Mark Twain once remarked that “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes.” I first encountered this quote back when I was in high school around 1994. As a know-it-all teenager at the time, I scoffed at Twain’s words. Yet as I grew older and experienced more of what life had to offer, it became clear Twain knew what he was talking about. Now, at the ripe old age of 44, I find it almost impossible not to compare contemporary events to similar episodes found in years past. When looking at Ukraine, 2022 through the lens of Central Europe, 1987 the historical rhymes jump out at once, yet so do a considerable number of dissimilarities. To be certain, what’s going on in Ukraine and Eastern Europe at this moment is nowhere near a carbon copy of how the lead up to a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict might’ve looked back in 1987. But there are historical rhymes present and they deserve some a quick look before the balloon goes up.
In the current buildup to hostilities, Russia has taken a page from the Soviet Union’s Cold War playbook. Back in the 1980s especially, NATO’s nightmare scenario was that the Soviet Union and her Warsaw Pact allies would use the cover of a major operational level exercise along the lines of Zapad as cover for an invasion of Western Europe. This was a legitimate possibility, with the Soviets using the excuse of military maneuvers in East Germany and Poland to significantly reinforce the formations already present there. Then at the conclusion of an exercise, the Soviet army groups would either remain in place or begin their march west into the Federal Republic of Germany, touching off a Third World War.
Now fast-forward to the present day. Russia has commenced large scale exercises in Belarus and dovetailed them with naval maneuvers in the Black Sea, Mediterranean and other blue areas that are vital to Russian national interests. There are currently 30,000+ Russian troops exercising in Belarus. The naval maneuvers going on in the Black Sea are of particular interest. They will block large parts of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azoz and the Kerch Strait, giving the Black Sea Fleet a number of advantages in the event hostilities commence. So, under the guise of exercises, a sizeable fraction of Russia’s naval power in the Black Sea, as well large numbers of ground and air forces near the Ukrainian border using the last days of peace to make last minute preparations for war.
2022, meet 1987. In no way a repeat of history, but the historical rhyme is apparent.
In recent weeks, the importance of the Baltic Sea region, for both Russia and NATO, in the event of a war in Eastern Europe has become clear. With the likelihood of economic sanctions being levied against Russia should it invade Ukraine, NATO is preparing for the possibility of a natural gas embargo by Russia against many of its member-states. If Russia turns off the pipelines, natural gas shipments to Europe from other sources will dramatically rise. The only way to deliver the gas is onboard LNG tankers and the route will bring them into the Baltic. In order to keep the NATO member-states on the Eastern Flank supplied, the Baltic Sea must be defended.
Back in 1987, NATO ‘s plans for a Baltic defense were centered on defeating a Warsaw Pact attempt to invade Denmark, seize the vital Baltic Approaches and prevent a breakout into the North Sea and beyond by the Soviet Red Banner Baltic Fleet. Now, 35 years later, NATO’s plans will cover keeping the Skagerrak, Kattegat, and Danish straits open and protecting LNG shipments to Eastern Baltic ports that once belonged to Warsaw Pact member-states.
Again, not quite identical situations, but the resemblance is there.
Author’s Note: On Monday, I’ll probably post a book or movie review and then D+21 starts on Wednesday. Hope everyone enjoys the weekend! –Mike