What Ancient Greece teaches us about war in Ukraine

Nato, Moscow and Kyiv can all be mapped against enmity between Athens and Sparta

In face of the ever-increasing danger and destruction arising from Vladimir Putin’s apparently demented invasion of the Ukraine, I thought it might be helpful to direct at the situation some reflections derived from the great Greek historian Thucydides as to the causes of the Great War between Athens and Sparta in the last third of the fifth century BC (431-404), an event that marred what was otherwise one of the greatest periods of human social and intellectual creativity on record, the Classical Age of Greece, as it would seem to have a considerable bearing on the analysis of the causes of the present conflict.

Why did the two chief states of the Greek world become involved in a long drawn-out and mutually destructive conflict, which drew in most of the rest of the Greek world as well, even as far as Sicily and southern Italy? Well, Thucydides – who was himself a general in the Athenian army, but fell from grace as a result of a military failure in the north of Greece in 424 BC, and was exiled, which gave him the leisure to reflect upon the war, and compose his immortal history of it – declares that, in his view, “the real, though unadmitted, cause of the war was the growth of Athenian power, and the Spartan fear of that growth”.

That is a most perceptive analysis, and I would like to suggest that something like that is best seen as the true cause of the unhappy conflict we are currently faced with in the Ukraine – and possibly further afield, if this is not resolved fairly promptly.

What led Thucydides to his conclusion was, briefly, this: in the wake of the defeat of the Persian invasion of Greece in 479, Athens moved quickly to establish a defensive league of Greek states against a recurrence of Persian aggression, and, over the next three decades or so, this league had become something that looked rather more like an Athenian empire than a league of independent states. In the latter part of this period, it had been tending to enrol a number of states which Sparta would have regarded as within its sphere of interest.


Militaristic oligarchy

Now unlike Athens, which was an open, rather free-wheeling democracy, encouraging the arts, sciences and free speech, Sparta was very much of a closed state – a rather grim, militaristic oligarchy, holding down a captive class of serfs, the so-called “helots”, and exercising hegemony over its immediate neighbours in the Peloponnese. While Athens regarded it as a constantly looming threat, it saw Athens as the endlessly innovative and restless aggressor.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? Let us consider the European-American social and political system, and how it might appear from the outside – starting with Nato. Now Nato was founded, as we know, and as we are continually being reminded, as a defensive alliance, against the post-war threat posed by the Soviet Union, and as such it worked very well. Indeed, as we now know from the perusal of Soviet archives made available after the fall of communism, the Russians were actually much more scared of us than we were of them, and saw the United States, in particular, as constantly encroaching – for instance, the erection of missile systems aimed at Russia in northern Turkey, but in many other ways as well.

On the fall of the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the Warsaw Treaty Organisation (commonly known as the “Warsaw Pact”) in December 1991, logic might seem to have demanded that Nato be dissolved also – and indeed Putin claims that such an undertaking was given to Gorbachev at the time by the US and Nato leadership; but, on the contrary, Nato stayed very much in business, and began systematically to gobble up – admittedly at their urgent request – one after the other of the former Warsaw Pact members.

Ukrainian stock

And so we come to Ukraine – which Russians have always regarded as a sort of “honorary” part of Russia; indeed, Kyiv is widely, and reasonably, regarded as the cradle of Russian Orthodox Christianity, while a number of the most distinguished Russian writers, such as Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were of partly or wholly Ukrainian stock. So when a West-leaning uprising succeeded in 2014 in overthrowing the rule of Viktor Yanukovych, alarm bells sounded in the Kremlin – and these rang a lot louder when, it seems, Petr Poroshenko, who assumed the presidency, promised the Russian naval base in Crimea to Nato if Ukraine were allowed to join. That, for Putin, was surely the last straw, and led to the reclaiming of Crimea for Russia, and ultimately to the present situation.

But let us turn back for a moment to Thucydides. What, in his view, was the final provocation that led to the Peloponnesian War? It was a kerfuffle that arose in Corcyra (modern Corfu), an island which Sparta regarded as being firmly within its sphere of influence, involving a conflict with its mother-city Corinth, which was in turn an ally of Sparta. The details of the conflict are rather too complex to inflict on you on this occasion, but the upshot was that the Athenians acceded to a request from the Corcyreans, who had previously been broadly within the Spartan orbit, to accept them into the Athenian League, and to send a naval expedition to help them. The assent of Athens to this plea proved the last straw for Sparta, and war was declared.

The rest, as they say, is history; but the lesson is surely this, that what may seem to one party in a fraught situation to be a merely neutral, or even defensive, move may well appear to the other side to constitute shameless and radical aggression. And this perception can result in a general conflict with unforseeable ramifications. The Peloponnesian War lasted the best part of 30 years, and tore the guts out of Greece for a generation. The third World War is rather more likely to last about 30 minutes, and should mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

John Dillon is Regius Professor of Greek (Emeritus) at Trinity College Dublin