The long-ago invasion that offers clues as to Vladimir Putin’s thinking on Ukraine

Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine with 100,000 troops, and while that scenario evokes memories of the Cold War or other recent episodes of aggression, such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the most instructive historical analogy is really a forgotten occurrence from over 200 years ago.

In January 1823, a more powerful country ruled by an authoritarian leader deployed 100,000 troops to its border with a weaker neighbor governed by a liberal constitutional democracy, much as it does now. However, on that occasion, the countries in question were France and Spain. The French King, Louis XVIII, was concerned that Spain’s liberal constitutional rule would spread to his country, putting his reign in jeopardy.

The anxieties of Louis XVIII give light on the current situation in Eastern Europe. Russia has asked that NATO pledge to never admit Ukraine as a member, but the French invasion of Spain in 1823 reveals that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concerns go much deeper. He, too, may see a democratic neighbor as a threat to his government and its international standing.

As a result of the 1820 revolution, the Spanish monarch, Ferdinand VII, was forced to agree to a constitution and essentially step down as a result of the 1821 revolution.

Louis XVIII was bothered by this in two ways. Both had to do with liberals’ predisposition to sympathies with and assist one another regardless of where they were located. The French king’s most pressing concern was that the liberals’ victory over Ferdinand in Spain would lead to a strengthening of liberalism in the country. Liberal networks continued to weave their way around Europe after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s death, advocating for future uprisings and exchanging information and spiritual support with one another. The 1820 revolution that brought Ferdinand to his knees had already spread to Portugal, Piedmont, Naples, Greece, and even Latin America by that time. Louis’ fellow absolute monarchs throughout Europe were also worried that revolution abroad would spark a revolution at home in their own countries.

Louis’ more distant, but no less significant, concern was that a liberal Spain might be able to break free from French influence. In the House of Bourbon, both Ferdinand and Louis held positions of authority; Ferdinand’s dominance in Spain served as a conduit for French influence in Europe. However, liberals in Spain detested the Bourbons, which meant that returning Ferdinand to full authority was essential to maintaining French influence in the country.

Louis saw this as being critical to the advancement of France’s international influence and strength. If the liberals in Spain were to remain in power, they would be able to link themselves with the comparably liberal United Kingdom. Despite the fact that the great nations were at peace during the “Concert of Europe,” France was nonetheless concerned about maintaining its historic sphere of influence throughout the continent. Spain has also maintained its status as a strategically significant country.

France waited till the beginning of spring, in April 1823, before attacking Spain. The French force encountered minimal opposition and was able to quickly restore Ferdinand’s absolute power. For a brief period of time, Louis XIV and France’s power were certain.

Nonetheless, the intervention was insufficient to maintain absolute power in either country for an extended period of time. After erupting in Paris during spring 1830, the revolution eventually ousted the Bourbon Charles X and installed Louis-Philippe, the “Citizen-King,” a constitutional monarch following the British model, in power. As for Spain, it would devolve into a series of civil conflicts between liberals and absolutists within four years, which would not be resolved until 1876.

The Bourbons, on the other hand, could not continue to stave off liberalism indefinitely. Recent social science research, on the other hand, suggests that Louis may have accurately assessed the geopolitical circumstances and so extended his power in France. The success of one dissident can inspire the success of another, allowing rebellion to spread across international borders without being detected by law enforcement. As recently as 2011, the Arab Spring upheavals of 2011 taught Middle Eastern despots a valuable lesson in this regard.

Louis was also true in stating that a country’s international alignments are frequently tied to its ideology or internal political regime types at home. Because of this, France and other great powers of the nineteenth century (and later superpowers like the United States in the twentieth century) frequently promoted regime types in smaller states in order to put their friends into power and gain allies against their adversaries. International organizations such as NATO can help to encourage this tendency by establishing democracy as a legitimate form of administration in member countries. NATO is one such institution. It turns out that a country’s system of government and its foreign alliances are inextricably linked; either can serve to strengthen the other.

This brings us up to the year 2022. In the abstract, neither Ukraine’s democratic transition nor NATO’s eastward expansion pose a threat to Russia. Putin, on the other hand, is reading the situation in the same way that Louis did in 1823.

President Vladimir Putin recognises that liberal democracies on his border pose a challenge to his authoritarian government, both in terms of emboldening Russian liberals and by shifting the balance of power in Europe in Russia’s favour. In response to their recent united action to support Kazakhstan’s authoritarianism, he urged his fellow Eurasian autocrats, “We will not allow the fulfilment of another so-called colour revolution scenario.” He was referring to the series of revolutions that took place earlier this century—the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan—that brought pro-democratic, anti-Russian regimes to power. Georgia was invaded by Russia in 2008; Ukraine was invaded by Russia in 2014. Both invasions had the goal of weakening democratic regimes in these countries and putting a stop to their efforts to become members of NATO.

Putin’s intention to attack Ukraine is far from certain at this point. Compared to Louis XVI in 1823, he is up against considerably more formidable international resistance, notably hostility from the United States. However, agreeing not to accept Ukraine into NATO may not be enough to deter Russia from attacking, or at the very least, from overthrowing Kyiv’s democratic government and replacing it with authoritarian authority in the country. Putin is well aware that constitutional self-government in Ukraine would constantly pose a threat to spillover into Russia and weaken his grasp on the Russian throne.

Moreover, Putin recognizes that a democratic Ukraine will always be under pressure from its own citizens to migrate away from Russia and toward the West. Many European countries were internally divided throughout the second quarter of the nineteenth century, with liberals on one side and absolutists on the other. Being a liberal meant trying to remove your country from absolutist countries such as France (until 1830) or Austria; it meant wanting your country to associate itself with liberal powers such as the United States. When we look ahead to 2022, the scenario in the divided countries of Eastern Europe will be similar: being a liberal implies opposing Russia’s alliance while also having a strong desire to join NATO and the European Union.

Regardless of how the current situation in Eastern Europe plays out, Russia under Putin will continue to fight tooth and nail to keep democracy away from its borders, and for good reason. Because the political systems and principles of Russia and the United States are so diametrically opposed, the battle between the two countries is extremely bitter. Despite the fact that Putin is neurotic, he is at least true in one respect: democracy is his adversary.