Athens (America), Sparta (Russia) and Melians (Israel).

As Russia advances on the Ukraine I sense that the more things change the more things remain the same. From time immemorial until today there are states in the international system that hold and portray the symbol of freedom, art, and democracy in the conscience of the civilized world. There is a historic line of three thousand years from Athens to Washington. There are also those states that understand that force is might and that paper agreements can be nullified with the first shot of their military force. There is a historic line of three thousand years from Sparta to Moscow.

Athenians (Americans) and Spartans (Russians) fought side by side in the Battle of Plataea (World War II), which ended Persian (German) invasions (occupation) of Greece (Europe). Thereafter there was bitter rivalry. Sparta (Russia) had a powerful army and Athens (America) knew that they could not beat them but they had the power of a naval unit which Sparta (Russia) didn’t have. What the two communities had in common was that they were both thinkers. They worshiped their gods and respected people. They loved beauty, music, literature, drama, philosophy, politics, art and there were some of their population that even loved battle and sports.

Where they differed was that while the Spartans (Russians) had militaristic values, Athenians (Americans) were democratic. The Spartans (Russians) emphasized only on expanding their power and gaining control over other kingdoms while the Athenians (Americans) also grew infrastructure wise in ancient times. They understood the importance of such growth and concentrated on them besides on military strength.

Athens (America) and Sparta (Russia) were two rival city-states (Super-Powers) in a bi-polar international system. Athens (America) and its allies, known as the Delian League (NATO), came into conflict with the Spartans (Russia) and the Peloponnesian league (Warsaw Pact), and in 431 BC (1948) a war (Cold War) broke out between the two; a war based on trade routes, rivalries, and tributes paid by smaller dependent states. This conflict, the Peloponnesian War (Cold War), essentially was a 28-year period (45 year period) of on and off civil war among Greek city-states (proxy war between the Super-Powers). Sparta (Russia) had a clear military advantage on land, but the Athenian (American) navy surpassed Sparta’s (Russia’s) capabilities at sea; neither side was able to seize and maintain the upper hand. Both sides experienced major victories and crushing defeats, and the war was frequently interrupted by periods of negotiated peace (détente).

As the preeminent Athenian historian, Thucydides, wrote in his influential History of the Peloponnesian War, “The growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired made war inevitable.” In 459 BC, a fifteen-year conflict, commonly known as the First Peloponnesian War (Vietnam), ensued, in which Athens (Americans) fought intermittently against Sparta, Corinth, Aegina (the Russian ideological ally of Vietnam), and a number of other states (Cambodia and Laos). During it Athens (America) and Sparta (Russia) recognized each other’s right to control their respective alliance systems. The war (Cold War) was officially ended by the Thirty Years’ Peace (Fall of the Berlin Wall), signed in the winter of 446/5 BC (1990). The Thirty Years’ Peace (24 year truce) was first tested in 440 BC (2014), when Samos rebelled its alliance with Athens (Russia annexed the Crimea).

The rivalry of Athens and Sparta was brought to an end a few decades later when Philip II of Macedon conquered all of Greece. His son Alexander the Great created one of the largest empires in ancient history and has often been compared with Napoleon Bonaparte whose actions shaped European politics in the early 19th century.

Today the Russian Strategy is similar to that of the Spartan strategy during the Archidamian War (431-421 BC) to invade surrounding land. The American Strategy is similar to that of the Athenian strategos or general, Pericles who advised the Athenians to avoid open battle relying instead on its naval fleet. Last week the USS Truxton, a destroyer, entered the Black sea, while the aircraft carrier the USS George H.W. Bush and its group remained in the Mediterranean Sea “to reassure US allies” worried about the crisis in Ukraine.

Only time will tell the fate of the rivalry between America and Russia not only for America and Russia but also for Israel. In the interim Israel’s national security is influenced by Russia’s support of Syria and Iran; the subsequent support of the latter for Hamas and Hezbollah; of America’s support for Saudi Arabia of proxies in Syria; of America’s failing negotiated deal with Iran; among the many other entanglements. In this Israel should take head of the account by Thucydides, of the Melian dialogue where Athens insists that “questions of justice do not arise between unequal powers” and imposes her might on the Melians. In this Israel should disentangle herself from American impositions; and decide unequivocally her own stance about the Palestinians.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.