The war in Ukraine is Putin’s war. It will end the same way it started – when he decides he wants it to end … or when he is no longer capable of fighting it. To ask him to voluntarily cease fighting in Ukraine is the equivalent of asking him to give up his dreams of being Peter the Great. What does he have to live for then? All the external forces that the United States and the West have touted as deterrents to his stopping the war are meaningless especially given the wide spread support Putin has throughout the world including, of course, by China.
What can we learn from the past that will help us to understand Putin’s dilemma?
There is more to the figure of Ramses II than Cecil B. DeMille included in the movie. His reasons for excluding such information are not the subject of this blog. True, he was not an Egyptologists but by the 1950s sufficiently more was known than he showed. The same charge could be made against Disney for its cartoon Exodus decades later.
Without going into too much detail, here are items which should be included in the event there is a remake of a movie about the Exodus.
1. Thutmose III
Thutmose III was Ramses’ Peter the Great. Thutmose III in Egyptology is known as the “Napoleon of Egypt.” He earned that nickname due to his constant successful military campaigns, mainly in the Land of Canaan, following his succession from Hatshepsut, his step mother who ruled as Pharaoh.
He launched many campaigns and took many captives into slavery in Egypt. Foremost among his campaigns was the Battle of Megiddo early in his career. Megiddo is a well-known site in Israel today, the basis for The Source by James Michener, and the site of Armageddon in the Book of Revelation. Less well-known is that during World War I, Gen. Allenby consulted the (translated) records of what Thutmose III did in planning his own campaign against the same site.
When Thutmose III fought at Megiddo, he had a decision to make. He to decide which route to take when he approached the city. The Canaanites and their allies including the prince of Kadesh in modern Syria, anticipated that Thutmose III would choose one of the two easier possibilities. They guessed he would go around the mountains and they positioned their troops accordingly. Instead, Thutmose III, on his own initiative and against the advice of his counselors, boldly chose the middle and more risky route through the mountain passes. During the march, his military forces could touch the walls on both sides that is how narrow it was.
There also was the risk that when the forces emerged from the mountains they would not do so immediately in large numbers. Thus they would have been exposed had the enemy forces positioned themselves there. As it turned, the enemy had not. Thutmose III had prevailed. This campaign and others by him set the gold standard for subsequent Pharaohs – to match the decisiveness and success of this vaunted warrior king. His victory was displayed in color like a giant billboard in Times Square. Thutmose III was the man as well Ramses II knew.
2. Seti I
Closer to Ramses II, was his own father, Seti I. This warrior king also bears no resemblance to the figure in the movie or the cartoon. He launched two major successful military campaigns particularly during the early years of his reign. Ramses II was only a child then. He did not accompany his father on these campaigns. In fact, when he became king, he erased (chiseled out) the individual who had participated in these campaigns and then replaced him with himself. This action was rare in Egyptian history. When Hatshepsut and Akhnaton were cancelled, the erasures occurred after they were dead. It also means that that erased person who had help plan the military campaigns of Seti I and participated in them had been to the wilderness and the Land of Canaan and had logistical experience in moving large numbers of people from Egypt.
3. Ramses II
When Ramses II became king he was aware of his predecessors and his rival. He knew he had to live up to the glorious standards and achievements of the warrior kings who had proceeded him. He sought to do so in the Battle of Kadesh in year 5 of his reign as a young man in his 20s. At this point in his career his was not Ramses the Great. He was an unproven king trying to make a name for himself.
He lived in a capital city that bore no resemblance to the cities in the movie or the cartoon. The city of Raameses was military city. It was not a religious city like Karnak or Heliopolis. It was not even a political city like Washington. It was a military city where the military was the single most diverse institution in ancient Egypt to borrow a modern term. The Egyptian army in the time of Ramses II was multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious. It was not the type or organization that simply accepted someone as commander in chief because his father had been one. Seti I came from a warrior family in the northeast Delta (Land of Goshen). His father was a chariot officer from that area. Recent kings like Horemheb and Ay had proven military careers before they became king. Now this youngster, Ramses II, had become Pharaoh. He had a lot to live up to.
He failed to do so in the Battle of Kadesh. He did not have the success of Thutmose III. He did not have the success of his father Seti I. He did not smite the enemy. Instead he rushed pell-mell into a trap set by the Hittite king and barely escaped with his life. Naturally he could not accept blame for his own misjudgment in battlefield strategy. He needed a scapegoat, maybe more than one. He chose as a scapegoat his own military. He claimed that his army had deserted him on the field of battle. He claimed that he had had to fight alone to extricate himself from his self-created dilemma.
Need-less-to-say, that claim was not believable. The military who had been there knew the charge was false Egyptologists today know the charge was false. No matter how much Ramses II controlled the official record of the battle in monuments he erected throughout the land, the word of mouth proved stronger. Especially in the capital which was a military city of a mixed multitude, the people knew that Ramses II had failed. It was in the aftermath of that failure when the Exodus occurred, again, not in the movie or the cartoon. But Ramses II remained in power because departure in the Exodus and not replacement in a coup was the goal.
At some point the Russian people may learn and face the truth about Putin’s failure in the Ukraine, that Putin is not Peter the Great. Putin will never admit but the Russian people will. That moment will mean the end of Putin’s reign and that China backed the wrong side.