An invading army surrounds a European city, cuts off its supplies, bombards it and demands surrender.
Is it 1346? 1631? 1870? 1941? Or 2022?
The answer is any of the above and all of the above. The Russian Siege of Mariupol is shocking, not because it is unprecedented, but because it is so traditional – a form of war that is attrition, brutal and all too typical of European history.
For example, if you are referring to the siege of Vienna, the next question is: which ones? 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 World War II)?
The Hundred Years’ War was marked by countless sieges. Henry V, Shakespeare’s English king, conducted more than two dozen from 1417-1419. Joan of Arc became a legend at the Siege of Orléans.
In his compelling new history of military technology “firepower”, Paul Lockhart states that sieges have been the most common form of battle throughout human history, much more so than pitched battles (which understandably command much more historical interest).
During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, then Secretary of State John Kerry said he was acting “like he was in the 19th century.” The truth is that Putin behaves as he did in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. He affirms the fact that progress is not inevitable and peace and order are fragile. Human nature means that no matter how advanced we think we are, ruthless and power-hungry men will always be with us.
Russia’s operation in Mariupol, the strategically located port city on the Sea of Azov, is patently bloodthirsty. It didn’t even appear to honor basic decency, let alone the modern rules and norms surrounding warfare. The Russians have cut off food, electricity and medical supplies and reduced the freezing city to rubble.
It is estimated that 80% of the city’s residential buildings were damaged. The Russians, notorious, shot at a maternity ward, along with a theater and a school where people took shelter. Authorities were forced to bury the accumulating bodies, wrapped in carpets or sacks, in a mass grave.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the siege of the city was “terror that will be remembered for centuries”. It certainly deserves to live in shame, although it’s hardly a new phenomenon.
The Prussians — cynical empire-builders like Putin, but far more competent — besieged Paris in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Starving Parisians ate cats and dogs, and as the siege dragged on, the Prussians shelled the city’s left bank and crowded people flee, killing civilians and hitting hospitals. The Prussians eventually prevailed and proclaimed Wilhelm I Emperor of Germany in the Palace of Versailles, a great humiliation for the French.
Although much of Europe has left this species behind power politics, has neither Russia nor China. Putin’s brutalization of Ukraine is a reminder of the importance of supporting the Western order – the alternative is so much worse. It is a reminder of how easily human affairs can slip backwards – the history of civilization has been one of folly, catastrophe and decline as much as it is of enlightenment, achievement and progress.
And it’s a reminder that when a nation is determined to rule with blood and iron, hard power is the way to go only Deterrence and recourse – if anything will save Ukraine, it will be missiles, drones and artillery, not norms or treaties.
Vladimir Putin is not a figure from Europe’s past. He is a man of his present and, if he does not face it with clear thinking and determination, also of his future.
https://nypost.com/2022/03/22/putins-siege-of-mariupol-the-latest-reminder-that-all-progress-is-fragile/ Putin’s siege of Mariupol is the latest reminder that any progress is fragile