There has been a great deal of useful commentary of the tactical and operational aspects of the Ukrainian crisis. However, not much has been provided that can give us a vital strategic look. Let me try.
Here is my conclusion up front: Vladimir Putin made a huge strategic mistake by ordering the invasion of Ukraine. The closest historical analogy I can think of was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
By way of background, I have been an admirer of Winston Churchill for all my long life. By studying history, he gained a greater understanding of the lessons of past events than most observers and decision makers. Early in the 1930s he fully understood the danger that Adolph Hitler posed to Britain and the western democracies.
A look to the past
With that in mind, let’s look at history and see if we might draw some lessons and conclusions about Ukraine in 2022.
1. Italy vs. Ethiopia, 1935: The League of Nations and the United States failed to order meaningful sanctions against Mussolini.
2. Munich, 1938: Weak leadership on the part of France and the United Kingdom allowed Hitler to take over the Sudetenland with no fighting.
3. Czechoslovakia, 1939: Hitler marched in without facing significant opposition.
4. Vichy France, 1940-1945: As Hitler did in France, I feel that there is a strong likelihood the Russians will place a puppet government in the Ukraine which will have nominal control of Western Ukraine. A strong resistance movement within Ukraine will make it very costly for the Russians and their supporters.
5. Pearl Harbor, 1941: The best example in the past one hundred years of tactical success and strategic failure.
6. Hungary, 1956: The Soviets marched in. Many talented Hungarians departed.
7. Czechoslovakia, 1968: The Soviets marched in and removed Dubcek from power.
8. Kuwait, 1991: Strong alliance and top rate leadership were at work in this six-week war.
Of all these periods the two most worthy of close examination are Vichy France and Pearl Harbor. In both cases, the aggressor paid a terrible price.
What could be next
The following are some bold predictions.
1. Putin’s reign of terror will come to an end – no later than the end of this decade.
2. The NATO alliance will be stronger and more unified that at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This will bode well for the medium and long-term future.
3. China will not invade Taiwan when it realizes the folly of Putin’s actions and the power of a unified West.
4. The power of sanctions will be better understood and applied – especially as a useful deterrent.
5. The post-Putin Russia will receive a great deal of outside assistance as it struggles to find a path toward democracy.
One of my favorite books, “The 100,” by Michael Hart, ranks the world’s most influential people. As you might expect, Jesus Christ, Mohammed and Isaac Newton are high on the list. Adolph Hitler ranked as number 39. My immediate reaction to this high ranking was “no way.”
Yet Hart makes this fascinating case: Germany today would not be a working democracy if it had not been for Hitler. The beast of the 20th century convinced Germans to “never again” allow a dictator to rule the nation. The tendency of the Prussian and German states of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to accept militaristic autocrats as their leaders is over. Thank goodness.
My hope is that Putin’s monstrous acts will set the tone of “never again” in Russia.
After World War II, many observers felt that it would be impossible for Germany, Italy and Japan to evolve into strong democracies. These nations had little previous experience with democratic systems. Yet 77 years after World War II, all three are thriving democracies. They have leaders who cherish the rule of law. The best recent example is the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
When I served as CNN’s military analyst during the first Gulf War (1991), I described how General Schwarzkopf applied offensive concepts such as center of gravity, air dominance and asymmetric warfare. In the next few months, I will provide analyses of the evolving situation in Ukraine – this time with emphasis on the defense. To be examined will be the “resistance” in France (1940-1945) and the role of civilians in the battle of Stalingrad (1942-1943).
How can you help the people of Ukraine? I suggest you join me and support Amnesty International.
I would like to close with a quote. When the U.S. offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, his response was “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Churchill would applaud.
Perry Smith is a retired Air Force major general who lives in Augusta.