Has ‘Zelensky’s 300’ changed Europe?

The parallels are difficult to avoid.
A continent divided by petty political rivalries attempts to appease a mighty foe. A small state whose leader faces internal opposition stands alone. The world’s largest military force threatens at the gates. A charismatic hero and a small body of hopelessly outgunned warriors resolve to fight to the death.

Most schoolchildren are familiar with the story of Leonidas’s 300 Spartans at Thermopylae taking a last stand against a tyrannous Eastern Empire. Even if they didn’t learn about it in school, they are familiar with the Zack Snyder and Fran Miller film of 2006.

Tragically, today the story seems to be playing out anew in Ukraine.

The Battle of Thermopylae demonstrated that tyranny could be challenged. But the real significance was that it created a belief that freedom was something that could only be defended if free people and free states united and were prepared to make sacrifices. The actions of the 300 at the ‘Hot Gates’ inspired the Greek world to unite and eventually defeat the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC the following year.

The heroism and example of the Spartans inspired others – just like the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island did a few days ago. Indeed, the response of the Ukrainians to the Russian request for surrender in the face of death was like something out of the pages of Herodotus – “Russian military ship – Go Fuck Yourself”

‘Zelensky’s 300’ seem to have had the same effect on Europe as Leonidas’ 300 had on Greece. The countries of Europe are no longer looking the other way, hoping that the worst won’t happen. They no longer believe that passivity and appeasement are the route to peace. Even Germany has decided to rearm. The European democracies are probable more united than at any time since 1945. No one talks about leaving the EU now.

It might not last, of course. Every national government has its own interests that it tries to defend, even in the face of common tyranny. A generation after Thermopylae, Athens and Sparta were at war. However the mass demonstrations across the continent at the weekend show that the people of Europe still have much in common and believe freedom is something worth fighting for. There is a great chance for Liberals across Europe to harness this spirit and rebuild a common European identity, just as we tried to do after 1989.

As for Ukraine, we won’t all be able to volunteer to fight or act as humanitarian volunteers. But we can all donate to the Ukrainian government and to the charities supporting Ukraine. We can also pledge to be inspired by Zelensky’s 300 and build a new, strong united Europe in the years ahead. And that means making sacrifices and refusing to appease tyrants, however tempting that might sometimes be.

Let every European know the truth of the Ukrainian sacrifices. And let every European search their own soul.

* Dr James Moore is a member of faculty in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester. He is a former Liberal Democrat councillor and parliamentary candidate and a member of the Liberal Democrat History group. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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15 Comments

  • μολὼν λαβέ being the Spartan response to the Persian demand that they lay down their weapons .(Come and get them )

  • Brad Barrows 28th Feb '22 - 3:49pm

    I think you will discover that the ‘heroes’ of Snake Island appear to be alive and well having all surrendered to the Russians. So much of what is being reported is spin or fake news that it is difficult to know what is the truth beyond the fact that the Ukrainians having been resisting far better than expected. That said, it appears that Russia has been making progress in taking territory in the south and will soon begin to close in on Ukrainian forces currently manning the line of contact with rebel controlled Donbass. This will force them to retreat, opening up the land corridor to Crimea that Putin probably wanted all along. While it is encouraging to see the Ukrainian resistance, I still expect that Putin will ultimately walk away with what he will regard as a ‘win’.

  • I think 13 border guards telling a Russian ship where to get off, when it has told you surrender or else, counts as heroic, whatever the outcome.

  • But weren’t there Spartans outdone in the end by a lack of weapons and traitors working for the Persians?
    Just saying …

  • Brad Barrows 28th Feb '22 - 5:56pm

    @Cassie
    Yes, had that happened, it would have been.
    As a story to stiffen the resolve of Ukrainian fighters, while gaining support and admiration from around the world, a great success …..whether true or not.

  • >opening up the land corridor to Crimea that Putin probably wanted all along.
    Before the invasion it made sense that Putin would want the land corridor to the Crimea not just for transport but to also protect the Sea of Azov from a potential Nato ally. If he had remained focused he might have got away with this land grab, just as he got away with grabbing Crimea.

  • George Thomas 28th Feb '22 - 9:40pm

    I wonder if we’ll be analysing this moment in 12 months and saying that i) The West played a really smart game in not rising to Putin’s bait with armed forces which, on foundation of Ukraine’s brave resistance and Russian’s brave protest, lead to a peaceful resolution far more quickly than any other action could have or ii) The West didn’t offer direct military support which meant that Ukraine fell in a bloody conflict but from their ashes Europe was re-united?

    There are countless other options of course, including Manic Street Preachers re-releasing “If you tolerate this then your children will be next” as Europe descends into another war we all thought was in the past, but the sad facts are that Ukrainian fighters are far more likely to die than live at the moment, that The West is stead-fast in not wanting to get involved with armed forces and that articles about Ukrainian’s desperation being inspiring are a tad uncomfortable to read.

  • Yeovil Yokel 28th Feb '22 - 9:56pm

    Brad Barrows – if you’re claiming that the verbal exchange between the Snake Island defenders and the Russian warship has been falsified and that the defenders “appear to be alive and well having all surrendered to the Russians”, then why has Russia not released footage of their POW’s, which would have immense propaganda value?

  • Brad Barrows 1st Mar '22 - 7:20am

    @Yeovil Yokel
    All I am claiming is what the Ukrainian navy is now claiming on its official Facebook page: that the navy now believes the border guards are alive and well having been “captured by the Russian occupiers.”

  • Yeovil Yokel 1st Mar '22 - 3:39pm

    Brad Barrows – how do you know that the “official Facebook page ” of the Ukrainian navy is genuine? The Russians and their ‘troll farms’ are masters of deception and misinformation in cyberspace. In my younger days I studied history from primary sources at postgraduate level, which requires all information to be treated with scepticism and an awareness of context. As such, I’m more inclined to believe the original Ukrainian version of this event (which serves the interests of the defending nation) than the revised ‘surrender’ version (which serves the interests of the aggressor nation).

  • Helen Dudden 1st Mar '22 - 7:27pm

    We all know that Putin has used toxic substances towards others in this country. What right does the leader of another country have.
    I hope that the proud people of the Ukraine get back what is rightly theirs. Joining the EU may be the answer.
    How devidided we all were over Brexit, so many untrue things, written and said.
    Very recently we have all learnt how economical the truth can be used.

  • Martin Wolf has a good piece in the FT https://www.ft.com/content/be932917-e467-4b7d-82b8-3ff4015874b3
    “This is not a conflict with the Russian people. We should still hope for them a political regime worthy of their contribution to our civilisation. It is a conflict with their regime. Russia has emerged as a pariah ruled by a gangster. We cannot live in peace and security with such a neighbour. This invasion must not stand, since its success would threaten us all. We are in a new world. We must understand that and act accordingly.”

  • Peter Martin 2nd Mar '22 - 9:29am

    @ George Thomas,

    ” …….the sad facts are that Ukrainian fighters are far more likely to die than live at the moment, that The West is stead-fast in not wanting to get involved with armed forces and that articles about Ukrainian’s desperation being inspiring are a tad uncomfortable to read.”

    Yes. If it weren’t for existence of large numbers of nuclear weapons in Russia, we would probably be at war by now. The west would have given the Russians an ultimatum to withdraw their forces, that would be ignored and………….

    As it is, we have decided that we don’t want to risk a nuclear exchange between the superpowers so are standing on the sidelines as Ukraine is destroyed.

    All this has been entirely predictable since the Russian supported govt in Ukraine was deposed in 2014. Instead of negotiating the best possible settlement for Ukraine, as tensions built, the west has allowed, if not led, the Ukrainians to wander up the primrose path.

  • The stop the war movement has put out a statement https://www.stopwar.org.uk/article/stop-the-war-statement-on-ukraine-24-02-22/
    saying “The conflict is the product of thirty years of failed policies, including the expansion of NATO and US hegemony at the expense of other countries as well as major wars of aggression by the USA, Britain and other NATO powers which have undermined international law and the United Nations.”
    There are valid arguments on both sides. The kind of ‘realpolitik’ endorsed by Henry Kissinger would suggest that Nato’s eastward expansion would ultimately lead to conflict with a Russian federation that felt threatened by military encirclement and view the Russian desire for a sphere of influence in its near neighbours as a legitimate aim of a great power akin to the USA’s Monroe doctrine.
    Conversely, the right to self-determination of independent states in both their economic affiliations and defensive alliances is enshrined in the UN charter. The history of Europe is such that balance of power policies has led to the subjugation of numerous countries after WW2 and the crushing of political dissent in East Germany in 1953, Hungary 1956, the Berlin Wall in 1961 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. More recently Georgia and Ukraine have experienced this attempted subjugation. It is not surprising that these countries should seek the protection of a defensive alliance.
    The Ukrainian government has drawn overwhelming support for its right to self-determination from the UN, EU and Nato countries generally. Ultimately, I think the concept of a sphere of influence has to be consigned to the dustbin of history and alternative security arrangements pursued.

  • William Francis 4th Mar '22 - 11:52am

    @Peter Martin

    “Deposed” doesn’t quite accurately describe the mass protests which toppled Yanukovych’s government.

    In any case, I don’t see what sort of settlement could have been politically sustainable for Ukrainian leaders to justify to their electorate whilst keeping Putin and his oligarch buddies happy.

    Putin dealt a massive blow to Ukrainian pro-russian sentiment with his brazen Irrdentism in Crimea and the proxy war in the Donbas, the Kremlin has long seen Ukraine as Russian, and an independent Ukraine exporting black sea natural gas (especially from Crimean exclusive economic zone) would be economically and geopolitical disasterious for Russian Oligarchs.

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