War in Ukraine: “The blindness of the specialists was astounding”

TIt was reported a year ago that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. And yet, few people have taken seriously the imminence of a conflict at the gates of Western Europe. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, historian, who publishes an interview book (The Shadow Part, Les Belles Lettres editions), co-written with Hervé Mazurel, is surprised by this collective blindness, which continues even today. “French society is convinced that this conflict, which is taking place at a distance, will not affect it directly and will never be able to affect it”, he told the Point.

Point : Few people saw the war coming in Ukraine. And you ?

Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau: From the moment the Russian battle corps massed on Ukraine’s borders at the end of 2021, I was convinced that Russia would attack. And I was amazed to find that, in the academic world, for example, I was rather the only one of this opinion. And even more amazed to see that all of Europe’s experts on Russia, diplomats, intelligence specialists, and of course historians and political scientists, thought that Russia would not attack.

READ ALSOWar in Ukraine: with those who remain in the hell of BakhmoutHow to explain it? Because, finally, in history, we rarely see that a great military power has brought together a battle corps on the borders of an opposing state without the will to use it… The most disturbing was the argument generally invoked: a Russian attack would be an irrational decision and therefore Putin would not make such a decision. This is an absurd argument.

Have we demonstrated collective blindness?

This seems to me hard to dispute, and it is, alas, the Ukrainians who have paid the price for this general blindness. In fact, the argument of “rationality” resonates strongly for a historian of the Great War: in the summer of 1914 too, the entry into war of the great European powers against each other was perfectly “irrational”, like the following showed it. Certain pacifists, a few years before the outbreak of the conflict, had moreover underlined this irrationality, and with excellent arguments. However, the politico-military logic was the strongest. The rationality of times of war is unrelated to that of times of peace: yet everything seems to indicate that Vladimir Putin entered very early into a rationality of times of war…

How do we experience the return of physical war to our doors, we who had evacuated it?

It must be admitted: this “real war” does not seem to me to really “bite” French society, which seems convinced that this conflict, which is taking place at a distance, will not affect it directly and will never be able to reach. It is our way, I believe, of continuing to evacuate war, of refusing its obviousness, and no doubt of continuing to protect ourselves from it. On the other hand, in Eastern Europe, it is quite different…

In history, is war a normal state?

I answer you a little bias, if you allow it. War, as we have known since Clausewitz, is a political phenomenon, even if it is not only that, of course. And so, unless we imagine societies rid of politics – an absurd hypothesis – I don’t quite see how we could hope for a complete eradication of warlike activity. What is very surprising, suddenly, is to see that in Western Europe we sincerely thought we had realized an old dream, already very present in the 19th century.e century: that of a definitive eradication of war. European construction played a major role in consolidating such an illusion, as did the disappearance of military obligation for all male citizens at the end of the 1990s. For my part, I have always thought that war remained on our horizon of expectation. Here we are.

Did the Ukrainians adapt very quickly?

No imposture: I have not been to Ukraine and I know from experience that there is a considerable gap between rigorously conducted field research and the information that can be gleaned from the media. That being said, everything seems to indicate that Ukrainian society has been, since February 24, a society that has massively accepted the war that Russia “offered” to it. And this concerns both soldiers and civilians. In this sense, it does not seem very different to me, to see the strength with which its defensive patriotism manifests itself, from the societies of Western Europe at the beginning of the Great War…

How do we manufacture consent to violence in soldiers?

Why say that we “make” it? The combatants, in time of war, are perfectly capable of “manufacturing” this consent themselves, that is to say, of giving themselves reasons to fight, to hold on, to bear suffering. Do not underestimate the autonomy of social actors.

It would seem that that of the Russian soldiers is withering. Is it a classic among invaders?

In 1914-1918, the Germans were also, objectively, the invaders. But, subjectively, they had the feeling of defending their country at a distance from its borders. Is it the same with the Russian soldiers? Again, I will tell you that I don’t know. Moreover, we remain relatively uninformed of what exactly is happening on the front lines. It will be necessary to wait, and perhaps a long time, before having some certainties…

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