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Picture: REUTERS/NATIONAL POLICE OF UKRAINE
Picture: REUTERS/NATIONAL POLICE OF UKRAINE

I’ve just left Ukraine. Russian forces are closing on Kyiv and Odesa. The roads are solid with refugees in cars wedged full of children, pets, mattresses, books, TV sets, antique samovars and grandparents.

The news has seemed the same day after day, but suddenly there has been a brief burst of diplomatic conversation between the Ukrainians and their abuser, after which Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said something unusual. He said Russian demands had seemed more reasonable this time.

Admittedly, this is a bit like saying Jeffrey Dahmer seemed more reasonable as he nibbled on your ear during your last date with him, but it gives a clue as to the way forward. It is an indication that history is seldom new; instead it is a series of old, repeatedly performed plays that we watch or participate in again and again.

The parallels between this conflict and the Winter War between Russia and Finland in 1939 now seem to give us a clear indication of the probable way forward from here. Maybe. Despite having a supercool name, the Winter War was, until-now, a little-known war started for no reason by a Russian dictator called Joseph Stalin.

Finland had been part of Russia until only a few centuries ago. It was the Grand Duchy of Finland, part of Russia but with considerable independence. After the collapse of the Russian empire during the Bolshevik revolution self-determination was seen as reasonable by the Russian government, and Finland became independent.

But when Stalin attained absolute power, he began to worry that the loss of this territory endangered Russian security. And he began to hunger after a Russia whose borders were more like those of the Tsarist empire. The Russian dictator duly invaded, with the intention of installing a puppet government that would function as a vassal/client state.

Russia, and much of the world, assumed that opposition forces would be no match for the Soviet leviathan. The fact that Russian commanders were (rightly) terrified of their commander meant none of them dared even suggest his ideas or plans were flawed in any way. Resistance was astounding, and the Russian advance was far slower than anyone had anticipated. Western assistance was (very) limited, but volunteers arrived in significant number.

(An irrelevant detail about the Winter War — one of the volunteers was the English actor Christopher Lee, who played Saruman in Lord of the Rings.)

After changing tactics and sending a great number of reinforcements the Russians gained the initiative, but progress remained slow. The war had become a political liability for Stalin, who feared appearing weak. At this point a negotiated settlement was reached. Finland gave up some territory along its Russian border but remained an independent and sovereign power.

The similarities between the two conflicts is great in so many respects — an old Grand Duchy — independence after end of empire — Russian dictator — desire for older, more secure border — dreams of Tsarist empire — plan for puppet government — staunch resistance, and so on

It is therefore tempting to believe the end to the current conflict might be similar, and that the madness will end in a negotiated settlement where Ukraine officially gives up the Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk and control over the Kerch Strait. And, crucially, that after handing over these relatively small territories it would remain a sovereign nation. Officially stating that it will not join Nato is also likely, as already hinted at by Zelensky, and would help.

In case we were in any doubt over the similarity between these two conflicts, let’s look to a quote by the architect of the whole debacle, Vladimir Putin. When recently addressing the Russian Historical Society at his official residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin said Russia had attacked Finland in a justified effort to “correct mistakes when Finland had obtained independence”.

In some parts of the world, history never says goodbye.

• Davenport, former chief creative officer at advertising agency Havas Southern Africa, resigned to cover the crisis in Ukraine.

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