubble.

According to some estimates, 80% of the city’s residential buildings were damaged. The Russians, notoriously, bombed a maternity ward and a theater and a school where people were sheltering. Authorities were forced to bury the accumulated corpses, wrapped in mats or bags, in a mass grave.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the siege of the city was a “terror that will be remembered for centuries”. He certainly deserves to live in infamy, even if it’s not a new phenomenon.

The Prussians – cynical empire builders like Putin but considerably more capable – besieged Paris in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The starving Parisians ate cats and dogs, and when the siege dragged on, the Prussians bombarded the left bank of the city, forcing people to flee, killing civilians and hitting hospitals. The Prussians eventually prevailed and proclaimed William I German Emperor at the Palace of Versailles in 1871, a brutal humiliation for the French.

Although much of Europe has left this type of machtpolitik behind, neither Russia nor China has. Putin’s brutalization of Ukraine reminds us how essential it is to uphold the Western order – the alternative is far worse. It’s a reminder of how easily human affairs can go backwards – the history of civilization is one of madness, catastrophe and decline, as well as enlightenment, achievement and progress. And it’s a reminder that when a nation is determined to rule by blood and iron, hard force is the only deterrent and recourse – if anything saves Ukraine, it will be missiles, drones and artillery, not standards or treaties.

Rich Lowry is the editor of the National Review.


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