Conflicts that Resemble the Ukraine War

Predictably, the Ukraine War is generating many ridiculous historical comparisons.

In particular, many people are comparing the Ukraine conflict to World War II. I think the World War II comparison is inaccurate and dangerous. However, World War II stirs up emotions, so both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his enemies raise it.

Conversely, I think there are a few historical conflicts that resemble the Ukraine War. Unfortunately, most people are unfamiliar with these conflicts, so we ignore their important lessons in favor of the one war most people are familiar with.

Conflicts that Resemble the Ukraine War include:

The Boer War

The Second South African War, or Second Boer War; popularly known as the Boer War, is a turning point in British History most Americans are unfamiliar with.

In the late 19th century, South Africa was a backwater of the British Empire most people forgot about after they built the Suez Canal. To elaborate, before the Suez Canal, British ships had to sail Africa and stop in Capetown to reach India.

That changed when they discovered gold in the South Africa Republic (SAR) in 1886. This led to a gold rush and conflict because Dutch-Speaking Boers or Afrikaners ruled the SAR. The gold rush brought in a large population of English-speaking settlers. Afrikaners felt threatened because they, rightly assumed, the gold seekers wanted to join British Empire.

Meanwhile, City of London financiers and mine owners began pressuring Her Majesty’s Government to add the SAR to the British Empire. The Boers wanted to stay independent, and they were heavily armed.

To protect their independence, the SAR and another Afrikaner Republic, the Orange Free State, invaded the Cape Colony and Natal, two British colonies, in 1899. The Boers were initially successful and humiliated the British Empire with a series of defeats during Black Week in December 1899.

The Boers humiliated the world’s greatest military power and put the British in a moral dilemma. The Boers were white Christians of European descent. Hence, Victorian morality held it was wrong for the British to exploit them. However, the value of South Africa’s rich gold and diamond deposits easily trumped British morals.

On the other hand, the British refused to deploy their enormous Indian Army to South Africa. Deploying non-white and non-Christians against Christians could look bad. Moreover, Boer resistance could give Indians the idea they could defeat the British.

Similarly to the Ukrainians, the Boers fought well and humiliated a larger and better armed force. To crush the Boers, the British eventually deployed over 400,000 troops to South Africa.

Another similarity is that the Boer War was a historical turning point. It was the first conflict of the 20th century. In particular, the Boer War offered several firsts.

For example, the Boer War marked the first time soldiers used an automobile in combat. It was also the first time the British raised large numbers of troops from the “white” Dominions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Plus, the British found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. European and American opinion was on the Boers’ side. Especially after the conflict became a guerrilla war.

By June 1900, the British had overrun both the South African Republican and the Orange Free State. However, the Boers kept fighting as guerrillas. To crush the Boers, a new British commander, the ruthless Lord Kitchener, began herding Boer civilians, including women and children, into concentration camps.

Thus, the Boer War became a humanitarian disaster as the Ukraine conflict. Britain’s National Army Museum estimates that around 28,000 Boers, mostly women and children, died of sickness in the camps. Another 14,000 pro-Boer blacks died in separate blacks only camps. Additionally, Kitchener ordered his troops to destroy Boer property, including farms, to deprive guerrillas of food and support.

The Boer War marked a turning point in history. For instance, press coverage of the horrors of the Boer War began turning European public opinion against colonialism.

The Boer War had a profound effect on one European Afrikaner sympathizer, German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser wanted to help the Boers, but could not send help to South Africa because of British Naval power.

In response, the Kaiser began a naval buildup that led to the so-called Battleship Race of the early 20th century. Some historians think the Battleship Race and the German naval buildup increased the tensions that ultimately sparked World War I.  

The Boer War marked the beginning of a new age of international relations. In particular, the Boer War showed the century of British dominance that began with the Napoleonic Wars was ending. Additionally, the Boer War marked the beginning of the end of colonialism by showing that European armies were not invincible.

The Boer War marked the beginning of the end of the 19th century world order. Similarly, the Ukraine War could mark the beginning of the end of the 20th century world order.

The Crimean War

The Crimean War (1854-56) has some interesting similarities to the Ukraine War.

For example, they fought the land battles in the Crimea, considered part of Ukraine. Hence the term Crimean War. Moreover, the Crimean War began with Russian expansionism.

In particular, Czar Nicholas I’s attempts to establish Russian sovereignty over the decaying Ottoman Empire. The immediate cause of the war was Russian’s invasion of Moldavia and Wallachia (now Romania). Additionally, Nicholas, like Putin, intervened in Syria and Lebanon in an effort to dominate the Middle East.

Nicholas I’s expansionism scared the British and French governments. In particular, they feared the Russians were planning to conquer Constantinople and the Dardanelles and threaten Egypt.

Although they fought the Crimean War over the Middle East, the principal theater of operations was in the Crimea. British, French, Turkish, and Italian forces invaded the Crimea to seize the principal Russian naval base at Sevastopol. The invaders became bogged down in trench warfare that dragged on until 1855.

The Russians ultimately abandoned their efforts to conquer the Middle East after British warships threatened the Russian capitol at St. Petersburg and Austria threatened to join the Anti-Russian alliance.

The Crimean War saw many firsts. It was the first war photographed and one of the first conflicts in which journalists offered real time coverage of the fighting.

It was the first time an army built railroads to supply troops in the field. Finally, nursing and modern military medicine began in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale’s efforts to help sick and wounded British soldiers.

The Crimean War resembles the Ukraine because it began with Russian aggression and found an isolated Russian facing a large alliance of other countries. Additionally, the Crimean War saw catastrophic failures of both Russian and allied armies. In a similarity to the Ukraine debacle, attacking armies became bogged down instead of winning a quick victory.

The American Civil War

There are some odd similarities between the Ukraine War and the American Civil. For example, Putin sees himself as a Russian Lincoln trying to bring rebellious regions back into the country.

Similarly to many Northerners in 1861, Putin and his advisors thought they could win a quick victory over separatists. Instead, the American Civil War dragged on for four years, as Union Armies had to fight their way into Confederate cities. The quick war turned into a long and brutal conflict.

Another similarity to the American Civil War is the delusion that the British would intervene to help the South motivated Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Confederates fought alone because the Royal Navy and the British Army never came to the Confederates’ aid. There was no help because Davis totally misread British public opinion, which was steadfastly opposed to slavery.

Davis’s faith in British intervention hurt the Confederate war effort because the president refused to sell the South’s cotton crop to buy arms in 1861. Hence, Confederate armies lacked the weapons they needed to fight the war. In contrast, the North had the industry to build the weapons it needed.

Similarly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to believe the United States, the European Union, and NATO will come to his aid. However, Russia’s nuclear arsenal (the world’s largest) makes such intervention impossible. Like Davis, Zelenskyy seems dedicated to fighting to the bitter end, while waiting for aid that will never come.

The result of the American Civil War was the destruction of the South. However, that destruction took several years.

These examples show the Ukraine War marks the beginning of a new age and the end of the old order. In addition, history shows Russia will defeat Ukraine and create a humanitarian catastrophe. Unfortunately, history also shows there is no simple solution to the Ukraine War.