An historical perspective on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As I view with increasing depression the slaughter going on in Ukraine, I can’t help but seeing our modern world strangely parallel another world. It was September 1st, 1939. As the sun went down on the final day in August, Europe was quiet. The people of Poland went about their day in peace. In fifteen days, little of their country would remain, their cities and villages in ruins, 200 thousand dead, a multi-generational nightmare beginning.
Like Poland, a country emerged in 1996 that had aspired to melding its unique history into a national vision. And like Poland, this country would struggle to find its place. In the years between the world wars, Poland would simply struggle with having a democracy. Ukraine would have some advantage in that it avoided the perils of tyrants and struggled to establish the rule of law in a country that had been dominated by tyranny and authoritarianism for the past two centuries since the time of Catherine the Great. Ukraine was not exactly Poland. It contained a sizable Russian minority and its closeness to Russian culture and language made for a peculiar blend of politics. It would be this tension that would lead to the invasion of their country by the Russians first in 2014 and then recently in February 2022.
Like Poland, Ukraine is the victim of a peculiar vision of a tyrant. Hitler wanted breathing space for the German people and Poland was readily available. He used the excuse of ethnic tensions and history to justify a ruthless invasion of the country. Sound familiar? So it would be that Ukraine was eyed as a part of Russia by Putin, that it was a rogue nation catering to Nazis who persecuted the Russian people and Russian culture. Alas, Putin is merely an extension of a centuries old debate between Russophiles and Russophobes. Should Russia turn to the West to modernize and develop as a democracy, or should it turn inward and forge a unique stamp of governance. Whenever they do the latter, they always return to the same place, like tourists wondering in circles in the forest. First it was the tsars. Then it was the Communist dictatorship. Putin is in a class to himself, a dictator flanked by oligarchs.
Ukraine, like Poland, has the misfortune to being in the middle of larger warring nations. Poland was divided between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939. As the Poles collapsed their defenses around Warsaw, the Soviets invaded from the East on September 17th. Ukraine is much more fortunate, only having to deal with the Russians. Belarus has for some reason chosen to sit this one out. Yet because of Belarusian cooperation, Ukraine has been flanked from the north, the east and the south by Russian forces. In much the same way, the Poles in 1939 faced invading German armies from the west and from the south before having to deal with the Soviets from the east.
Both Poland and Ukraine have suffered from the ambivalence of the western powers. Poland, while receiving verbal support from Great Britain and France, gained nothing substantive from the alliance. You can not altogether blame Stalin for maneuvering a settlement of some sort with Hitler because he knew that Great Britain and France could do nothing. NATO is in a far different situation, being more powerful than the Russian army and firmly established as an alliance that has evolved over 70 years. Yet NATO had no agreements for defending Ukraine. NATO has always had considerable hesitation for going outside of its core mission to fight military campaigns, attested by their unwillingness to engage the Serbs in the Balkans in the 1990’s, setting up a no-fly zone in Syria in the past decade, or addressing issues in Libya. Putin knows that and he will push the envelope as far as possible.
What Poland did not have, however, is what Ukraine has utilized with devastating effectiveness – a portable mobile defense. While numerically the Ukrainians share with the Poles the misfortune of being outnumbered and outgunned, the firepower and experience they bring into the conflict is far more effective. As NATO and other countries pour military hardware into Ukraine, the Russians are in effect taking on NATO’s proxy. Poland had no such advantage in 1939. Imagine if the Poles had the Panzerfaust to destroy German tanks, or drones that dropped bombs over German troops as they breakfasted on weisswurst.
Most of the news coverage on Ukraine seemed to subliminally refer to another time when the Germans raced across Poland, the so-called “blitzkrieg,” or “lightening war.” The Russians were going to do the same to the Ukrainians. And they still may. As I write this article, the Russians have captured approximately 30% of the country. We need to remember that the Germans would only capture 50% of Poland. We look at photos of long supply lines that sit for days waiting for deployment, and forget a few details about the German invasion of Poland. While the rate at which the Germans advanced was unprecedented, it was accomplished at great cost. News coverage today posts that 11,000 Russians may have been killed, that this is presumably unsustainable to the Russians. It may well be, but the Germans would lose 17,000 men, 236 tanks and 246 aircraft in a space of 30 days. It provides a little perspective at the losses experienced by the Russians, losses that may not stop them from taking the whole country nonetheless. The Germans had to take a serious look at their blitzkrieg tactics. A similar loss of men and treasure would prove disastrous if they invaded France. In essence, the brutal reality of death and destruction is whether the Russians can be stopped. They may suffer hunger, bad morale, deaths and a massive loss of equipment, but if they can’t be stopped what does it matter to them.
It is interesting that both events share a logistics riddle. Most everyone now has fixed in their minds the miles long traffic jam of Russian armor and supplies. The Germans, believe it or not, also had a major logistics problem – not enough trucks! They noted at the time they were over-reliant on horses. Oddly, it would remain a problem until the end of the war.
What is unique from Poland of 1939 is the “experience” element. The world had never seen “blitzkrieg” before 1939. Now we measure performance of an army by what the Americans and their allies accomplished in Desert Storm (1991) or Iraq (2003). Psychologically, if Russia assumed it would roll over the Ukrainians like Schwarzkopf in Kuwait, their performance to date in Ukraine is a huge disappointment. The Ukrainians have also benefited from the experience of independent command structure, similar to what the Israelis demonstrated during the Yom Kipper war of 1973. Instead of extending conventional armies that could be subsequently surrounded, they have operated in pockets of resistance that pecked away at the over-extended Russian forces.
The Ukrainians are also benefiting from the Russians themselves – the infamous battle of Stalingrad. Stalingrad is a template for urban warfare. The Poles improvised and the world saw for the first time how firepower could be used to literally flatten a city. They were surrounded and they would lack the weapons and supplies needed to sustain a prolonged defense. The Ukrainians know they are on the same ticking time-bomb. But if they can get enough firepower and supplies, they can turn their cities into another Stalingrad. If they do, it will be a question of how long the Russians can put up with a tyrant who is expending Russian blood needlessly. And, again, we need to note that the Germans attacked Stalingrad with 600,000 men! It is hard to imagine the Russians pulling off the same trick with 50,000 men.
Yet we may have a moment of regret if Ukraine loses this campaign. If they do, it will be in some respect a repeat of history. Ukraine has benefited considerably from military assistance, but it is has been limited in scope and its impact still remains to be seen. The denial of 27 MIG fighters from Poland by NATO may cost Ukrainians their country. That is about all you can say about that. And there is no evidence that the Ukrainians have received any armor.
It is remarkable that missing within the one page summaries of Poland falling in 1939 is that one battle raged ten days. The Battle of the Bzura would involve nearly ¾ of a million soldiers, of which 8000 Germans would die and nearly 20,000 Poles. The Poles actually stopped and temporarily pushed back the Germans. But all the courage displayed by the Poles would vanquish in the dust of history. In the end, it was raw firepower that would win the day.
This is the cold reality that the Ukrainians face today. Like many, I anxiously seek for good news, of victories for the Ukrainians. I want to see this campaign end, the killing stopped, and people returning to their homes (if any are left). But the scale of the Russian forces and the ruthlessness of its leader are factors that must be considered. In the meantime, I also pray that what I post here is obsolete in 24 hours, that the Russians have abandoned their vehicles and that a tyrant is dethroned.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner