As I write this it’s been about 6 weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine. When Vladimir Putin invaded he expected a quick and easy victory; he didn’t expect Ukrainian resistance to be so fierce. This was partly due to bad advice he was given by his advisors. Dictators often run into this: they demand absolute loyalty from those around him and they tell him only what he wants to hear. Nobody is willing to speak truth or power because they will be fired or worse.
But what happens when a “quick victory” doesn’t work out? Well, nothing good. Rarely does an aggressor recognize the obvious and pull back. And we need only look at several examples from the 20th Century.
- During World War II Germany fought a war on two fronts: The Soviet Union to the East and the Allies to the West. In 1943 Germany lost the Battle for Stalingrad and Soviet troops began their march toward Berlin. In 1944 Allied troops landed in France and began their march toward Berlin. It was clear that Germany couldn’t win the war but Hitler refused to surrender and the war continued until May 8, 1945.
- Meanwhile, in the Pacific, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 intended to defeat America’s ability to stop Japan’s quest to conquer much of East Asia. But the next year American forces defeated Japan in the Battle of Midway. It wasn’t easy or fast but American forces were able to begin “island hopping.” In other words we were able to occupy islands that gave us closer and closer access to Japan. Many of us recognize Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa from high school history class. Long after it was clear that Japan could prevail they refused to surrender and they only gave up after two atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- In the 1960s the United States began a policy of supporting South Vietnam against the Communist North Vietnam. We sent advisors and then troops. In 1967 Defense Secretary Robert McNamera asked for a comprehensive report on US involvement in Vietnam, going back to 1945. We now know this report as the “Pentagon Papers.” The report was leaked in 1971 and it reported the American people were regularly lied to and that there were grave doubts as to whether the war was winnable at all. And yet we fought until our withdrawal in 1973.
I don’t think any of us want Putin and Russia to successfully conquer Ukraine. Given his fixation on restoring the old Soviet Union he may then set his sight on the Baltics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia).
But a war that goes badly for Putin also goes badly for Ukraine. We are already hearing reports of murder of civilians and other atrocities. We can only pray.