Few years ago, around the time I visited Poland for the first time, I devoured the insightful book Warsaw 1920 by acclaimed biographer and historian Adam Zamoyski. He is also the author of a masterful book about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. I therefore reached out to him, asking if he saw any parallel between history and the current invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. He generously accepted to share some thoughts with me and I’m extremely grateful for that.
Here is what the acclaimed biographer of Napoleon generously shared with me:
The parallel that struck me, weeks ago, is that with 1811-1812, when Tsar Alexander I set as his condition for maintaining his alliance with Napoleon that the French Emperor issue a formal public declaration that he would never allow the re-creation of a Polish state. This was something that Napoleon would and could not do (any more than NATO could bind itself to refusing Ukraine membership if that country wished to join).
He would not because he had tens of thousands of Polish troops fighting for him in the (erroneous) belief that he would do just that. And he could not commit himself to actually going to war to prevent the Poles from gaining their independence. Napoleon of course made the mistake of trying to force Alexander into renewing their alliance, which resulted in his invasion of Russia. Had he called Alexander’s bluff, the Tsar would have invaded the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and tried to raise Germany against Napoleon, which would certainly have ended in a second Austerlitz.
For Russia, the only secure border is one with Russian soldiers on both sides of it.
Since the very beginning of Muscovite rule in Russia, its tyrannical nature has been dogged by fear of rebellion within, which has been externalized as paranoid fear of aggression from without. This has led to a process of continuous territorial expansion in order to safeguard its frontiers. As I forget who put it, but for Russia, the only secure border is one with Russian soldiers on both sides of it.
The only parallels I can find with 1920 is that Pilsudski and Petliura misjudged their moment (though they had little option), which turned world opinion against them as dramatically as Putin’s move has; and that as Kyiv shows its determination to defend itself to the last man, woman and child, as the city of Lwow (now Lviv) did in 1920, the invading Russian forces began to lose heart, and their will to fight rapidly disintegrated. Will Kyiv be another Stalingrad?
The great difference, of course, is that in 1920 the whole world took it for granted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russia. And that a significant part of the population did not think of themselves as a nation. This has changed radically, thanks to Stalin and Putin.
Adam Zamoyski’s last book Napoleon: A Life was published by Basic Books in 2018.