KYIV BLOG: Poroshenko turns to Thucydides for advice

By bne IntelliNews September 11, 2014

Ben Aris in Moscow -


It may have been an erudite reference for most people because classics is not a subject that many schools bother to teach any more, but it seems that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has been reading his copy of "The History of the Peloponnesian War," Thucydides' seminal account of the war fought between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC, and has drawn many lessons from it.

Thucydides has been dubbed the father of scientific history, but probably more relevant to Poroshenko is that the Athenian historian and philosopher is also credited with inventing the concept of political realism: the assumption that relations between nations are based on might, not right, and his works remain mandatory reading in military colleges around the world today.

Prophetically for Poroshenko, "Wars" includes Thucydides' Melian Dialog: the Athenians sternly told the defenceless citizens of Melos that questions of justice did not arise between unequal powers and stormed the city, slaughtered the men and enslaved the women and children. And Poroshenko was explicit in a September 10 speech to the Rada on the asymmetry of the conflict that Ukraine finds itself in. "We are opposed by one of the biggest armies of the world; military power number one in Europe," Poroshenko told the parliament. "The armed forces of which in the last 10-15 years have been constantly upgraded and now have state-of-the-art, most advanced weapons in the world."

Poroshenko went on to name the philospher-warrior by name saying: "Two and a half thousand years ago, ancient Greek historian Thucydides concluded that success in war depends on finances," which basically sums up the cash-strapped Ukraine's main problem in attempting to face down a belligerent Russia. 

Going through "Wars" and it is possible to match a famous Thucydides quote to many of Poroshenko's decisions recently.

Wise words

First is Poroshenko's decision to try to calm tensions and bring the fighting to an end, which involves taking some large risks on Poroshenko's part.

"Men who are capable of real action first make their plans and then go forward without hesitation while their enemies have still not made up their minds." Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

In recent days Poroshenko's tone has rapidly turned as he plays the dove in the pursuit of peace. On September 10 he claimed that 70% of Russian troops had left Ukraine and told the parliament: "Human life is the highest value, and we must do everything possible to stop the bloodshed and put an end to suffering."

This is perhaps an acknowledgement that as Russian forces were openly and actively fighting the Ukrainian army in the days before the Minsk summit earlier in September, a battlefield victory had become impossible.

"Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." ― Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

Moreover, with Nato members reportedly preparing to bilaterally sell Ukraine high-tech weaponry – later denied by five members – the situation was in danger of spinning out of control if the fighting went up another level in sophistication and ferocity.

"The longer a war lasts, the more things tend to depend on accidents. Neither you nor we can see into them: we have to abide their outcome in the dark. And when people are entering upon a war they do things the wrong way round. Action comes first, and it is only when they have already suffered that they begin to think." ― Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

Calling for an end to the shooting creates exactly the frozen conflict in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine that Putin is believed to want; the shooting may have stopped but the armed militias of both sides remain in place and tensions are high. This situation is expected to hurt Poroshenko at the polls in the October parliamentary elections, but Thucydides has a few words of comfort on this score too.

"In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it." ― Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

And if Poroshenko follows Thucydides advice, then he will act.

"The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it."

Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

Indeed, Poroshenko lived up to this dictum earlier in the week when he chose to fly into the port city of Mariupol, which was still being shelled by Russian troops and the separatists, dressed in a commander's military uniform to rally his beleaguered troops. It was a brave act and maybe carried out with half an eye on the upcoming elections.

Poroshenko's speech to the Rada on September 10 also looked forward to the (hoped-for) peace to come. The president emphasised that even if the fighting stops, Ukraine needs to get ready for the next confrontation with Russia. Of course Thucydides sums up the problem succinctly: "Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on."

Poroshenko told parliament: "To break the loop [of economic misery], we need to speed up reforms. Jointly with the government and the parliament, we do our best to coordinate and accelerate reforms… Since the military threat is, unfortunately, enduring, immediate needs of national defence can make the military-industrial complex one of the locomotives of the national economy."

Thucydides also has some words of wisdom that sum up much of Ukraine's frustration with the lack of action by Europe, in particular with regards to aid for the embattled Kyiv administration or its reluctance to impose any sort of meaningful sanctions on Russia.

"Men's indignation, it seems, is more exited by legal wrong than by violent wrong; the first looks like being cheated by an equal, the second like being compelled by a superior."

"When will there be justice in Athens? There will be justice in Athens when those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are."

Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

Most Ukrainians would probably agree with these sentiments in the current situation. Indeed, one of the causes of the whole conflict, the West's decision to bring Ukraine into the European fold without listening to Russia's concerns and objections, is neatly summed up in this epitaph:

"[Man's] judgment was based more upon blind wishing than upon any sound prediction; for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not desire." – Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

Finally, Thucydides has a few words that the press covering the conflict would do well to heed:

"Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear." – Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"

However, the reason Thucydides is so famous was because of the efforts he made to rise above all this with his use of what has come to be called "scientific history."

"The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest, but if it is judged worthy by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine I have written my work not as an essay with which to win the applause of the moment but as a possession for all time." – Thucydides, "The History of the Peloponnesian War"



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