37

I would like to state beforehand that the war Ukraine is tragic and I hope the conflict will end soon (preferably resolved via negotiations). However it is hard to ignore that it receives a lot more attention and attracts a lot more passion than other similar conflicts in recent history.^1

Post-WW2 conflicts in Europe
As it has been already discussed in this forum, the conflict might become the most significant European war since World War 2, but it remains a rather tall mark: (a) Yugoslav wars with 130,000-140,000 casualties are still well ahead; (b) the number of troops involved is notably less than those involved either in Yugoslavia or during the Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (E.g., this article claims that only half of the amassed 150,000 Russian troops have been committed so far, whereas the initial commitment for Czechoslovakia was 250,000).

Post-WW2 conflicts elsewhere

Question
What makes the Ukrainian war special? More specifically: does it touch essential economic, political or other interests of either side?


^1 : The conflict receives a lot more attention and attracts a lot more passion than other similar conflicts in recent history, e.g.,

  • in terms of the level/harshness of the actual and proposed sanctions against Russia (excluding a permanent member from the UNSC? - has it ever been tried before?)
  • in terms of the public outcry (including the remarks on this site)
  • in terms of the media attention (both conventional and social media)
13
  • 6
    For me, you open by asserting the war is exceptional, and asking why it is. Usually, someone would ask a question like that when, e.g. the president states that the war is exceptional, and wants to understand why it would be. Otherwise, "Why is the Russian attack on Ukraine different than these wars?" is a hard question to answer and smells of a homework question. Mar 1 at 16:15
  • 12
    Some other points that might be attracting downvotes: (1) All the other conflicts you listed are over, so comparing death figures from a 20-year war to a week-long one is apples and oranges. (2) You also criticize the media attention on Ukraine, but with the exception of the American invasion of Afghanistan, all the other wars ended decades ago, where it's impossible to compare media attention in the 50s to what media looks like now. You could certainly compare the Russian invasion of Ukraine to contemporary events like Yemen or Chinese Uyghur camps, but the assertion that it attracts ... Mar 1 at 16:18
  • 5
    ... more passion than the Vietnam War is iffy at best. Mar 1 at 16:18
  • 1
    "it receives a lot more attention and attracts a lot more passion" Could the question maybe quantify this a bit. What attention is meant? The amount of sanctions on Russia? or the number of questions on this site? Or the number of media articles about it? What kind of passion? The number of donations maybe? Or the public outcry in the West?
    – Trilarion
    Mar 1 at 16:30
  • 1
    @BruhMoments this has been already mentioned in one of the answers Note however that Ukraine never had the operational control of its nuclear stock - the weapons were positioned on its territory... like the US weapons in Germany, for example. Mar 23 at 15:46

13 Answers 13

45

There are a few reasons:

  1. A major factor is that Ukraine is right next to NATO member countries, and that Putin has explicitly made the conflict at least partly about his dislike of NATO. This is obviously relevant insofar as provincialism plays a role: leaders of countries in NATO, not to mention ordinary citizens, are unsurprisingly more worried about a war that might directly affect them. Particularly for people in Europe, a war a few countries over represents a more immediate threat.

  2. However, this is worrying even for many people who do not live in NATO countries, because they believe that an open confrontation could ensue between NATO and Russia, both of which have nuclear weapons, leading to a nuclear conflict and even an extremely destructive Third World War. That is the view expressed here; the US president Joe Biden has even said that any clash between US and Russian troops would be a world war. Putin has also put Russia's nuclear forces on alert. Even though this may largely be posturing, this is the major concern about the conflict throughout most of the world: for instance, one can easily find questions on forums asking if "X country would be bombed in the nuclear war between Russia and the United States." Newspapers from India, South Africa and many other countries have been speculating about the possibility of an open nuclear conflict.

  3. In part, many of the wars mentioned in the question seem more obscure or less controversial than they were because of the effects of time. The US-Iraq war was heavily covered at the time, and attracted negative press in a number of countries outside the United States (and in the United States itself, some time later). But with time, people forget about the news coverage those wars received, and new stories about them become less common even when ongoing. The Vietnam War was huge, but it also occurred half a century ago.

  4. It must be mentioned that for some people—certainly not everyone—open or covert bigotry also plays a role in their assessment of the conflict. Al Jazeera compiled an article listing an assortment of reporters at national news outlets (including one of their own reporters!) and other figures of note who basically said that the war in Ukraine is more serious because the victims are European (if not directly White). This is clearly not the only reason that someone would view the war in Ukraine as serious or presenting a greater worldwide threat than many of the wars mentioned in the question, but it does appear to have a greater influence than one might hope.

18
  • 2
    Thanks, this looks like a solid one. Mar 1 at 16:11
  • 5
    @Accumulation - Perhaps. I might argue that point, but it does not much matter, because giving more attention to people because "they have blue eyes and blond hair," "they look like us," or "these are Europeans like you and me" (all things that some journalist or politician has said) certainly is.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 2 at 5:55
  • 3
    And addition to 4: most of us here are likely from the Western World, especially as we communicate in English. So we might also see it as more exceptional, as many of us are watching it very closely. Other regions of the world might not view it as exceptional as we do, and they view conflicts closer to their home as more serious. This occurred to me when watching so many reports about celebrating that "the entire world is uniting with sanctions against Russia", then I realized that this "entire world" is basically Nato countries, composing less than 15% of the world population.
    – vsz
    Mar 4 at 17:40
  • 2
    With increased movement of people over recent decades there are many in Europe who have Ukrainian friends, family and neighbours. I suspect this also has an effect on the level of concern the average person has over a conflict. Mar 8 at 10:01
  • 2
    It's quite natural even without racism that Europeans would be more worried about a war in Europe than about one in Africa.
    – gerrit
    Mar 17 at 15:52
32

A tentative answer: it's a cumulation of factors. As I said in a comment, this is not Putin's first war, but it is

  • by far the largest Russian attack since Putin took power.

  • and unlike the other post-cold-war ethnic/nationalism related wars in Europe, this one (duh) involves an authoritarian-led, nuclear-armed power wanting to (at least) depose a democratically elected government and to redraw the map of Europe once again.

As with Hitler, decades ago, the question on a lot of peoples' minds is: if Putin succeeds militarily in Ukraine again, what will he do next? There are certainly NATO (Baltic) countries with large Russian minorities, which Putin might feel he needs to "liberate" next. (Another article discussing much of the same. It's rare that you find left- and right-wing press agreeing on something, but they agree on this much.) And certainly a less academic formulation, but in the same vein,

British defence secretary Ben Wallace also compared Putin to Hitler on Friday, as he questioned whether the Russian president was in his “right mind”.

Warning that he may not stop at Ukraine, Mr Wallace said the Russian leader would be “mad to attack a Nato country, but he would only have to be slightly more mad than he has shown himself to be”.


And I can't resist adding some more strictly European perspective(s), but which are related to the above:

  • the fact that war refugees are moving Europe again, 500,000 in just a few days Update on the refugees: as of March 20, there are 3.5 million of them who have fled the country, and approximately 1/4 of the population (around 10 million) is internally or externally displaced. The latter number is fast approaching that of Syria (13 million).

  • the fact that Germany made a very substantive policy turn-around in annoucing a massive re-armament program, despite the left-leaning leadership.

  • likewise that the EU itself has for the first time become involved in military aid.

All of these have changed the nature of some political facts in Europe in just a few days.


Also, the level of rhetoric is surely unsettling, e.g. Medvedev (who still holds several positions of power in Russia) has essentially threatened to "Pearl Harbor" the West in response to the economic/sanctions war:

"We will provoke the collapse of the Russian economy," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told a local news channel on Tuesday. [...]

"Don't forget that in human history, economic wars quite often turned into real ones," former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday in response to Le Maire's comments.

(The attack on Pearl Harbor came after Japan's leadership considered unbearable the embargo that the US had imposed on Japan for its war in China.)


Also, the level of propaganda and disinformation that the Russian population are subjected to is perhaps unique in recent memory. On Russian TV, all vehicle losses are claimed to be "Ukrainian montages", all artillery strikes hitting civilian areas are claimed to have unknown or Ukrainian sources etc. There's no mention whatsoever of the vast column of Russian vehicles advancing on Kyiv. Russia doesn't have/allow any of their own reporters on the ground in Kyiv or Kharkiv etc. Russian media has gone "full 1984", basically.

According to RSF

The words “war,” “attack” and “invasion” are now banned from the media. Only information from “official Russian sources” – the defence ministry – is now permitted. Information about military losses or troop moral had already been classified since October. Any attempt to provide such coverage is liable to result in prosecution or inclusion on the “foreign agents” list.

Yesterday, Roskomnadzor blocked access to at least six online media outlets because of their war coverage [...] Roskomnadzor accused these media outlets of publishing “false information about the shelling of Ukrainian cities and the death of civilians in Ukraine as a result of the actions of the Russian Army, as well as content in which the ongoing operation is called an attack, invasion or a declaration of war.”

I don't recall of a war in recent memory (certainly not on this scale) where one side was trying to predend to its own population that said war basically isn't happenning.

15
  • 4
    +1 for the first bullet. There are however some obvious problems with your answer: (a) Nazi comparison - much of the public discourse (and arguably policies) these days is based on this comparison, but is it really valid? (b) Claims that Russia is authoritarian are commonly made... but is there a factual basis for this? (does, e.g., the US legally recognize Russia as an authoritarian state - which should have many real consequences for trade, refugees, etc.) Mar 1 at 15:39
  • 2
    These seem to me rather superficial arguments. This is not to say that I object - I am simply not into the name-calling or comparisons based on generic feature, like "Hitler also lied and invaded some countries". Also, just because Haaretz is an Israelu newspaper doesn't make it an objective news source (it is in fact the leftmost of the Israeli newspapers, somewhat equivalent to the communist "La liberation" in France, rather than Le Monde - which is the French equivalent of NYT.) Mar 1 at 15:49
  • 1
    I would not exactly call Ha'aretz communist. Social-democrat, perhaps.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 1 at 15:50
  • 1
    @Obie2.0 I am complaining not so much about their leanings here, as about the quality and integrity of their writing. Mar 1 at 16:12
  • 7
    @convert: Yanukovich was not "removed". He fled like Karzai did. And fled under much less of a threat (than Karzai). And there have been other elections since 2014.
    – Fizz
    Mar 2 at 0:23
19
  1. One way to figure out the key motivations is to flush all the adjectives, flush all the verbs, and look only for the nouns.

The ngram that keeps echoing is "War in Europe".

The use of "war" and "Europe" in the same sentence is what creates fear across the EU. The last big war in Europe was fairly destructive for everyone involved, although especially so for a few nations.

If you filter the recent wars down to ones in Europe, this just leaves former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Europe#21st_century

Wars elsewhere may pull on the heartstrings, but, when it comes to the decisions, can be dismissed as just the world spinning round.

  1. The conflict in Ukraine is on the level of identity, not resources.

Russia has been adamant since 1991 that it would not accept NATO's expansion into the former Soviet Union. The US has indicated since 1991 that it wants to expand NATO into the former Soviet republics.

I'll dare steal a source from a closed question (closed for off-topic reasons, not non-relevance): https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2018-03-16/nato-expansion-what-yeltsin-heard

Documents from the Russian side show opposition to NATO expansion across the political spectrum, dating back to a Yeltsin supporters’ meeting with NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner in the summer of 1991 (he assured them expansion would not happen), and forward to the large majority of Duma deputies from every political party joining the anti-NATO caucus in 1996. As the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow, James Collins, warned Secretary of State Christopher just before his trip to meet Yeltsin in October 1993 (Document 6), the NATO issue “is neuralgic to the Russians. They expect to end up on the wrong side of a new division of Europe if any decision is made quickly. No matter how nuanced, if NATO adopts a policy which envisions expansion into Central and Eastern Europe without holding the door open to Russia, it would be universally interpreted in Moscow as directed against Russia and Russian alone – or ‘neo-containment’….”

Yeltsin and Gorbachev were by far the most pro-Western leaders Russia ever had, yet even to them the issue of NATO expansion was a non-negotiable. Yeltsin positioned himself as the friendly, peace-loving big guy, who would bring the West and Russia together. Even his position went as (from above document):

"But for me to agree to the borders of NATO expanding towards those of Russia – that would constitute a betrayal on my part of the Russian people."

  1. There is no easy way to end the conflict.

For Putin to accept a surrender that his soft predecessor Yeltsin couldn't would completely destroy his image at home. There is a significant chance that any replacement leader would be even more hard-line.

For the West to accept Putin's reclaiming of Ukraine would open the door to a further rebuilding of the Soviet Union, which it worked hard to dismantle.

For Ukraine to fulfill the Minsk II agreements would partially conflict with its current political direction. The Minsk II agreement required Ukraine to explicitly recognize itself as a multinational state:

Constitutional reform in Ukraine, with a new constitution to come into effect by the end of 2015, the key element of which is decentralisation (taking into account peculiarities of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, agreed with representatives of these districts), and also approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in accordance with the measures spelt out in the attached footnote, by the end of 2015.
(Minsk II Agreement text)

While such policies are common in the West, Ukraine is developing its identity as a nation-state. It would be difficult for a politician to sell a contrasting vision of turning it into a federation with multiple core ethnicities and languages.

Yeltsin tried to do what the West said, and got replaced by Putin. Yanukovich tried to do what Russia said, and got deposed. An unconditional surrender isn't always the best outcome for the victor. The Treaty of Versailles achieved everything the Allies wanted, except for the end result.

The conflict will end if some compromise is found that allows both governments, if they accept it, to stay in power, and that won't be rolled back by the next leader. Otherwise, it may enter a prolonged fight-surrender-escalation cycle that grows in magnitude each time.

  1. There is a non-zero chance that this conflict will escalate to nuclear.

There have been many proxy wars between the US and the USSR over the Cold War, but all involved nations neither power really cared about. Ukraine played a role in Russia's origin story, giving it emotional importance.

There is no known way to win a symmetrical nuclear war, so one won't happen over gold deposits in Africa. However, in emotionally charged issues, rationality can be thrown out the window.

5
  • 2
    Thanks. Interesting points, and good logical arguments. Mar 1 at 17:37
  • 3
    "the Ukrainian state is still at the point of defining itself" I think this is exaggerated if not totally wrong. There is a very strong Ukrainian identity and a rich cultural traditions going back a long time. Compared with most other countries this is as good as it gets. But that could surely be its own question.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 1 at 20:22
  • 1
    @Trilarion Thanks for the comment with the DV. I'm not attacking Ukraine - I'm trying to explain the reasons why Ukraine can't comply with the Minsk Agreements as easily as it might seem. And it's about specifically the state, not the nation. I'll edit to clarify.
    – HK-51
    Mar 1 at 20:26
  • Ah that clarifies things indeed. I thought you invented that but it's just what others propose actually.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 1 at 20:38
  • 4
    @Trilarion Yes, it's the Minsk II agreement. However, the agreement, which requires Ukraine to accept a bilingual status for Luhansk and Donetsk, goes directly against the trend of shifting to Ukrainian as the sole official language. Hence the political difficulty in implementing it.
    – HK-51
    Mar 1 at 20:47
13

This is a largely unprovoked international war between sovereign states in a region where borders have not been modified except by treaty since World War II.

The vast majority of wars at any time on the planet are civil wars or wars where one faction seeks independence from another government.

The vast majority of international wars arise from some clear act of provocation directed at the party attacking, like the Pearl Harbor attack in a narrow border area.

An invasion by another sovereign state that encompasses not just a disputed border but the entire territory of the state attacked on day one with overwhelming force, particularly, as in this case, where the border has recently been acknowledged in a treaty and was not imposed by some unrelated colonial power, is very unusual.

This is also quite different than the 2014 military actions of Russia in the Crimea and Russian support for ethnic Russian insurgents its border region, where there is a colorable claim of trying to protect self-determination rights of those regions.

Essentially, this military invasion involved a wide ranging military invasion of the entire country with no claims of self-determination or colorable claims of provocation just because Russia doesn't like how the Ukraine is run.

11
  • 1
    This point not makes this war exceptional.
    – convert
    Mar 1 at 22:36
  • 1
    @Acccumulation Yes the reason for USA to go into Iraq were not any beter then the reasons for Russia to go into Ukraine.
    – convert
    Mar 2 at 10:43
  • 1
    @CGCampbell Clearly, Ohwilleke is using the word "provocation" to mean "legitimate basis", not "anything someone does that you throw a temper tantrum in response to". Mar 2 at 18:56
  • 1
    @convert Iraq invaded Kuwait, then violated the terms of the cease fire that ended that invasion. Moreover, Saddam Hussein was a dictator who engaged in rampant human rights abuses. Your dissemination of Putin propaganda is disgusting. Mar 2 at 19:01
  • 3
    Which is the region in which borders have not been modified except by treaty since WWII? It can't be Europe (most of ex-Yugoslavia), it can't be the former Soviet Union (Abchasia, South Ossetia), it can't even be Eastern Europe north of the Black Sea (Transnistria, Crimea) unless I'm missing something very obvious.
    – Jan
    Mar 8 at 13:15
13

Many answers are already been given but I think it comes down to basically only one thing, the possible end of our existence as we know it.

Russia is only a second class economic power with a GDP lower than for example that of South Korea, a military that as large as it is wouldn't be a match for NATO (in numbers and equipment) but they have the world's biggest arsenal of nuclear weapons. That is exceptional. They also represent an autocracy. The combination of both is most dangerous.

Economically they'll never dominate the world. Russia could possibly be much richer, if only corruption wouldn't be widely spread and not so much money would be spent on the military; would be invested for the public good. But that didn't happen. The military might be enough to invade some neighbors but that's about it. There isn't anything more except for ... Nuclear weapons.

Since last week when they started a full scale invasion of a relatively large neighboring country, they went down a rabbit hole where they cannot realistically get out again without risking at least to a certain small extent a nuclear war. That would include the possibility of total annihilation. And indeed Russia has put their nuclear forces on high alert, not ruling anything out.

Russia has shown that it does not shrink back from armed conflicts. People everywhere are nervous and they should be. Everyone is playing through the logic of nuclear deterrence in their heads, like 60 years ago during the Cuba crisis.

Nobody will ever know the true risk of Russia using Nuclear weapons in this conflict for sure, it's simply unknown, but here's the thing: Would you enter an airplane if the chance that it crashes is for example 1:1000? Chances for a nuclear war may be higher.

From history it's known that appeasement doesn't work to deter ambitious autocrats but one cannot win against Russian nuclear weapons either. The only entity that can win against the Russian autocracy with Putin on top is the Russians themselves.

Isn't it frightening that the fate of the world (slightly exaggerated, I know, not everyone would die in an all out nuclear war) may depend on only a single (or a few) persons that are so willing to start a war?

And how often can we repeat that experiment before we run out of luck? Surely, Putin will not be the first or the last despot with lots of nuclear weapons of all sizes at his command.

6

Avoid a precedent

Especially when looking at the expansion of China, this would make a precedent and motivation to further expand if it was not clearly dismissed by the world.

Comparability with ethnical land expansion

It is the comparability with history of expansionist countries claiming for land and and winning that makes this so dangerous.

  • Prussia took Schleswig-Holstein from the Danes, 50.000 Danes (of which also some Schleswig-Holstein Germans that fought on the Danish side) had to die, and the reasoning of Prussia was ethnical. The Schleswig area south of Denmark had been mainly ethnically Danish long before, but with poverty and famine, Schleswig Danes had to sell their land to Holsteiners. Schleswig-Holstein itself was Danish for 400 years, though Holstein was (Low-)German Speaking. The Holsteiners took over Schleswig land in a poverty phase of the Danes, it was a buyout of land. When Denmark tried to keep the territory even though there was now follower on the throne, and when it tried to make Danish the administrative language everywhere, Prussia took this as a chance to wage war and get the land. It enforced High-German as administrative language in the whole northern Germany to centralise the West-Germanic Low- and High-German speaking Germans so that the "German" borders were strengthened, thereby successfully taking away a good share of the local identity of the north and that of Schleswig-Holstein (Danish would not have done that, it would have rather worked the other way round). In the end, the settlements decided the history. When after this Prussian annexation in 1867, there was a democratic and therefore seemingly justified vote on the borders many decades later in 1920, the border of the final people's vote mirrored the ethnical settlement border (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Province_of_Schleswig-Holstein):

    Following the defeat of Imperial Germany in World War I, the Allied powers organised two plebiscites in Northern and Central Schleswig on 10 February and 14 March 1920, respectively.[1] In Northern Schleswig, 75% voted for reunification with Denmark and 25% for staying with Germany. In Central Schleswig, the situation was reversed, with 80% voting for Germany and 20% for Denmark.

  • Nazi-Germany annexed the Czech Republic for its expansion and had the plan to assimilate the population and send into the east those who should not be part of it. This would have been done if the war was not lost.

  • Turkey pushed back and committed genocide on Armenians to get their land during WW1. In 2016, a Turkish general called Armenia a historical mistake and that the land was actually Turkish, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revanchism#Turkey, although Turks have conquered the area in the time of the cruzades while Armenia exists since at least 782 B.C., with the capital Yerevan as one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, and evidence of civilization in Armenian area dating to about 4000 BC, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenia#Antiquity.

    From their homelands near the Aral sea, the Seljuqs advanced first into Khorasan and then into mainland Persia before eventually conquering eastern Anatolia. [33] The Seljuq/Seljuk empire was founded by Tughril Beg (1016-1063) in 1037.

    From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Turkey

  • Azerbaijan is still at war with Armenia because of land conflicts. Officially, Armenians are said to occupy their land, which is historically wrong since Turks conquered the land long ago, but politically right in the borders of today, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Azerbaijan#Antiquity.

  • In Azerbaijan, there is also a minority of Udines as the descendants of the Causcasian Albania, of which those who are still Christians can sometimes speak the old language even today. They have minority rights, but no land. Admittedly, this story goes back more than 1000 years, and Caucasian Albania was already occupied by Iranian Sassinids before, but it shows how land of a minor power can be lost to a stronger power.

  • Kievan Rus took western Khazar Khaganate land which is now eastern Ukraine. The Khazars do not exist anymore. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xr2CtmpKU6A, see 18:37, most battles around 900 to 970 A.D. (One could say from this that the eastern Ukraine nowadays is historically neither Russian nor Ukrainian (Kievan Rus is the founding ideology of Russia, White Russia and Ukraine altogether). On the other hand, also the Khazars had expanded before. Unclear point, but worth some more research)

  • Northern Ireland is just a conflict arising from British expansion to Ireland.

  • Japan took Hokkaido, the former land of the Ainu, mainly by migration. It also was trading and military power that made it possible.

  • Mass migration by the Han Chinese took the Manchuria.

  • Many small peoples and tribes were pushed away by bigger peoples over the thousands of years, and nowadays, the ideology has changed: small peoples have the same cultural rights to exist as big peoples, the world community is different.

The Crimea occupation, the conflicts of Azerbaijan (supported by Turkey) with Armenia and the expansion of China are recent historical struggles for land. With this background, the world was already alerted. But this Ukrainian war is a precedent for the world. It is not just since the NATO got back an old aggressor again or since it is war in Europe, but it is since it bears learning effects for the future history of expansionist countries.

Reduced or misunderstood ethnical border conflict

The border conflict might be misunderstood by nations that also have a border conflict and think it is just about the border. In the Ukrainian case, it is about Russian mass immigration since Bolshevik times, and the border conflict only comes from that.

This is not comparable with the artificial border lines in Africa taken over from colonial times. This speech against expanding across the neighbor border to unify with the same brethren does not mention the problem of the organised ethnical Russian invasion that had happened before but is still highly praised and said to fully address the war: Ukraine: Kenyan ambassador's incredible speech to UN (which is not understanding the problem but gets very strong feedback from everywhere). I hope that the war in Ukraine is not just reduced by the United Nations to a border conflict to unite Russians on both sides? Even though the speech clearly stands against expansionism of course, which is the good core of it all, it does not mention the invasion of the past, it seems as if it sees only the war of today as the expansionist deed. And that would not understand that the absence of such land-taking migration actually avoids the problem.

From such reductions and misunderstandings one can see that the war also reaches out to any ethnical border conflict in the world, and there is so many of them that this war in Ukraine finds so many nations that care for the situation. For a good reason, of course, but also with some share of misunderstandings, it seems.

Side-note: Instead of Irredentism, have a look at Revanchism to see a longer list of what is already listed at the beginning of the answer. Mind that some claims might not go back long enough. For example, in the case of Germany, it might be forgotten that the coastline was also settled by Germans after the cruzades into these areas. I do not know enough about it, but if you go for revanchism, you also must be fair and go back even further in time if needed. That could even mean for the Danes that Schleswig-Holstein was not Danish in the end, since the Vikings took the land and pushed away West Germanic tribes (Vikings were just Northern Germanic tribes) even from more Northern Jutland much longer ago. It is therefore also a balance act how long you go back in time. Revanchism is not irredentism and not mere expansionism, and it should not be condemned, but get more empathy. It shows historically unjust ethnical expansion that was wrong then and therefore is still wrong, it shows ethnical crime of the past that should not be forgotten. Mind that revanchism can also be too short-sighted even if it sounded right at first; it must be seen from a very long historical viewpoint, going back in time through all known steps you can find, and then be judged upon, not just by the recent centuries.

Holodomor

On top of this, and most relevant in my eyes, the Bolsheviks used the Holodomor to weaken Ukraine and then settled the thinned out areas in the east with White Russians and Russians. Since Holodomor was all over the rural areas, one might say that the Holodomor is not directly connected to these settlements. But since Holodomor weakened the whole people, there was also no pressure of Ukrainians to settle the area again or fight the settlement. It was an official punishment by Stalin for the too low harvests of the foregoing years which Stalin saw as a mistrust against the central power. In the centuries before the Holodomor, Ukrainian cossacks had both fought for and against Russia, therefore the mistrust against Ukrainian cossacks was historically grounded. As a hint at the dimension, the Holodomor is of such a scale that it is not accepted as genocide by Israel since it might relativate the Holocaust. Often, Ukrainian cossacks in the rural areas could not flee when they "were starved" to death: 16% of the rural and 4% of the urban population. These numbers show only the death rate, I do not know how many fled into the urban areas, which is an important point: the rural area was likely thinned out much more than 16%. The Holodomor was also in the east of Ukraine where Russian cossacks and also some Ukrainian cossacks had settled before in agreement with Russia. More on cossacks at Can the aggressions of Russia against Ukrainian territory be understood in a politico-historical light? [closed] with a further link to the long history of those cossacks that likely had to starve for historical reasons and had to flee from Russia already in earlier times.

I added Q/As on the ethnical dimension of the Russian expansion on Holodomor and the Ukrainian Cossacks that lived in the rural Ukraine, they were closed, so do not take this as a professional list.

This list is of course too small to reach the core of all this. It is just a hint. Fore more, see this overview of the university of Minnessota on the Holdomor With a link to the documentary "Harvest of Despair".

The Holodomor plays a part in why this land is not left to the Russians for nothing, since the land of their people had already unjustly been settled by non-Ukrainian Soviets before. Before 1934, there were only Ukrainians, and any Russian mother tongue speaker is an immigrant in the area. This event throws a new light on any ongoing or future homogenous mass immigration that creates new majorities and then might finally take over the land.

Immigration plan from 90 years ago

There might even be a long-term plan, not public but at least known to Putin and which should also not astonish anyone who has been called to settle there, a plan that comes already from Stalin times, with an aim to reach the Black Sea and suppress Ukraine. If that was true, this war is not a problem of leadership (Putin), but a systemic problem that only Russia as a whole is responsible for. If that was true, one could also guess that any actions in the past were already a share of the plan. I recall for example the huge sponsorship of Gazprom for a German football team which could not pay off economically since there were no direct clients in Germany. Or on the opposite, the bad deeds like assassinations up to sending off diplomats just when everyone was invited, these deeds were then only to cool down the relationships so that war would not be a shock of disappointment. If you look at the separatist actions, there are clearly many Russian speakers involved in a kind of plan, not just Putin.

The corridor, a map from The Russian ‘invasion’ of Ukraine in maps and numbers - Map: Areas of Ukraine where there has been anti-government or pro-Russia separatist movements March-August 2014 with areas of pro-Russian separatist movements:

enter image description here

If the "Ukrainian" Russians themselves behave like it, they perhaps knew about the long-term plan - from the start. No one would say it of course, but it looks like a long-term Russian conspiracy that was covered by each nowadays "Ukrainian" Russians, without needed public debate on it so that no one would have a proof. It would fit in the ideology of that time of expansion of the strong peoples to push away the weak peoples to the side.

Already the historical events before the Crimea occupation look as if to fulfill a Stalinist and Bolshevik long-term plan of Russian expansion to the Black Sea. But the events of Crimea and eastern Ukraine might show this plan more clearly and hint at the Holodomor (which hit mainly the rural areas which were then settled, not sure whether only in the east, though) to have been a calculated deed for geostrategic aims from the start since it seems like a tool, it did not just happen for nothing. All of this can be seen from the mere Russian behaviour and wrong historical reasoning of today. And therefore, such political events can change the way the overall history can be seen.

This answer in short

Avoid a precedent that teaches expansionist countries "how it goes".

There will be so strong bad spillovers of this conflict for the world that even China, which likes to expand, is against it (UPDATE: it has shifted towards being just neutral), since the nations need unity to get over this, else, they will all lose more than they gain. This conflict influences future history, the world community knows that the world will learn from it - in a good or bad way is in the hands of the nations themselves. For these massive spillover effects on any ethnical expansion of the future, this war is different from the other wars listed in the question.

7
  • 1
    It is interesting that your first example is about Chinese expansionism - Henry Kissinger gives this example... alongside the example of the United States, to explain why Americans sincerely believe that they are a force for good on the international stage. He compares this with European balance of power, where existence of several powerful actors prevents them from identifying morality with their self-interest. Mar 5 at 17:52
  • 1
    @RogerVadim It is a search for finding the core of why Ukraine is special. The USA are not an ethnical people. With reduced black-white (double sense) identity, they do not understand the core. The ethnically chaotic USA is happy to have an old enemy again, they like trouble, else they would realise their lost identity. Anyway. I try to make clear that this is an ethnical border conflict that came from Russian mass immigration. China expands by migration in Asia or by occupying the South China Sea. The world had rather expected the next war in Asia, than in Europe, with China as the aggressor.
    – ETathome
    Mar 5 at 18:24
  • If the war in Ukraine was ethnical and not just imperialist, why did Russia mount a full scale invasion? They could have concentrated on strictly invading just the eastern Ukrainian parts only and might be finished by now already, but they seem to want to occupy all of Ukraine with all Ukrainians. This would make me believe that they do want more than just "liberate" Russians abroad. Or is it just a pretext to expand their own territory? The ethnical conflicts could just be a tool to get a foot in the door which is then knocked down by force at some point.
    – Trilarion
    Mar 6 at 18:42
  • 1
    @Trilarion The more they gain, the more the corridor to the black sea is not in a mere border state anymore. And they try to make the Ukrainians flee and get the good rural land, the Holodomor showed already in 1932-34 the land that was interesting. Migration aim was the more realistic east corridor, now they may get all. They also have the chance to do it only now in one go. And it had to happen since they do not have the historical rights and therefore try to ideologically claim Ukraine as Russian. If you play that card, you play it hard in the hope of believing yourself.
    – ETathome
    Mar 8 at 21:42
  • It is also about bargaining power to show the power and threaten to get worse to get land internationally accepted by treaties. If Russia had taken "only" the east corridor, they might have a strong direct neighbour in the long run, since such a crisis would make the rest of Ukraine stronger after all. The more you ask for, the more you can get internationally accepted. Already end of January, the answer to [Can the aggressions of Russia against Ukrainian territory be understood in a politico-historical light? [closed]](politics.stackexchange.com/a/70437/36175) guessed the happenings.
    – ETathome
    Mar 10 at 7:50
4

In addition to the existing answers, I think one further factor deserves mention:

Publicity - the war has been able to capture popular attention more than previous conflicts. This is the result of several factors, including:

  • A deliberate strategy by Western intelligence to publicise their knowledge of Putin's plans;
  • Technological developments, making it easy for individuals and media outlets to access high-quality video and other media from the front-lines;
  • The fact that Ukraine has a technologically- and media-literate population who are sharing information across a wide variety of social media platforms;
  • High levels of English language fluency amongst the Ukrainian population, enabling compelling eyewitness testimony and reporting;
  • A deliberate and effective Ukrainian government strategy to keep attention focussed on the war: e.g. Zelensky's frequent and emotive public appeals for resources and support;
  • The attractive narrative of a 'plucky underdog' having success against the odds in a 'good versus evil' fight.
1
  • These are useful points. Thank you. Mar 23 at 9:32
4

The war in Ukraine is exceptional because it is essentially a colonial war: Russia wants to conquer and control Ukraine, plain and simple.

This goes against the right to self-determination. The right to self-determination is the essential principle of international world order since WWII. It is used to determine the legitimacy of sovereignty claims. It is worth noting that this democratic principle has literally changed the face of the world, since colonizing powers had to abandon their colonies everywhere during the XXth century.

Of course, there are still places in the world where this principle is not fully applied, due to various historical and political obstacles. But it is absolutely clear that this principle completely prohibits any war of conquest: it is simply not morally acceptable anymore to grab land by force in any circumstances, in the same way that it is not acceptable anymore to enslave people.

There is indeed a long list of conflicts since WWII, some of them extremely costly in human lives. Most of them were independence or civil wars. There are very few cases where a country successfully invaded and permanently conquered some territory; Israel did, but their claim of sovereignty has not been accepted as legitimate by the international community.


[edit one month later]

In case anyone had doubts, recent developments tend to show that this is indeed a colonial war. From this Guardian article:

Putin’s fuzzy war aims evolved last week after his unsuccessful attempt to seize Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. There is now little talk of his original objective: to “de-Nazify” and to “de-militarise” Ukraine and its leadership. Instead, Russian generals speak openly about conquest. The invasion has become a grandiose colonial project to reshape Europe’s map and to steal Ukraine’s coast.

8
  • And how do you know what Russia wants? Because according to the Russian officials they don't want to conquer & control Ukraine.
    – ixSci
    Mar 13 at 16:17
  • 2
    @ixSci they plan to replace the elected government with a new one, i.e. practically they plan to establish a protectorate.
    – Erwan
    Mar 13 at 19:00
  • first, the USA with their "friends" replaced a plethora of governments around the world. So looks like this is absolutely normal because you (Moral Compass, Good Guys), collectively, do it all the time. Second, Russia never claimed they are going to replace the government, in fact they just recently said the opposite. You might say they are lying and everything, and you might eventually be proven right. But you have no ground to assert it at the time.
    – ixSci
    Mar 14 at 4:40
  • @ixSci actually imho it's not primarily about good vs. evil, it's very pragmatic: if world order is mostly based on force, as it has been during centuries, then countries conquer others when they are strong, then get conquered when they are weaker, and the cycle goes on forever. This causes not only mass casualties but also a much slower pace of progress for humankind, since resources are spent primarily on the military. The realization that everybody is better off if the countries agree to cooperate peacefully instead of fighting each other is the major difference since WWII.
    – Erwan
    Mar 14 at 10:49
  • I agree with "everybody is better off if the countries agree to cooperate peacefully" but I do not agree that we have had it in any time in the history. The US with their allies use force all the time they don't like something. It might be a military force or a sanction force: it doesn't matter. There is an entity which decides what is good and what is wrong but no one gave it the right to decide. It usurped it. Now, I don't try to say that Russia (or China, or many other countries) is a saint. Far from it.
    – ixSci
    Mar 14 at 10:58
3

One aspect that makes the war in Ukraine special compared to other wars of the recent past: The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.

With the dissolution of the USSR, a part of the Soviet nuclear stockpile ended up in the Ukraine. The Budapest Memorandum essentially traded the Ukrainian nukes for a collective guarantee of security from among others Russia.

This fact makes this war stand out compared to the wars listed by the OP. However, this is only a minute detail, and the Budapest Memorandum has already been breached in the past, most notably with the annexation of the Crimea.

2
  • This is a very interesting point indeed! Mar 21 at 17:49
  • 2
    According to the cited Budapest memorandum, although Ukraine hosted the 3rd largest nuclear stock, it did not ahve operational control - so it was not 100% a nuclear state. Mar 22 at 12:00
1

Partial, not expecting much votes here but i had it as a comment:

TL:DR: Coverage

This is more about how it is presented and reported to us, and how we consume it rather than about the conflict itself. I believe this has had a major impact as to how this is perceived compared to previous modern conflicts.

In addition to the above (comments about extensive coverage and reporting, @Alan Dev), a key difference is where and how the media is sourced - as in any previous conflict, the official sources are usually embedded or accredited camera/reporting crews.

Since then we have the rise of what we call in the industry 'self shooters' (one man or extremely small teams) who can get the footage back swiftly, and citizen journalism, people with no training at all and no accreditation whose footage is uploaded to social media faster than traditional routes, and therefore seen as credible as the legitimate sources, then gets to the news agencies and receives as much time on air as the professional footage.

Coupled with the rise of commercially available real time or near-real time satellite footage that was previously the conserve of the military/state only, you have a very differently presented scenario, from all sides.

The state sanctioned propaganda mouthpiece is no longer the only source for consumption by the global masses, the narrative is written many times over, in many different ways, far beyond the reach of the traditional state department.

What has changed is the media, the technology supporting and giving access to the media, the people who have access and generate and distribute this media and those who consume it.

From maybe around 2010 onwards we saw a change in how conflicts or even natural disasters and accidents are reported and how they reach us and how we read/see/hear -become aware of them.

Key to driving these are:

  • technology ie. affecting everything from civilian access and usage to military access and usage
  • satellite phones ie. much more robust and improved times
  • Internet ie. multiple back ups mean that even if land cables are cut you still have other connection options (mobile, satellite, etc The fact that the Russians did not cut off internet access, more so for their own benefit, makes this quite different)
  • Access to internet ie. via phones, at home
  • applications that use the internet as their platform - social media: twitter, facebook, tiktok, et al
  • state adoption of those platforms ie. departments and ministries on twitter
  • state lack of control and subsequent measures on control ie. banning facebook
  • self shooters - (or small groups of people) able to mobilise and self shoot, edit, write, and send broadcast-standard material faster than traditional means
  • commercial companies offering access to nearly thousands of satellites for coverage of parts of the world in real time or near real time in high resolutions and accuracy (Both Maxar and Planet have over 200 satellites each)
  • drones ie. both military and civilians using consumer level and above ion the battlefield, and some uploading it to social media as soon as they can
  • Individual soldiers on either side accessing social media ie. Russian soldiers located through their posts on tiktok
  • Both professionally produced and non professional (ie. Citizen journalism) material vying for broadcast to the masses
  • Material from the front lines often on social media before it gets to the agencies

And specific to Ukraine:

  • access without visa requirements: quite often a block to reporters getting into cuntries at war, Ukraine's location was very convenient for many in the West to get to quickly and even rotate out and swap with colleagues. You probably have more reporters there per square mile than say Eritrea, Yemen, Syria, etc.

Back in 1991, as a civilian I would be looking at coverage from the big agencies PA, Reuters, etc appearing through the usual media outlets and it would be produced by small teams with accreditation sent to predefined press locations (hotels, etc).

  • Soldiers might have had their own personal cameras for pictures but this was largely still film, and mostly would never be seen by the masses.
  • Media was largely controlled by the state through accepted mouthpieces.
  • Identification of units, weapons, capabilities is largely from printed material gathered through traditional intel-collecting means.

Mid-1990s - former Yugoslavia - much did not change from above. Only many years later did footage come out from individuals and civilians wielding video cameras and their own cameras. But coverage was much like before.

By 2003, in addition to the above i could now see reports from individuals on blogs, and some of these would end up on the main media too. But they would still be filtered through the big agencies.

  • The rise of 'self shooters' (and the modern independent non-affiliated mobile journalist) - you pack your own gear, you sort your own accreditation and sort out transport and if not already on the books of the agencies you could sell after you got back, but you were still working with the agencies.
  • Satellite phones were in but the data throughput was very low, and you had to be good at being efficient in what you put over the internet as it was slow and expensive.
  • Digital cameras were around but they weren't getting on the internet.
  • Identification of units, weapons, capabilities is now largely available online and individuals can contribute to the knowledge base.

2010 onwards - regions like Libya, Syria, and many other places - you have all of the above but, perhaps because of latent prejudices, it all took place far far away, so far that many people in the West did not identify with (broadly speaking).

  • Coverage is largely confined to the same channels as above, due to lack of 'popularity'.
  • You have more coming on to the internet though.
  • Google maps changed things - civilians in Libya for example were able to plot events at locations happening in real time and then asking, online, for help from the authorities.
  • There is footage (GoPro, phone) from locals, but perhaps because of the above, a lot of it left out of mainstream media in the west.
  • What does get to the West is often not in real time.

(Given the above, shouldn't we ask someone in Libya or Syria, or Yemen: What do you think of the war in Ukraine? What do you think if the coverage of it and the Wests reaction to it?)

Today and past few years - add all of the above and the aforementioned list, and you can read and consume the latest information, ahead of the mainstream media, in real time, on social media, from all sides, not just the side your state's side of the situation.

  • An unaffiliated civilians recorded footage of an incident can end up on mainstream news the same day it was filmed without being filtered by the state or an agency and be seen by both sides of the war.
  • A traffic jam indicated on a road in Google maps turns out to be a military convoy staging for an assault. With no access to OPSEC an OPFOR is unable to stop this information ending up on social media in real time.
  • Now, more often than not, the mainstream media coverage is a follow up or a mere confirmation of what you already know from social media. Knowledge is shared without (and with) bias online, regardless of sides. The mainstream crews are left to follow ups and after-action interviews and reactions.
  • You can see an attack - launch, play out and its aftermath on the same day it happened without filter and without narrative from the state.
  • The rise of OSINT - even the state and the think tanks use OSINT to such a large degree now to generate their daily map briefings.
  • many commercial satellite owners offer their services in real time to everyone, for the right price.
  • Helmet, weapon, gun, vehicle, etc footage is widely produced and distributed on the internet, often very soon or immediately after it happened.
  • Live webcams streamed over the internet, showing explosions and signs of battle, hearing air raid sirens, all live, as you watch..

Instead of the big agencies collecting and disseminating the information to then broadcast to the masses, it is now largely up to the masses to digest and (hopefully) disseminate themselves, with varying results.

(And those that do digest and are able to disseminate from the cornucopia of information, are also then able to call out the mainstream media itself for biased reporting)

(There is lots I have missed out here, for sure, but I hoped to touch on something important here that made this conflict, at least the coverage of it, quite importantly different from those that went before)

https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2017-09/Karhunen%2C%20Accessibility%20and%20Mobile%20Journalism.pdf

Mobile technology not only changes how consumers behave. It is also transforming the methods of journalistic work.

Some specialists have said that mobile technology has sparked a whole 'new era in newsgathering' with smartphones, journalists can record and edit video and audio, take stills and deliver stories in the field using wireless mobile network.

Technological development has heralded a new form of journalism: mobile journalism.

There are plenty of definitions of mobile journalists. It is widely acknowledged that mobile journalists are journalists who work alone in the field using mobile phones for newsgathering.

https://sc.edu/study/colleges_schools/cic/journalism_and_mass_communications/news/2020/citizen_journalists_cell_phones_shape_coverage.php#.YjuUiLjP0-U

Technology and the widespread access to social media also shifted this conversation. Journalists told me over and over how moments after a shooting happens, it has the power to go “viral nationwide.” They talked about how technology has changed things.

This was an unsettling power that journalists balanced. One photojournalist said if an “officer-involved shooting happened, five minutes later it’s on Twitter, it’s online, it’s everywhere. People have it up before we get there.”

Another journalist shared this insight: “I think social media helps to drive an increase in awareness about when these things happen. Like Philando Castile with his girlfriend being on.. — there wouldn’t have been as much outcry, I don’t think without seeing and hearing all of that without social media, technology.”

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/27/western-media-coverage-ukraine-russia-invasion-criticism

Social media users accuse the media of hypocrisy in its coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine compared with other conflicts.

https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/internationaldevelopment/2022/03/16/making-sense-of-western-medias-covera

sociology behind Western media coverage of the victims and refugees of the Russia-Ukraine war, contrasting this with the portrayal of – and reaction to – victims of conflicts in non-Western regions like the Middle East.

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2022/03/04/1084230259/not-every-war-gets-the-same-cover

Societies often care more about conflicts they relate to

"Generally speaking, it seems reasonable for any society to care more about conflicts that are geographically closer, share a social identity (which could include race and religion), share a language or share an imperial or colonial history,"

https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/esoc_wp27_shaver_etal_media_reporting_on_international_affairs.pdf

We find further strong evidence that the frequency of reporting on the international issues we study tracks only modestly with their associated human costs.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-60571737

Ukraine: Watching the war on Russian TV - a whole different story

https://theconversation.com/ukraine-war-rt-coverage-is-biased-and-misleading-but-banning-the-network-may-not-be-a-good-idea-178128

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/21/briefing/ukraine-russia-war-pax-americana.html

Why Ukraine is different

https://news.stanford.edu/2022/03/17/reporting-war-ukraine/

News about the conflict in Ukraine has been different – Stanford scholar and former war journalist discusses why

The amount of live tweeting by professional international reporters, local media and just regular citizen journalists who are posting images, videos and descriptions of military movements and atrocities may also be unprecedented.

Also, U.S. foreign correspondents routinely rely on the local media for leads on where to be and what to report.

Another difference is the spike in general awareness of Russian disinformation and how to report on it responsibly.

Seeing real foreign policy reporters get airtime highlights how little serious international reporting you see daily on domestic U.S. news channels. The world is completely under-covered because the world is serious news and U.S. cable networks especially have become infotainment.

(I now note that this post perhaps duplicates a similar answer posted earlier that I hadn't read before, so hoping that this just adds a bit more)

0

It has probably never been before that the real war is the economic war through sanctions, because the weapons (nuclear weapons) are way too powerful to be usable.

This is only possible in the era of globalization. In the past, countries were much more self-dependent so this would not have worked. All previous economic sanctions were against relatively weak opponent.

0

Additionally to everything else, I would say this war is also quite exceptional in its intensity.

Approximately 200k Russian and Ukrainian troops each taking part in the fights are quite a big number compared to other conflicts in the past. And at least the Russian army should have modern equipment too.

Within one month estimations are that several thousand soldiers have been killed on each side and thousands of civilians too. For a single month of fighting this is also quite intense.

Millions of Ukrainians have been displacement to countries outside of Ukraine (so far 3-4 millions of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine) and within Ukraine itself (so far 6-7 millions). That is also a rather large number.

And the intensity of economic sanctions on Russia is quite high. With the partial uncoupling from the SWIFT banking system, the freezing of overseas assets of the Russian government and selected Russian individuals and a lot of participating countries (for example also Switzerland which usually is neutral) amounts to rather a high intensity economic pressure on a relatively large country Russia (however, Russian resource exports are excluded in the sanctions mostly).

And there is the possibility of an intense food scarcity with Ukraine and Russia being huge exporters of wheat and other agricultural products too.

-1

The big difference is that this time the EU is allied with the United States (meaning that their interests demand a confrontation with Russia) and they have the largest media at the moment. A simple fact should not be forgotten, which makes the Ukrainian war more special.

2
  • 3
    I don't think that EU is more allied with the US - quite the opposite. Given that traditionally EU follows the US policy, this time it is largely limited to paying lip service, while trying to steer an independent course. Mar 2 at 9:22
  • 1
    Ukraine is not part of the EU. Yes, proximity matters, but that's not the same.
    – HK-51
    Mar 2 at 12:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .