History Should Be Our Guide in Ukraine

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

There are several historical referents we should keep in mind about the Ukraine war. 

First, no-fly zones. Lots of Westerners are calling for NATO aircraft to establish a no-fly zone above Ukraine to stop Russian bombing of Ukrainian cities. 

That is a terrible idea. Russian planes can still launch missiles from the nearby airspace of Russia and Belarus. No nation in history has declared a no-fly zone against an adversarial nuclear power.

No-fly zones are best known from the 12-year air block over Iraq in between the two Gulf Wars.

NATO also imposed a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, and again over Libya in 2011. 

These efforts were aimed respectively at the bloody though small-time dictators Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, and Muammar Gaddafi. None had nuclear weapons.

Eventually the air patrols withered away. Often allies bickered about their relative contributions. Sometimes the zones failed to stop ongoing anarchy on the ground. Enemies often still used low-flying ground assault helicopters.

The United States never attempted a no-fly zone against either nuclear Russia or China during the Cold War—despite a long history of these countries supplying wartime enemies of ours.

No nation wishes to risk Armageddon over the skies of a third party.

Second, regime change. There has been a lot of wild talk—from Joe Biden and various U.S. senators on down—about removing or assassinating Vladimir Putin to achieve “regime change” in Russia. 

Here too, the United States has a mixed record, at best—from the engineered ouster of Vietnam’s Ngǒ Đình Diệm to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Efforts to kill Fidel Castro boomeranged in ways that likely still remain classified. 

Dozens of Cold War-era forced removals of hostile heads of state in Asia, Africa, and Latin America often did not achieve objectives that were in long-term U.S. interests, much less did they achieve regional stability. Such coups and hit jobs did, however, tarnish America’s claim to the moral high ground.

In chicken-and-the-egg fashion, do odious dictators really hijack power from oppressed societies, or are they simply emblematic of them? Before Putin, were there democratically elected czars, Soviet premiers, or post-Cold War Russian strongmen?

Once Western liberals talk sloppily about removing heads of states, such authoritarians naturally will do the same. Do we really want Vladimir Putin threatening Western presidents, given the past propensity of his political enemies to disappear? 

Third, nation building. Western powers—for a time—can “nation build” abroad. But recreating nations in our image requires terrible cost in blood and treasure. 

Even idealists are branded as “neocolonialists” and “imperialists.” Even the beneficiaries of liberal democracy still feel it was “imposed” and any gratitude or warm feeling for America is short-lived. 

The American public, meanwhile, rails that the trillions of dollars spent abroad could be better used at home. Witness the recent failed 20-year mess in Afghanistan.  

Fourth, moral hysteria. The United States does not have a good record of turning wars into moral crusades by branding our allies divine and our enemies satanic. 

America was wrong to have banned German language instruction during World War I. It should never have put Japanese legal residents and patriotic Japanese-Americans in detention camps during World War II.

For years, the United States has seemed unhinged as it caricatures Russians as subhuman thugs—from crudely stereotyped tattooed, shaved-head villains in Hollywood movies to mythical bogeymen who supposedly engineered the Russian collusion hoax, the Russian Alfa Bank hoax, and the Hunter Biden laptop Russian “disinformation” hoax.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has shown himself a gifted and courageous leader who, logically, we should support and supply. But he is not an archangel pitted against evil Russian 18-year-old conscripts or necessarily the moral superior to Russian pianists and tourists. 

Millions of impoverished Russians had no say about Putin’s savage misadventure in Ukraine. 

That Ukraine is morally in the right and certainly deserves Western help does not mean that all Russians should be demonized or an often-corrupt Ukrainian government that just suspended its opposition parties should be deified. 

Fifth, the Russian military abroad. The Russian army is historically unbeatable on its home soil. Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler all wrecked their once indomitable militaries once they crossed into Russia.

But the expeditionary armies of a multiethnic, disparate Russia have never done well abroad in major foreign invasions against determined enemies. 

Moscow faced a series of embarrassing and utter defeats in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.

The czar’s 1914 invasion of German East Prussia ended in catastrophe. Russia invaded Poland and lost the Polish war of 1919-1921. 

Stalin’s attack on tiny Finland in 1939 soon turned into a bloody quagmire. The decade-long invasion and occupation of Afghanistan ended in defeat.

Given these past realities, Ukraine can defeat Putin’s expeditionary army if the United States and its NATO allies increase aid, do not embrace no-fly zones or other provocative trajectories to World War III, cease crazy talk of killing or removing Putin, stop whipping up hatred of all things Russian, and remember that history was never on Putin’s side when he invaded Ukraine.

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13 thoughts on “History Should Be Our Guide in Ukraine”

  1. Common theme: Hating the hated or virtue signals are always less expensive and less risky than donating money or volunteering to fight.

  2. “For years, the United States has seemed unhinged as it caricatures Russians as subhuman thugs—from crudely stereotyped tattooed, shaved-head villains in Hollywood movies to mythical bogeymen who supposedly engineered the Russian collusion hoax, the Russian Alfa Bank hoax, and the Hunter Biden laptop Russian “disinformation” hoax.”

    Why am I not surprised to hear this? The NAZIs did it when they targeted the Jews (I know, that you know this). All of the time and through their “media” they waged a vicious and hideous campaign on a continual basis, until no home, no classroom, no retailer – not the very air that you breathed – et al. was exempt from their poisonous rhetoric. Even the holy Roman church caved with nary a whimper it seemed.

    So, you may – or may not – be surprised to hear that “once-upon-a-time,” I ignorantly used to wonder how the “Germans” could have “let it all happen.”

    Of course I wonder no more, because now I know “how.”

    May God have mercy …

    ————————————
    Please keep up all of your good and important work, Mr. Hanson & friends. Many, many thanks.

    1. David Tambornino

      Signs and wonders… beware, very aware; be awake, not awoke.

      You summed it up nicely in a nutshell D.Diva. I agree we are blessed to have teachers like Victor Davis Hanson doing their best to guide us, never giving up. There is mercy in the end.

  3. I am a long time admirer, listen to all of the podcasts and have several of VDH’s books.
    I would be very interested in learning about what VDH reads on a daily basis. Where do he go for his “news of the day”, that sort of thing

    Thank you

  4. VDH, I agree with the context of your article, but need to point out a historical inaccuracy. The Russian Army did not beat Adolf Hitler. It was the Soviet Army, the Red Army, and within it were millions of non-Russians. In fact, seven million Ukrainian men served in the Red Army, and it was the First Ukrainian Front that pushed its way into Berlin in 1945. So the term Soviet and Russian should not be interchangeable. Ukraine lost more people during WWII than any other country.

  5. Reginald Beardsley

    Well written and argued. A refreshing follow on to “How Putin Invaded”.

    Putin is likely doomed as a leader. Had he simply occupied the Russian separatist regions of eastern Ukraine history would likely have judged him a great Russian leader. But the ill considered assault on the rest of Ukraine and the attendant loss of life and Russian military prestige by their failure have destroyed his reputation. The Russian people likely don’t know yet, but time uncovers even the most closely held secrets. History does not reward failure. The victors write it.

    Sadly, he seems to have been caught in a RAND Corporation trap:

    https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10014.html

  6. Sir, you know that increasing aid will lead to American soldier injuries and deaths in Ukraine. Are any of your children in the service?

    Ukraine should have surrendered immediately to a superior foe and come to terms. That is how history operates – the weak fall to the strong – and the innocent civilians always suffer the most.

    1. It’s their choice, not yours. Remember what you said the next time you’re carjacked or your boss harasses you.

    2. Like sports… you don’t find out who is strong until YOU PLAY THE GAME.

      Would be foolish and an invitation to even more aggressive PsyOps if countries surrendered because the scouting report said they were weaker.

      As Mike Tyson prophetically said: “Everyone has a Plan until they take a punch in the mouth”

      The enemy gets a vote.

  7. great points except one, ukraine has and was part of Russia for 100s of years ,this is not russia going to afghanistan,this is home soil, read tolstoy see what potemkin did ,this is part of Russia and the only solution is to give Eastern Ukraine to russia,remove nato threats, no nukes, and quit poking the russian bear,Victor good on history most of the time but Nigel Farage nailed it 14 yrs ago, asking why is US and nato pushing russia….

    1. Ukraine accepted Christianity in 988, two hundred years before even Moscow was established. Different history, culture and language. Over twenty million Ukrainians have died at the hands of Russians over the last few centuries, including a Stalin made famine in 1932. that killed ten million. Today’s Ukrainians will not give anything to Russia, they will stand and fight. As far as NATO, the buffer argument is a canard. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and the USA all border Russia, so pretty leaky buffer. Putin wants Kyiv to legitimize his version of history and sit in the throne. This imperialist tsar wannabe will go down in history as a failed tyrant. A corrupt tyrant.

    2. The Russians treated the Ukrainians worse than the British treated the Irish -and that’s saying something! Giving in won’t save them and that’s why they’re fighting. If the US government won’t help, than you can count on citizens sending a steady stream of cash like we did with the Irish right up until the Easter Accords.

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