As he prepared to send his army into Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin was convinced that victory would be swift and complete.
Like American leaders prior to the Iraq War who persuaded themselves that the Iraqi people would welcome U.S. troops with flowers and open arms, the Russian oligarchy apparently believed that Ukrainians would see their troops not as invaders, but liberators. The invasion force entered Ukraine without the supply lines and equipment needed when Ukrainians decided to fight and die rather than bow before a superior military.
An invasion either works or doesn’t, and gets messy fast if not. One would have thought that Mr. Putin, who considers himself something of a student of history, would understand this better than most after witnessing what happened to his Communist predecessors in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The nine-year bloody guerilla war that raged there after the arrival of a Soviet invasion force as Afghans fought with whatever weapons they could acquire to drive a foreign army from their homeland cost tens of thousands of Russians their lives and, ultimately, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.
What the Soviets learned in Afghanistan is that maintaining control of a hostile population willing to fight an invader is more difficult than the planners who fight wars on paper presume. Fighting in the mud and sand or the streets of the cities and countries they invade can be almost impossible.
If his Soviet predecessors’ experience in Afghanistan wasn’t enough to give Mr. Putin second thoughts about sending his army into Ukraine, the later U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan might have given him a clue.
With hubris, Mr. Putin believed Ukraine was different. A people like those of Ukraine who may appear weak and indifferent or addicted to comfort and peace to a wannabe conqueror can morph into a dangerous fighting force in the face of invaders who threaten to rob them of their national identity and culture.
For all his interest in history, Mr. Putin must never have studied the life and career of the Japanese admiral who led the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
Isoroku Yamamoto was Harvard educated, spent his student breaks hitchhiking across the United States earning spending money by playing poker with folks he met along the way, and developed a fondness and deep respect for us. He opposed Japan’s decision to go to war with the United States, but when ordered to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor swallowed his misgivings, saluted, and set out to do his duty.
It is said that when the admiral was asked if such an attack would cripple the U.S. and drive us out of the Pacific, he said he believed it could for a few months or even a year, but asked his superiors, “Then what?” It’s a question would-be military adventurers should ask themselves, but one Mr. Putin like others before him seemed to ignore.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a military success, but days later when asked what Japan should expect, he replied, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” Ukraine isn’t the United States, but Mr. Putin has managed to awaken 44 million people to the existential threat his army represents and fill them with that very same “terrible resolve.”
The world has witnessed the Ukrainian awakening, seen civilians stand in front of tanks and troop trucks, or wait in line to be handed weapons to join the fight. The world has watched in amazement as a previously lightly regarded Ukrainian president personally targeted by the Russians courageously rejected a U.S. offer to fly him out of Ukraine to safety. “I don’t need a ride,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to President Biden’s offer, “I need ammunition.”
Another remark apocryphal is that bears on what Putin is running into in Ukraine is attributed to Yamamoto. “You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.”
The admiral knew that an armed populace could be a dangerous foe. The citizens of Ukraine might not all have rifles, but many do, and more are getting them every day from a government that has realized that an armed populace with a will to fight can stand up to an army like Mr. Putin’s.
Ukrainians know that the future they have chosen for themselves may be short or long but bloody. If they continue to be willing to bear the cost to save their country, they could hold Mr. Putin’s future in their hands.
• David Keene is editor-at-large at the Washington Times.