The Two-Year Mark: What World War I (1916) Teaches Us About The Ukraine War (2024)

Published: 20 February 2024

By Dominique Moïsi
via the Worldcrunch website


Ukrainian BMP crew stands on top of their vehicle outside the city of Avdiivka. Madeleine Kelly/ZUMA

There are many analogies between 1916 and 2024, two years into World War I and the War in Ukraine respectively. It offers a clear way to try to understand what may happen next in Ukraine — and the world.

PARIS — The war in Ukraine will soon be entering its third year. To understand where we are now, a comparison with World War I may be useful. What was happening at the end of the summer of 1916, after two years of war?

On the Western front, the hero of the Battle of the Marne, General Joseph Joffre — victim of his failures to break through the enemy front — had been replaced by General Robert Nivelle, whose 1917 Chemin des Dames offensive would prove even more tragically futile. By late summer 1916, the front had essentially stabilized. We were waiting for an external factor to tip the balance one way or the other. In April 1917, the United States entered the war.

Today, with the frontline barely moving — even if the Ukrainians are suffering — it is not America’s entry, but its exit, which, by ending its support to Kyiv, could deeply alter the course of the war.

Trump is in some way Putin’s wild card, as Wilson was for the Allies. The Russian revolution in the fall of 1917, and its consequences, the end of hostilities on the Eastern Front, were not enough for the central empires to balance the entry of the United States in the war.

The analogies between 1916 and 2024 are numerous. Isn’t General Valerii Zaluzhny — whom President Volodymyr Zelensky has just dismissed after his counter-offensive failed — the Ukrainian Joffre?

An American betrayal of Europe?

The crux of the matter lies elsewhere. Could Europe take the place of the United States — to maintain a form of balance between Kyiv and Moscow — if Republicans, victorious behind Donald Trump, withdrew from the game, forcing Ukraine to accept negotiation on Russia’s terms ?

Or are the United States, like a fading beacon in a spreading night, still irreplaceable today? For many historians, the U.S. inward-looking attitude in the aftermath of the First World War was one of the main causes of the Second World War. If the U.S. had remained faithful to the principles of Wilson, they would not have allowed the uncontrollable rise of fascism in Europe.

In 1920, the United States had retreated after the victorious end of hostilities. In 2025, it would do so with war still raging in Eastern Europe. What was merely a resignation yesterday, would by necessity become a betrayal tomorrow.

Historical analogies are useful and contain important lessons. But they cannot be taken too far.

Read the entire article on the Worldcrunch website.
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