What Ukraine can learn From Melos

By Darshan Gajjar

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony. Photo credit – AP

As I am writing this piece on the 7th of October, the legislation to annex the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine, was passed by both the houses of the Russian Federation and has been officially signed by President Vladimir Putin, completing the process of formally annexing those regions.  As the war (or the special military operation) has already stretched into its 8th month it is worth examining how similar situations prevailed approximately  25 centuries ago on the small island of Melos and what lessons history teaches us from the particular catastrophe.

Karl Marx once said, “History repeats itself…” and as we are seeing the events unfolding around the globe; history is repeating itself. Let us ponder over history for a moment to understand how it can help solve this recent conflict. Around 431 BC Peloponnesian war was fought between then Sparta- the established power and Athens – The emerging power, the two most powerful city-states in ancient Greece. The Peloponnesian war in a way was what John Mearsheimer called a “quest for hegemony” in the tragedy of great the power politics. The Delian league led by Athens fought the Peloponnesian league led by Sparta between 431 BC and 405 BC.

Although the whole period provides a plethora of lessons even to modern strategists, this article primarily focuses on the smaller but very important event that occurred during the 16th year of the conflict, “the Melian Dialogue”. East of Greece’s mainland there was the island of Melos in the Aegean Sea. Melos had ancestral ties with Sparta. Despite being one of the colonies of Sparta the Melians had decided to remain impartial during the conflict. In 416 BC, however, the Athenian generals and their fleet of 38 ships carrying heavy troops and archers waited at the shores of Melos, preparing for battle; the event known as the siege of Melos. Athenians demanded the support of Melos in the war while Melians still insisted on being neutral. Athenians finally gave an ultimatum to the Melians whether to join them or face the wrath of mighty Athenian forces. The ultimatum was followed by the long range of negotiation and conversation between the diplomats(commissioners as they were formally known at that time) of Athans and Melos, Thucydides described the event as the Melian Dialogue.  The leaders of Melos had to decide between letting their countrymen live as slaves or letting them die as free men.

Melian Dialogue. Photo credit – Dhaka Courier

Melians argued that they have a right to be neutral and since they are not aggressors, Justice is on their side and; God is on their side as well. Athenians ,however, were not interested in the idealistic debates of God and Justice, instead, they believed in the supremacy of the power. They reiterated their stance and warned Melians of the consequences in case of not changing their stance of neutrality. Thucydides writes what Athenians told Melians “…since you know as well as we do the right, as the world goes, is only in question between equal power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.[1]

Eventually, the talks halted inconclusively. The ultimatum was rejected by the Melians. The Athenians surrounded the city. The Melians launched numerous sorties, at one point taking control of a portion of the Athenian line, but they were unable to end the siege. In retaliation, Philocrates-commanded forces were sent by Athens. Traitors on Melos also assisted the Athenians. Melos eventually surrendered in the winter. The Athenians killed the older males and enslaved the women and children. Following that, they relocated 500 of their own colonists on the island.

Fast forward 2500 years in the 21st century; History is literally repeating itself. One ambitious power, Russia, is attacking Ukraine which has support from the established power USA and its allies. Ukraine has replaced Melos and Russia replaced Athens. From a moral perspective what Russia did by attacking Ukraine was a violation of international law and cannot be justified. However while seeing from the glasses of realism it clearly makes sense for Russia to attack Ukraine and protect one’s sovereignty from NATO expansion. The answer will differ from where you stand. It is not the purpose of this piece to judge you but to provide a peaceful solution while learning from the Historical Mistakes. 

Unlike Melos, Ukraine still has a chance to negotiate the peace treaty with Russia. On the ground Russia is losing control of the important territories that it had gained in the last few months. It is time for President Putin to realise the fact that further escalation will lead to more catastrophes. Similarly, the USA should not desire to escalate the conflict further; the use of the “N” word is not taboo in strategic discourse these days. In the words of President Biden himself “The risk of a nuclear armageddon is at its highest level since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis”.

It is high time that all the stakeholders realise that, there shall be no winner in a nuclear blitzkrieg. As India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar said in UNSC last month “the need of the hour is to end the conflict in Ukraine and return to the negotiating table.” Diplomacy should be the way instead of military escalation to solve the conflict. No matter which corner of the world you are in, the conflict is affecting us all one way or another, it is time to learn from History before it repeats itself as a tragedy followed by a farce.

[1]  Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 331.

By Darshan Gajjar

Student of National Security, Political Science and International Relations


  1. Consortium association reflected in term of “history repeats itself” and establishing the linkage with present context is wonderful.

  2. Current situation dictates to learn from the past. I agree with Darshan Gajjar’s view. Human beings are judged by their Inteligent Quotience and definitely in this era the said Quotience is many a times more than the B.C era., Here we should not forget the consequences of Nuclear catastrophe in Japan some decades back which can be termed as ‘very recent past’.
    Negotiation through dialogues is the only way to neutralize the current situation. One should remember that EGO has NO place during the dialogue which is the MOOLA MANTRA FOR ALL TIME FOR BETTER SURVIVAL ON THIS EARTH ‼️🙏

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