This is the text of the 2022 annual lecture for the Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament (CCADD) of which I am a Vice-president. It was delivered on Wednesday 6 July 2022 at Westminster Abbey. The lecture was intended to feed into a discussion which, in the event, turned out to be very rich and challenging; it raised further and wider questions which are too long to go into here and now. I understand it was recorded, so a link might follow for the CCADD website.

I have only been to Sweden once. Following a big celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the Diocese of Skara, we returned to the hotel for a dinner with royalty and the great and the good. After dinner I was told (for the first time) that I was to give a speech and would follow the Bishop of Bavaria. Fair enough. The Bishop of Bavaria then disappointed me by concluding his speech in Swedish. All I could think to say at the beginning of mine – having allowed a significant silence – was that the only Swedish I know (excluding IKEA, of course) is: “Mamma mia”, “Gimme gimme gimme”, “Money money money” and “Dancing Queen”. They laughed – helpfully.

You will remember that ‘Mamma Mia’ is followed by the words: “Here we go again”. And this is the line – and the song – that spins around my head when I look at elements of the world we currently inhabit. If I turned it into a question, it would be: “Do we ever learn?”

You will remember George Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This builds from Karl Marx’s assertion that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” I will leave it to the historians to debate whether either is demonstrably true, but I am suspicious of both. History – by definition – cannot repeat itself, but we can learn from it, if we choose to do so. Learning can clearly go in different ways – for example, it isn’t a given that we learn only positively from the mistakes or experiences of the past; we might learn how to do terrible things more efficiently in future – but learning should at the very least imply a serious and considered attempt not to recreate the negative conditions of the past which open the door to ‘bad stuff’ (as Donald Trump might put it).

This is why some observers are now pointing (with hindsight, it should be said) to the complacency of the West since the Second World War and, later, the collapse of the Soviet Union: that “never again” will we tolerate war on Europe’s soil and “never again” can there be genocide on our continent. Well, the Balkans disposed of the latter and Ukraine casts doubts on the former. Only three months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dismissed the informed observations of his fellow MP Tobias Ellwood at the Liaison Committee meeting in Parliament on 17 November 2021: “We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over, and there are other, better things we should be investing in, in FCAS, in the future combat air system, in cyber, this is how warfare in the future is going to be.” Well, that didn’t age well.

A similar problem can be found in the Integrated Review of 2021. Remember its subtitle: “Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, describes the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.” The assumptions on which this review was built became exposed to reality only months after it was published. Barely a reference to our European neighbours in the European Union, but all eyes on China and the Pacific. And now, in 2022, we find ourselves in a changed world once again, probably with a need for a revised integrated review which checks some of the assumptions in the original. And we are nowhere near 2025.

(While writing this an argument is raging about cuts from 80,000 to 72,000 in army numbers at the same time as NATO is boosting the numbers of troops being mobilised on the eastern borders and we are being reminded of the threat from an aggressive Russia. The Cold War bipolar world gave way to a supposedly unipolar order … which is now giving way to a tripolar or even multipolar world, if we consider Russia, China, India, the European Union, USA to be increasingly singular agents. This must have an impact on any decisions made in and by the UK, dependent on a realistic appreciation of capacity.)

Is it possible, then, to learn from history when it comes to geopolitics and military defence? I do wonder when we see the Russian military using in Ukraine the same tactics (with the same rationale) as they did in World War Two and, in my personal experience, in their aborted Afghan campaign in the 1980s. This was a campaign running while I was a Russian linguist at GCHQ. What is even more curious for me personally is that the rhetoric the West aimed at the Soviet Union in the 1980s (“you can’t win a war in Afghanistan, and you’ll all go home in coffins”) was exactly the same rhetoric used by the Russians against the West when we moved into Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The differing rationales behind the two invasions/occupations do not dispel the pragmatic problems of conducting such operations in such a place – something history tells us are fairly insurmountable.

But, the abrupt departure of the Western Allies from Afghanistan last year, the questionable ways in which this operation was conducted, and the way in which some of our moral obligations towards those left behind were neglected … all raise questions about the politics of forward planning in the light of past experience and the context of current exigencies. Could this withdrawal have been conducted differently? It is not for me, an observer, to say; but, many commentators who understand politics, diplomacy, military and humanitarian factors better than I do clearly think so.

What ,then, might be the preconditions for wise learning from history? I am no expert and am not a historian, but my possibly shallow thinking leads me to these for starters:

First, politicians need around them historians who can identify and articulate past phenomena that might educate us when making short-term decisions that will, inevitably, have long-term consequences. This is partly the classic ‘how do we get out of what we are about to get into?’ question. A good and fairly recent example of this is how German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her cabinet read Christopher Clark’s remarkable and readable 2013 book Sleepwalkers – on the origins of the First World War – and then set aside a day to engage on it with the author-historian. Not everybody likes Clark’s book, but the Germans are serious and intelligent enough to deal with argument and ideas and the importance of learning. Of course, historians will offer differing perspectives: that’s the point.

Secondly, we have to remember the nature of contingency. For every decision made, there is a context … which includes a complex set of human beings with limited vision and a propensity to seek immediate solutions to today’s threat or problem without preparing for the possible various consequences that might arise from them. At this point I will introduce a question that bothers me more generally and which we might want to discuss later: centralised authoritarian regimes like Russia and China are far better equipped to think strategically in the longer term than are western democracies where the political eye is always on the ball of the electoral cycle – therefore, the inability to guarantee that any longer-term strategy can be seen through to a conclusion … and hence the short-term tactical (rather than strategic) thinking that might win votes.

(I might add here, though we will come back to it later, that Russia is a single entity with a single government dominated by a single man, but he is dealing with an opposing coalition of interests, the cracks between whom can easily be opened and exploited, especially over the longer term when popular patience or tolerance wear thin. We have seen this with Putin’s twenty or thirty-year strategy to ‘reclaim and reunite’ Russia, centralising power, changing laws in order to reinforce his power, re-building and modernising his armed forces and their military hardware, interfering in Western democracies and their elections (using cyber and human agencies), assassinating on Western soil and getting minimal response, testing the West (Donbas, Lukhansk, Crimea) and getting little effective opposition. He is probably surprised by the unity and re-engagement of the west following the Ukraine invasion in February 2022, but he also knows that Western memories and passions are eminently exploitable.)

Thirdly, all decisions are made uniquely, despite past experience. The world keeps changing and so do the factors that shape how we see and think about it. This is why history cannot repeat itself any more than the water in a river can re-visit where it has just swept on from. Therefore, it is the principles that can be derived from history that have to be appropriated and considered when decisions of strategy are being made. Sorry if that sounds like a statement of the blindingly obvious.

We might, then, look at the current war in Ukraine to help us think this through. I want to preface this with two comments: first, that the Daily Telegraph’s report on 23/24 June (and lifted by the Times and Daily Mail), allegedly based on a background paper for a General Synod debate on 8 July, was erroneous and misleading (deliberately, I think … and described to me by a conservative acquaintance as “at best disingenuous, at worst deliberately mendacious” – I prefer “illiterate”); secondly, the debate at the General Synod is intended to do what it says on the tin: open thoughtful debate about how we think about Ukraine and how we as a church should respond to the various elements of the conflict – defending Ukraine, holding Putin’s government to account for its evils, and responding to humanitarian need. Issuing platitudinous slogans of support and condemnation respectively might make us feel better, but it won’t necessarily achieve very much effectively in either defending Ukraine or holding Russia to account for its intentions and crimes.

Let me absolutely clear: I want Ukraine to win its war, recover its territory and restore its independence and democratic institutions. I would like to see Putin in a War Crimes Tribunal and held accountable for the death and destruction he has ordered in a sovereign and independent neighbouring country. I would like to see this conflict end as soon as possible and with the least possible further bloodshed of military and civilian people. I will wave a flag, if that helps. But, none of what I have just said absolves any of us from doing the hard work of thinking through potential outcomes that might not accord with my desire, all of which will bring with them wider consequences for both short- and longer term political and economic settlements. So, just to avoid any misunderstanding – deliberate or otherwise – let me repeat: debating options is not the same thing as siding with one or betraying another. I hope that is clear as well as obvious.

What also needs to be clear is that questioning previous actions by the West does not equate to a justification of Putin’s aggression. Even where assumptions of American exceptionalism clash with notions of Russian exceptionalism, playing games of moral equivalence is dangerous territory. We must resist this increasingly polarised and binary thinking that sees every statement as a taking of sides rather than an attempt to face reality and navigate complexity in which moral or political intent is often compromised.

The challenges are many. For example, what happens if, in the end, Russia occupies half of Ukraine and fights to a stalemate? What then will be the grounds for negotiating a peace? Because unless one side utterly defeats the other, there will have to be some diplomatically negotiated settlement. That isn’t an opinion – it is a statement of the obvious. Future relationships still have to be developed, whatever the outcome of the bloody conflict. But, let’s think further: if Ukraine defeats Russia, what happens next … and in the following thirty years? The end of the war, however it happens, will not resolve for ever the problem of history, identity and territory. So, how will Ukraine and the West deal with a defeated Russia? This is where the options become complex (and distasteful), but if a future is to be imagined, it has to involve the building of a defeated country along lines which don’t embed deep nationalistic grievances which then nurture the claims and violences of the following century. Remember Versailles and Yalta?

Let’s remind ourselves of the key background issues in the current conflict. We might begin this with a question that bugs many such debates and conflicts: when did history begin? Vladimir Putin has been angling for years not for the restoration of the USSR, but for the renewal of the Holy Rus and the concept of Russkiy Mir. Every time he leaves the Kremlin he passes a statue of Vladimir the Great, the man who united Kiev, Moscow and Minsk – Ukraine, Russia and Belorussia – over a thousand years ago.

Now, historical ‘memory’ can be romanticised and shaped teleologically to justify current ideological preferences, but there is always a starting point from which any people charts the ‘living’ story of their people or nation or empire. In the case of Ukraine, is it the Holy Rus which the Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists date as the founding date? That is Putin’s (rather contorted) understanding of what he is trying to restore (in terms of ‘Russkiy Mir’), and he has corralled the Moscow Patriarchate into sacrificing both people and theology on this particular altar.

But, now read the most accessible history of Ukraine, Anna Reid’s excellent Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. She illustrates clearly the challenge any modern Ukraine faces, viz. that it was not seen by its neighbours as a separate country until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990-91. It was not a sovereign country until then and its democratic institutions and culture have been developed remarkably in only the thirty or so years since then. Reid puts the question bluntly: are Ukrainians  Central Europeans or a species of Russian? To Russians Ukraine was always part of Russia; but, to Poles it was part of Poland. Look at the shift of borders following two world wars in the twentieth century (which was not the beginning) and you will see the problem of working out which narrative (and from which people’s perspective) is to be the defining one.

Ukraine, of course, is not unique in this. Look at Israel-Palestine. Look at the former Soviet Union and the territories – if not nations and ethno-linguistic groups – it held together which, when the glue was dissolved, immediately drew apart and sought their unique identity. Look at the former Yugoslavia and its artificial uniting of ethnic nations which fell into violence once the authoritarian grip was loosened.

My point is simply (and painfully obviously, I fear) that solving one crisis or problem does not resolve any conflict for ever. I grew up in the post-war world reading maps that looked settled for the future. Yet, they have kept changing ever since the previous settlements were established ‘for ever’. So, I return to the challenging and unwelcome question: however and whenever this current conflict ends, there will have to be a way of securing peace and co-existence that takes seriously the costs and consequences of whatever settlement is arrived at. And, at this point in time, no one has any idea what that situation will look like or how any future settlement might be shaped. En route, the parties involved have to navigate the potential for tactical (if not strategic) miscalculation and escalation.

What we can say, however, is that passionate demands for Ukrainian total victory and total defeat for Putin and Russia will by definition create new problems and challenges. The end of one phase will bear the seeds of future conflicts, claims and demands. And these have to be prepared for now in order that the real costs of potential settlements, short-term solutions and longer-term determinations can be properly, transparently and intelligently assessed and engaged.

It worries me that the rhetoric of Western leaders seems to see a single desirable outcome (which I would also like to see) and eschew any discussion of actual and potential scenarios. For example, Boris Johnson said last week that he would resign if the UK could no longer supply Ukraine with what it needs in terms of financial or military support. If that scenario emerges – and remember that the MOD mentioned that the UK does not have sufficient ammunition to support a long-term war – what will the UK then do? Pool all resources with NATO? Or with the EU (which would be anathema for this government, regardless of wider realities)? Simply back off and leave Ukraine to its own fight? These questions have to be addressed now and not reacted to when events turn to a conclusion for which no one is prepared.

In other words, where is the scenario planning that takes post-conflict options and realities seriously? We can only hope that, despite the rhetoric of politicians, the diplomats and military are doing some serious thinking and planning. This is precisely where we need to learn from history: from Versailles and Yalta, from the Sudetenland and the Balkans, from Ireland and Africa, from the trenches of Flanders’ Fields to the trenches of Donbas and Odessa. What are the non-negotiables from any peace agreement between Ukraine and Russia (if such a thing is either desirable or possible): a Ukraine without Donbas? A Ukraine without Lukhansk? What about Crimea? (Crimea was gifted to Ukraine by Khruschev in 1954, before which it was an integral part of Russia in the Soviet Union.) And if, from a UK or Western perspective, all these territories are non-negotiable and are integral elements of Ukrainian territory for the future, why did we do nothing effective to deter Putin when he moved into these territories before and after 2014 and strategically mobilised ethnic Russians to gradually take control over a number of years before the military invasion in February 2022? We can’t say we didn’t know it was happening – even as we lauded oligarchs and sucked up their dirty money.

I want to open up a further relevant question at this point before concluding, and it derives from this notion of deterrence. We could say much more about the errors of the past and red lines that proved as definitive as the stripes on a covid test, but this might emerge during our discussion.

If you believe in the credibility and importance of nuclear deterrence, the Ukraine situation raises some uncomfortable questions. NATO made it clear – rightly – that nuclear weapons would not be used by their forces in this conflict. Russia kept the option open and continues to threaten their use – not only tactical battlefield engagement, but the obliteration of cities and countries (see his remarks about destroying the islands of the United Kingdom and London in particular – like swatting a fly). Now, regardless of the rhetoric and the possibly overblown and hubristic game-playing here, it might appear to some that the West has been deterred by Russia’s weapons and weaponisers, but Russia has not been at all deterred by the West’s. OK, we don’t know the end of the story and we don’t know what is going on behind the scenes; but, this at least raises interesting questions about the effectiveness of deterrence itself, if it doesn’t de facto deter. I throw that in as a discussion starter rather than as a conclusion.

I have said nothing so far about theology. There will be different theological insights into how we should see and conduct ourselves during conflicts such as this one. Any reading of the Scriptures would make it clear that an essential element of discussing any international dispute – however serious and complex or trivial and incidental – must be a commitment to both telling and hearing the truth. We need say nothing about Putin’s control of media and selective propaganda. But, it is vital that his opponents – especially in the ‘free press’ and media of the West – take care to report and comment carefully and truthfully. If Ukraine and Ukrainians matter, then we all have an obligation to the ninth Commandment: that we do not bear false witness against our neighbour, however passionate we feel about mustering our evidence and arguments for a particular end.

Secondly, peace making is harder than peace keeping. But, Christians cannot avoid the obligation to do the hard thinking and hard working of making peace amid the pragmatic complexities of unresolved conflict. Peace making is costly. It is not for Western Christians to decide what cost Ukrainian people should pay for this current war, but, like it or not, we are bound inextricably to Christians on other sides of the conflict and cannot avoid the strictures and demands imposed by this relationship. The challenge is not primarily about a peaceful conclusion to the war, but about how a peaceful post-conflict settlement, rooted in concepts of justice, accountability and sacrifice, can be achieved.

In his book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Rowan Williams makes the point very clearly that the last word has never been spoken in this world. Once we say there is nothing further to say or hear, that conversation is now closed, that every argument has been either settled or concluded, then we have died and the world has ended. There is always more to be said and heard. This theme runs through Dostoyevsky’s fiction and we need to hold to it, too. Christian theology tells us clearly that death, violence and destruction do not have the last word: God does, and it is ‘resurrection’. However, the hard and costly task for Christians (and, I would suggest, for all people) is to work out what that might look like in terms of people and land and ‘stuff’.

At the outset of the conflict there was a quietly expressed fear that the limited conflict might spread, that there was a risk of strategic miscalculation inherent in its developing course of (Russian) action and (Western) reaction. Well, look at the energy crisis and the growing global food crisis that will add to the migration crisis that is rooted in the climate crisis. Any thinking about the future of Ukraine and Russia cannot avoid setting this in the context of global demands and relationships. Once again, as I argued earlier, it is not simply about kicking Russia out; whatever follows next will lead to a fresh set of questions, crises and conflicts.

I think we need to acknowledge that ultimately everyone will lose in this conflict, whoever eventually is deemed to have won. It seems that neither side is ready now for negotiations (although these will be going on through back-channels). But, the time will come, and all parties will need to be ready for the costs as well as the gains. We need to think about what a good peace will actually look like in reality.

I pray for the end of suffering and the establishment of a just peace. But, I have no illusions about what this might entail or what are the risks of getting it wrong. It will be evident from what I have said that the questions are easier to articulate than the answers. We might begin now, with humility and courage, to discuss this together.

Thank you for your attention.