Ukraine 2022 & Bangladesh 1971: History of earlier wars repeating in Ukraine

Russia’s war in Ukraine is, in some ways, like (then West) Pakistan’s war in what was then East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh, in 1971.

By K.S Nair  Published on  17 March 2022 11:32 AM GMT
Ukraine 2022 & Bangladesh 1971: History of earlier wars repeating in Ukraine

Since the current phase of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine began, knowledgeable military historians have been comparing it to earlier wars. The Soviet Union's initially botched but ultimately successful invasion of Finland in 1939 is one comparison that some have made, and is actually an easy, obvious case. Germany's invasion of Greece in 1941 is another.

But with due respect to those mostly European cases, I have another comparison to offer. Russia's war in Ukraine is, in some ways, like (then West) Pakistan's war in what was then East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh, in 1971.

To be clear, this article does not address the rightness or otherwise of the Indian position on the 2022 war (about which I have written separately) at the United Nations and other international forums. It is merely drawing historic parallels.

As in the war between Russia and Ukraine, Pakistan had a strong conviction of their right to rule over what was then East Pakistan;

As in the war between Russia and Ukraine, Pakistan used the killings of a relatively small number of people, ethnically distinct from locals, as the pretext to intervene militarily;

As in the war between Russia and Ukraine, Pakistan assumed that they only had to kill a few die-hard holdouts to bring the rest to heel;

And as in the war between Russia and the Ukraine (and also the United States' wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), there was in 1971 an overwhelming superiority in firepower and armed forces' manpower on one side. And as in 1971, and indeed as with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, so also in 2022, it is not turning out to be that quick or easy for the side with overwhelming firepower to prevail.

In 2022, the history of those earlier wars is repeating itself to an astonishing degree. Never has philosopher George Santayana's aphorism, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" seemed more appropriate. The attacking force was expected to overwhelm the defenders. In Ukraine in 2022 as in Bangladesh in 1971, the outgunned defenders are turning out to be far from easy victims.

Also in 2022, as in 1971, the United Nations is proving utterly unable to influence the aggressor. And in a related, final parallel, uncomfortable for India particularly, in 1971 as in 2002, India was severely isolated at the UN General Assembly. Several resolutions were debated at the UN General Assembly (and some passed, by margins embarrassing to India) which effectively equated India (Bangladesh, which bore most of the suffering, was not yet recognised as a state) with Pakistan in responsibility for the war.

Fortunately for India, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding. Security Council resolutions are binding but the Soviet Union protected India with its veto till almost the end of the war. Poland (possibly acting as a proxy for the Soviet Union, in this action) did introduce a resolution which might have ended the war at a point unfavourable to India, if it had been voted on. Again, fortunately for India, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto put on a display of tantrums at the Security Council meeting, almost certainly to dissociate himself personally from the disaster that was obvious to all but the military government in Rawalpindi, and Poland's resolution was never brought to a vote. A few days after the last such ineffectual UN meeting, India's comprehensive victory in the East, and its enforcement of unconditional surrender by the Pakistani forces and the rump of their supporters, brought any possibility of UN influence on the outcome to a comprehensive end.

At that time, India and the Soviet Union were, it is now clear, on the right side of history, a point that the UN at the time seemed utterly blind to. The Nixon-era United States, influenced at the time by its amoral then-National Security Adviser, later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was as completely in the wrong as it could have been.

Of course, the comparison between Ukraine 2022 and Bangladesh 1971 is not perfect – not least, as so many tin-eared Western mediapersons glibly point out, the 2022 war is between two countries of European descent and ethnicity, to put it politely. But there are parallels – which may nor may not bear on how the war turns out, but should bear on how it is remembered later.

It is not yet possible to predict how this 2022 war will end, in either the short or the long term. Many knowledgeable analysts are watching the action in Ukraine, but it remains hard to assess. Russian information releases have been somewhat opaque, as they often are. Ukraine by contrast has waged a brilliant information war, so much so that laugh-out-loud images of sturdy Ukrainian farmers armed with nothing more lethal than a tractor capturing Russian military hardware have become an internet meme. But paradoxically, that brilliant presentation renders it harder to make an objective assessment.

It is certainly possible that overwhelming firepower will enable the Russians to prevail, at some level, in Ukraine; just as similar imbalance in firepower did for many years enable the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Pakistanis in the first few months of 1971. But what of the medium-term, and longer? Will Ukraine turn into an Afghanistan-like occupation where, as Ukrainians have said ominously, every man and every grandmother will seek to kill Russian soldiers? The West seems to want to see Ukraine accomplish a David against Goliath fairy-tale success, but that seems unlikely.

In many ways Bangladesh in 1971 was a fairy-tale success, in which the side perpetrating atrocities was decisively defeated. It is difficult to see that coming to pass in Ukraine 2022.

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