Historical Rhymes: 1987 Vs. 2022

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

18 Replies to “Historical Rhymes: 1987 Vs. 2022”

  1. I think the biggest difference was that in 1987, the US military was competently led at the executive level, and not stuffed full of “equity goals”. The Soviets wouldn’t have dared back then.

    Look at the people in charge of the country right now and tell me if you were Vladimir Putin you wouldn’t be laughing all the way to the War Plans filing cabinet.

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  2. I think that the big difference between now and 1987 is that NATO is a shadow of its former self military. Most of the original European members have allowed their militaries to atrophy. The new members who lived under the Soviet yoke have fairly decent strengths. US forces in theater nowadays are pretty much a speed bump only with no true heavy forces present or available in the numbers needed. The Russians on the other hand have created a smaller, more professional, and more formidable military, that has a reasonable amount of combat experience within its ranks. If a worst case scenario happens in Ukraine today, and NATO actually gets involved in combat, I suspect that it would be like summer 1950 in Korea.

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  3. Just started reading your blog after listening to you on the Midrats pod. Great reads, rivals Clancy, but in blog short form. Keep up the good work. Also would love more insight on the current situation.

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    1. Thanks so much, Rich. I’m glad you had the chance to catch the pod and are enjoying the blog. I’ll talk more about the current situation later this week but if you want to check out my other blog, Todays-DIRT.com I discuss it there. It’s a geopolitical/defense blog.

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    1. Hmmmmm….interesting and not at all unpopular. I think those were internal Pact matters, more or less. Ukraine will be an invasion of a sovereign nation-state neither aligned with Russia or wanting to be.

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  4. I’m thinking of the 1930s more than this version of 1987. I suppose the question is whether Merkel’s handpicked (rhymes with “rinko”) replacement is working on a secret deal to get back the parts lost to Poland after WWII much like Stalin got a secret deal to get back the parts lost to Poland after WWI (likely with a mirrored mid-war result).

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    1. Ukraine is acting very much like Poland of 1939 and you bring up some good points about Germany. They’re being very shady right now

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    1. I do want to set one up and would like to get it up and running as soon as possible. Maybe by mid week, if circumstances allow. I’ll keep you informed.

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  5. I’m not sure who wrote this but I remember reading a comment along the lines of “NATO was formed to keep both the Russians and the Germans in check”. I didn’t think much about that until I read some of today’s blog comments. Maybe Germany sees an opportunity to effectively divide Europe into two spheres of influence, Russian and the EU (under German control of course). In this Europe, the English and the Americans have no influence and are effectively ex-communicated from the continent. Perhaps Peter Nealen’s Maelstrom Rising fictional universe in real life.

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    1. I think Germany does see an opportunity to jump out in front and help minimize US and NATO influence in Europe. Berlin sure is acting that way lately

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