The charge of a very light brigade. Ukraine, the Crimea and the lessons of our follies

2 maart 2014

The European Union is surrounded by unrest and conflict around all its borders. Ukraine is important, but it is still no more than a flash point in chain of smoldering fires around us. This should be on the agenda of next European elections in May. In order to make my point, I make an analogy with what happened a 160 years ago, during the Crimean war. It is a story about folly and the fog of war. The parallel with what is happening today is too big to ignore.

Theirs but to do and die

We spent last summer in the Lake District, England. Browsing through cardboard boxes on the third floor of a second hand bookstore, I found a biography by Saul David of lord Cardigan. I hesitated, but then bought it. Reading it was a lesson in folly.
Lord Cardigan was the one who send in the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ on the Crimea, sending most of his 676 men and their horses to their death in 1854. His gallant charge was romanticized by the press and immortalized by a great poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Lord Cardigan got his orders and said: ‘Charge!’ and in response his men charged, because, as Tennyson wrote: ‘theirs is not to reason why / theirs but to do and die’. And die, they did.
Until that moment the man who led the charge was considered a disgrace, with a record of foolishness, adultery, fighting and general arrogance. After that moment he found himself a hero in the public eye. He loved it. The public loved him.

The Homicidal Earl

History was kinder to him than ‘the Homicidal Earl’ deserved. Right after this return to England rumors started to circulate that he had fled from the scene of the charge; saved by his magnificent horse, not by his courage. Fellow officers testified that right before the charge he had missed a wonderful opportunity for an effective charge, but that he had hesitated. Stories started to circulate that the charge was so disastrous because of faulty communication, which in turn was caused by a huge grudge by Cardigan and his senior officer. Lord Cardigan denied it all.

It was probably true. As it is true that in this single charge all the folly seems together of a war fought in a country no one at home cared about, fought in a way so clumsy that it has become an example of how not to attack.
160 years later, history is back in the Crimea, back in the Ukraine. What lessons are there to learn from what happened before? I will make the analogy – as far as it goes – and then draw some conclusion for today, most of all aimed at the response of the European union and also in the light of the upcoming elections for the European Parliament.

Three advantages

The analysis of the folly of the charge the light brigade is that it was an assault by very visible soldiers on a position that was already captured by the Russians. Earlier the Russians had managed to drive back the British, forcing them to leave their guns behind. The charge was aimed at recovering these guns, at least that was what the general in charge wanted. Because of pride (his predecessor, general Wellington, had never left a gun) and faulty communication, he did not see clearly enough that it would expose the charge on an attack from three sides. What if we in the West (NATO, EU) would attack now? This is the threefold advantage Russia would enjoy now:

The geographic advantage:
There is no denying that the Russian Federation is in geographical terms closer to Ukraine than the West. The same holds true for the geographical distance in the mind: when people in the west are asked to estimate the distance from their country to Ukraine, they think the distance much further than it actually is. There is also another Russian advantage: they already hold the gun of oil to the head of the west.

The economic advantage:
You would not think that, with a GDP for the whole of the EU of around 13.000 trillion euro and a bit more than 2.000 trillion for the Russian Federation, the Russians would hold the economic advantage, but that seems to be the case. There are some arguments for this. When asked to invest 1 trillion in the Ukraine economy, the EU basically said ‘we would love to, but we do not have the money, so it needs to come from the member states’. Meaning, certainly when there is an election coming up and Greece still very much on everyone’s mind, it will not happen. The second reason has to do with the corruption argument. Why throw good money after bad money? While there is no denying the fact of ingrained corruption, the countries in the European Union also have to take into account that many of them are shamelessly profiting from the fact that Eastern oligarchs and dictators are stalling their money in the west. It is rumoured that the British oppose an American boycott action in order not to ruin some good business opportunities – not to mention that oil thing. The west is paying something like 450 million a day for Russian oil. The Russians have taken our measure: we have the economic power, but we do not have the guts to use it.

The propaganda advantage:
Russia is destabilizing nations across its border for quite a while now. The Baltic States, with sizable Russian minorities, provide more than enough example of this, or otherwise you should look at the South Caucasus. For states like Georgia and Armenia it is a daily reality. Using front parties, social media and above all: money, they see to it that it is very, very hard to run a stable democracy or economy. In the west we act as if we are blissfully unaware of this.

It will end in idiocy

So then, are the Russians invincible? Oh, come on. In the end it is a bit like the Crimean war all over again. The number of death in the Light Brigade could have been worse.  The Russians had failed to sharpen their swords: “One private in the 14th Dragoon guards had 15 head cuts, yet none was more than skin deep.” That sounds pretty Russian to me. It is just that the British had not prepared well either: “The British on the other hand, complained that their sword points could not pierce the thick Russian overcoats; they were more effective in cutting than stabbing.”

Bad preparation, bad timing and bad communicating are constants in any battle. Lord Cardigan could have prevented his futile charge from happening if he had taken an earlier opportunity to harass the Russians. Instead he let the opportunity go by.
And he did not have to charge straight into Russian lines. That was based on a badly worded message by the general to Cardigan, brought by a colonel Nolan who was despised by Cardigan. And when Nolan saw that the brigade was heading in the wrong direction and rushed his horse to the front of the line in order to point the right direction, Cardigan saw this as an attempt to usurp his authority and held on to the line he was taking.

Another charge of a light brigade?

I think the alarm that should have gone off was last November, when the Armenian government was forced to abandon their treaty for the EU and exchange it for membership of the Eurasian Economic Community. It was blackmail pure and simple and the European Community should have acted with sharp words and deep pockets – and with a better analysis of what this ‘community’ ideologically stands for; a dreadful combination of communism and extreme right wing nationalism. There was none of that, so of course Russia moved on to the Ukraine with the same tactic. It is only due to the Ukrainian people that this did not go as smooth as they expected. Again we lost an opportunity to intervene then, and hid it behind a cloak of real-political arguments, while all it probably would have taken was a show of financial force.

So what now? The funny thing is that the one thing that might work is another charge of a light brigade. What if a number of representatives of armies from different countries would gather in Kiev and perhaps other places, ensuring that no Russian army assault can take place without involving them as well? Why not call Russia’s bluff? I am afraid I do know why: NATO cannot send a brigade like that; it would be too much a declaration of war. The EU does not have the will or the soldiers. The UN-council would probably face a veto. No defence by a light brigade then.

What is the real alternative?

Maybe it will come to financial strictures or limitations to keeping access and assets in the European Union. It would cost us, but in the end the Russians will fall out of love with the fool who damages their business. As Timothy Snyder writes in The New Republic: “The Russian social order depends upon the Europe that Russian propaganda mocks.” However, as yet I doubt we are strong enough for that. We still lack the fear and the passion.

I truly worry about that. With all our wise or egotistic arguments, do we look enough at what the Ukraine people have shown us? For the past years I have been giving training to young talents. Some of them came from Ukraine. Normal people, no extremists. At the height of the Maidan struggle, when snipers were doing their worst, my worry grew by the hour. In the end, two young members of the democratic alliance were shot. I do not have all the membership lists, but I think a recognize one of them from a meeting. He has a face now.
As have the others. Today they are posting a text like this:

“Dear international community, we want to remind that Ukraine refused from nuclear weapon in exchange for international guarantees of its security and territorial unity. We demand those who are our guarantors to respond to Russia's military intervention to Ukraine. Specifically, we, the people of Ukraine, demand USA and Great Britain to act according to the Budapest memorandum.”

Let us start by doing something that is not convenient

Who wants treaties when they are so inconvenient? We will abandon them, and my rational mind says we are right to do so. Hopefully there will be a partition of the country without bigger guns than the one on Maidan Square being fired, but as a correspondent who had lived a long time in Russia said; with the Russians the pessimistic scenario is usually the more realistic one.
In any case there will be a price to pay. Once more in Europe we have a situation we cannot deal with. Like in the Balkan, we dither among each other, but we should know that this time there is to be no American intervention to solve the problem for us.

Should we not think about what it means to defend Europe? Do we still need to go back to the last World War II to remember why European Unity is more than an economic necessity? Or should we go back to 1914, and realize that millions were killed by generals who were raised on the romantic image of the charge of the light brigade, not knowing the folly for what it was? This is 2014. Soft power, values and visas can win the day. But behind it should build towards a better understanding of our common European interest, and a true defense capacity against the likes of Putin.

Let us start by putting this theme on the agenda of the European elections. The Ukraine is a flash point in a ring of smoldering fires around us, from North African coastlines to the North Pole. I know that this is not a wise thing to say from a campaign point of view. Voters might get scared. Populists might benefit. But will they not anyhow? I think most voters are not stupid and want better answers. This is as good a moment as any to start with them.


Peter Noordhoek

Quotes and information on the Crimean war are from: Saul David (1997), The Homicidal Earl. The life of Lord Cardigan.

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