Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Russia: Weaker than What?

VDH commentary on the ‘CAN OR SHOULD THE WEST TRY TO STOP VLADIMIR PUTIN’S ATTEMPTS TO REABSORB PORTIONS OF THE OLD SOVIET UNION?’ issue 13 of Strategika

Our elites often diagnose Vladimir Putin as acting from “weakness” in his many aggressions.

A list of Russia’s symptoms of feebleness follows: demographic crises, alcoholism, declining longevity, a one-dimensional economy, corruption, environmental damage, etc. But weakness is a relative concept in matters of high-stakes aggression.

Hitler was clearly weaker in 1938, when he doomed Czechoslovakia, than were Britain, France, and an isolationist United States. His subsequent serial invasions were powered by tanks that were initially inferior to those of the French. His fighters were no better than their British counterparts. He lacked a credible surface fleet and a four-engine bomber, and his munitions industries were far less competently run that those in Britain.

But a weak Germany was surely stronger than an individual Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, and Belgium—and even France, given that the British and French never coordinated a serious military front. Until Hitler’s May 10 attack on Western Europe, many had still prayed for the continuance of the Phony War.

Saddam Hussein was weak in 1990. His army had recently been battered in Iran. He was bankrupt. His Soviet patron had all but disappeared. But Iraq was stronger than any of its neighbors other than Iran, which is why Kuwait collapsed quickly and the rest of the Gulf sheikdoms might have as well, without U.S. intervention.

Weak aggressors are not unusual in history. They invade (usually neighboring) countries because in their immediate landscape they feel that they are stronger, that outside interventions from stronger states are unlikely, and that their aggressiveness is an asset that can somewhat offset their material liabilities. A Hitler or Saddam was locally successful until their border aggressions began to threaten the interest of stronger powers, which either preemptively intervene or were unwisely provoked. The 1942-45 de facto alliance of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain destroyed the Third Reich (whose new acquisitions by June 1941 had rivaled the geographical extent of the present EU) in less than four years. Saddam was defanged in a brief air war, and an even briefer land battle.

Putin is weak in geostrategic terms, but powerful when compared to any single contiguous neighbor or small groups of adjoining states. The only mystery of his aggression is how many additional states—two, three, four?—will he have to absorb, before he overreaches and incites now reluctant stronger powers to act.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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