The Ukrainian Verdun

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

Five months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the war is now reduced to one of attrition. The current dirty, grinding slog is fought mostly with artillery and rockets. Everything from Ukraine’s shopping centers to apartment buildings—and the civilians in them—are Russian targets.

Most outsiders have already forgotten the heroic Ukrainian winter repulse of the botched Russian shock-and-awe effort to sweep into Kyiv, decapitate the government, and declare the eastern half of the country a Russian protectorate within mere days.

Months later, the long war devolves further into a contest of mass and weight—tons of explosives blowing up pathways for massed troops grabbing a few more charred miles of ruined landscape.

Vladimir Putin bets he can throw in more men and more shells than Ukraine and its Western suppliers can match. He is quite willing to “win” by laying waste to eastern Ukraine even if it means losing three Russian soldiers for every Ukrainian.

When war becomes such gridlocked carnage, each side looks to new game-changing diplomacy, strategies, allies, or weapons to break the deadlock.

For Putin, such escalation means more flesh, steel, and explosives. His country is 28 times bigger than Ukraine, and over three times more populous, with an economy 15 times larger.

As for Putin’s financial reserves, the Western oil boycott means increasingly little to him when 40 percent of the planet’s population in India and China are eager to secure near-limitless Russian energy.

Another 750 million people in Europe once talked tough. But as a second winter nears, their gas and oil imports from Russia will further wither. Then their Churchillian rhetoric may chill.

So, the Ukrainian war increasingly will depend on endless U.S. aid and escalation.

To stop the Russian steamroller, Ukraine demands sophisticated American missiles to sink Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Kyiv requests shipments of U.S. jet fighters to knock down Putin’s missiles and planes.

It asks for more rockets and artillery to ensure tit-for-tat retaliation for every incoming Russian shell and bomb. Kyiv negotiates for more Western intelligence to take out more Russian generals and more lift capacity to stage airborne raids into Mother Russia itself.

We in the West abhor Putin’s war as senseless carnage, the last mad act of a vainglorious and delusional dictator.

Yet Putin trusts that future Russian generations will come to appreciate his grinding effort as the brutal restoration work of Vladimir the Great. When the wreckage is forgotten, Putin is convinced he will be viewed as the world’s most successful irredentist—one who had already battered Georgia, Ossetia, Chechnya, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine back into the reborn Russian empire.

If Putin can smash Ukraine into submission, the former jewel in the Russian imperial crown, then he thinks he can eventually swallow all the remaining former Soviet republics that are far less formidable than Ukraine.

The United States is nearing a gut-check decision. There are plenty of dangerous firsts in radically upping our role with Ukraine. No one quite knows the post-Cold War rules of engagement when one nuclear power openly fights the surrogate of another.

In the old days of the Soviet Union and a backward Maoist China, conventional American triangulation ensured that neither nuclear power grew closer to each other than to us.

After Ukraine, both nuclear powers are de facto allies, ganging up on a common American enemy. As global inflation spikes, recession looms, and oil prices soar, some of our sworn and de facto allies, including India and Turkey, prefer Russian oil to Western sermons.

The heroic Ukrainian resistance may have brought European NATO states and the United States closer. But oddly, Ukraine’s supporters seemed to have soured the rest of the world on Western economic boycotts and sanctions—and the torpid leadership of Joe Biden and his European counterparts.

In the West, there are dissident rumblings of a possible plebiscite to adjudicate the Russian-speaking Ukrainian borderlands—with possible guarantees of an Austria-like, non-NATO neutrality for Ukraine.

But such compromise talk earns charges of appeasement from Western zealots. Apparently, American moralists intend to fight for the principle of the sanctity of national borders to the last Ukrainian.

Vastly upping aid to Ukraine has become the cause célèbre of the West. But few have fully explained the ensuing costs and dangers of escalation to the American people. The United States appears to be heading into a stagflationary recession following the loss of deterrence from the Afghanistan catastrophe, and with restive renegades like Iran and North Korea joining the Beijing-Moscow nuclear axis.

For now, no one knows whether greater American escalation would tip the balance for an allied democratic victory, and a repeat of our savior role in the two World Wars. Or will the proxy war suck the United States into a Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan-like quagmire?

Worse: will our intervention trump even the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis—with the nuclear standoff nightmarishly unpredictable?

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28 thoughts on “The Ukrainian Verdun”

  1. ‘American moralists intend to fight for the principle of the sanctity of national borders to the last Ukrainian.’
    It has become difficult to obtain a current map of Russian held territory in Ukraine and impossible to obtain reliable figures on casualties or deaths. It seems unlikely that Ukraine is killing Russians at a three to one ratio, which is their only shot at achieving a stalemate, let alone a decisive victory over Russia. This has been the reality from the start of the conflict. Ukraine cannot win a long war with neighbor Russia. No matter how much money and arms are fed into the conflict by the West. As VDH wote about WW2, major wars are won by logistics. This conflict was over before it began.
    The only remaining question is how much territory Russia will acquire and incorporate into Russia before it accepts any settlement. Russia has little more to lose than it already has by continuing the conquest of Ukrainian lands. Sanctions have hurt the Russian economy but have not been decisive in any way. Germany and other E.U. countries are still sending cash to Russia for fuel and have no answers if Russia were to stop the flow of gas. Any gas shortage in Europe will soon come to a head in the Winter months. The E.U. appears to be about as successful in plans for rationing fuel as they were in their denial of their need for nuclear power or fracking. Russia is proving that it can outlast the West in enduring hardship to achieve its’ goals.

  2. Putin will fight to the last Ukrainian. His avowed goal is to make them as rare as Unicorns. Why are the Israelis or Taiwanese noble and worth defending, but not the Ukrainians? For that matter, why is it so noble that we fought Hitler and the Japanese Militarists? Shouldn’t we have side-stepped Hitler as an expensive “not our problem” during the cataclysm of the Great Depression and cut a deal with the Japanese rather than attacking inviolate Japan and seeing millions of imperial subjects slaughtered in the fighting across The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere? What makes the difference? Is it just a matter of who has nukes? Please clarify instead of insinuating.

    1. Perhaps you forgot: Japan directly attacked the US. The circumstances and reasons can be debated, but that fact cannot. I missed Russia wiping out the majority of our pacific fleet. Your entire premise is false, either out of ignorance or intellectual dishonesty.

      1. Bull, and Needlessly rude. I am highly educated (Oxford) and striving to be as honest as I know how. Look at the post again. Question 1: We can say Japan attacked us, but it could be argued that we provoked Hitler into declaring war on the U.S. Separate question: did the Japanese attack require us to fight for total surrender? Finally, this list of questions was meant to push Victor to clarify his position and make his equivalencies explicit. Hence the posted ended with “don’t insinuate”. Note: I am not yet stating my own position. Victor’s position on Ukraine simply had not make sense to me since May and has grown no clearer in spite of multiple requests from various parties for greater clarity. Your turn now: why the heated rhetoric? What makes you so violently passionate about this particular issue? Why the assumption that if I don’t appear to agree with you I must be either ignorant or wicked?

      2. Robert O'Brien

        Took the words right out of my mouth Wes. Good gracious. 12/07/1941 lives forever in “infamy”. This taught to us kids each year (redundant) from 7th grade through college level Western Civ. and on every test.

        And oh by the way we did cut a deal w Japan: Total unconditional surrender or we’re going keep putting your cities to 2M degrees Fahrenheit.

    2. peter y connor

      You are confused…It’s the US and its allies who will fight to the last Ukrainian, the US government having revealed that its objective is to weaken Russia and ultimately, according to the Rand Corp plan, break it up…If Putin were not so delicate about civilian casualties and damage, he would have won the war already by leveling Kiev and any other of the NATO created fortresses in the Ukraine…

      1. Hmm. Ukrainians have no agency? They can’t try and cut a deal any time they want to or just tell the government in Kiyv to “Go Fish”? Second question: why might the U.S. want to weaken Russia?

      2. Putin is “delicate about civilian casualties and damage”? You are talking about a war criminal who invaded a peaceful neighbor on laughable pretexts – who TARGETS civilians in hospitals, schools, community centers and residential areas. He did level Grozny the capital of Chechnya and helped his arms client Assad bomb 800,000 civilians in Syria. Eastern Ukraine has been made a smoking ruin to bring it under his control.

        Would you have described Stalin and Hitler as “delicate” when they first invaded Poland from either side because they didn’t start by incinerating entire cities?

  3. Daniel Steele

    “Yet Putin trusts that future Russian generations will come to appreciate his grinding effort” – this statement assumes there will be future Russian generations. Russian demographics started at terrible & now degrade to abysmal.
    “he thinks he can eventually swallow all the remaining former Soviet republics” – exactly. He won’t stop. Nor will the Chinese.
    “fight for the principle of the sanctity of national borders to the last Ukrainian.” – Paraphrase from the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, “You provide the arms, we provide the blood.” If they’re willing to fight, are we going to abandon them? Because that doesn’t look much better than Afghanistan.
    “restive renegades like Iran and North Korea joining the Beijing-Moscow nuclear axis.” – concur. But that’s happening regardless of the Ukrainian situation.
    “will the proxy war suck the United States into a Vietnam?” – I don’t think we’ll see U.S. boots on the ground.
    “the nuclear standoff” – But if Putin’s nuclear threats succeed, what then? Again, he won’t stop.
    Scary times. But if Putin “wins”, I think times will get worse.

  4. I am genuinely surprised at the ridiculous cheerleading for Ukraine in some of these comments. Ukraine and Russia? I know which one would be the strategically smarter ally, and it’s not the actor running Ukraine on behalf of our Uniparty crime syndicate. You want to see the US military in action? You’re going to get your wish, but that action will be domestic and we will be the combatants.

    1. Daniel Steele

      I am genuinely surprised at this comment.
      I see support for Ukraine, but cheerleading? Hardly.
      Russia as an ally would certainly be a good thing. Making allies of countries that invade their neighbors, not so much. If China invades Taiwan, should we make them an ally as well?
      The U.S. military “in action” against domestic civilians over Ukraine? Why? Please provide details of how this comes about.

    2. I keep hearing that Zelensy is corrupt yet nobody has offered up proof of his corruption. Guilt by associate is all they have claiming he is corrupt. Even shutting down Russian propaganda news channels is not proof.
      IMO Zelensky showed true metal when offered a way out of the nation and gave them the middle finger saying “I need ammo, not a ride”. A corrupt individual, such as Karzi in Afghanistan, would have jumped at the offer to leave and be wealthy in exile!

      We tried strategic alliances with China, how is that working out for US?

  5. Charles Carroll

    Apart from the morality of defending Ukraine, I have not seen much reporting or even analyses of the U.S. efforts to replace the munitions we are giving them. What are the levels of our munitions? Is replacement in the budget? How long does it take to construct these items? do we have access to the component materials?

  6. Victor should write about the connection between the impeachment hearings into a telephone conversation with V. Zelenskkiy had on the Russian war with Ukraine.
    In my opinion the main players M. Yavanovitch, N. Pelosi, A Schiff, K Taylor, G. Kent, Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, and of course the FBI whistle blower and the Intelligence community, had a major role in the total destruction of the Ukraine and it’s courageously beautiful people.
    RB

  7. This war actually started in 2014 when the democratically elected pro Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power in a US orchestrated coup. Putin then quickly seized the Crimea and a Civil War ensued with pro Russian supporters in Odessa being burnt alive when they fled for safety into a Trade Union building. Only two small states were able to hold out and Putin felt it was only a matter of time before the West took them and then turned its attention on ousting him. Ukraine remaining neutral and not joining NATO thus became an essential red line for him. When this was not acceptable to the West, war in my view become inevitable

    1. Strange how many people believe that Putin who is spending billions on a war to bring Ukraine into his domain did not manipulate the election that brought his stooge Yanukovych to power. Bet manipulating that “democratic election” cost him a lot less. And when Ukrainian voters returned to the streets to protest Yanukovych’s turn toward Moscow when they had voted for joining the West, Putin’s creature decamped to Moscow. The “US coup” story is straight out of Russian disinformation.

    2. You’re forgetting that Putin’s decision to occupy and partition without a referendum or international agreement violated the agreed upon boundaries of the Ukrainian nation which the US obligated itself to uphold under president Clinton. Putin’s assassinations and disrespect for the post Cold War political order caused this war.

  8. If we allow Putin to win all we will be doing is reinforcing all the negatives that came out of our disastrous pulling out of Afghanistan. Namely that, when push comes to shove, the US will not defend democracy, the international order or its allies against authoritarians and other “vainglorious and delusional” dictators. The US needs to return to its place of being that “shining city on the hill”, providing a moral and rational alternative to the malignancies that are communism and authoritarianism; a bulwark against the world spiraling into total decay. We have our problems here no doubt, but, despite our foibles, the arc of US history has bent towards justice over time. We are an imperfect society in a world of vastly worse possibilities. It is apparent that the current political state of the country has metastasized into a general lack of confidence in our greatness and place in history and the world, to the detriment of not only our society but to all those who pine for freedom.

  9. Billye Miles-Seale

    Ukraine is a diversion from our own corrupt and incompetent Executive Branch administration and Legislative Branch Congress. It’s time for a regime change.

    1. How so? Politics has always required keeping our eyes on multiple balls. How is our situation today different?

  10. I grow increasingly confused by this war. It is draining our coffers and putting us in danger of a nuclear confrontation with Russia (and possibly China as well). It’s drawing Russia, China, and Iran closer to one another unnecessarily. I am also confused about our “so-called” allies in Western Europe who talk a good game but, as most other times, refuse to contribute in kind to the “war” effort. It is also pushing our other “friends”, such as Turkey and India closer to Moscow and China and further away from the USA. What to do? That’s the conundrum . . .

    1. In all honesty, I think the Ukraine War is like Covid: the fires were already there, but Covid threw gasoline on them. To take an example: Turkey under Erdogan has been itching for a political realignment since it’s NATO allies support Turkey’s long standing enemies in Greece and Kurdistan. Erdogan’s power also rests on the traditional Muslim rural population versus the smaller secularized and European-ish population on the coast. The Ukraine War is simply accelerating Erdogan’s search for new allies who will support him in a war with Greece, violent suppression of the Kurds (perhaps even those in neighboring Iraq), and ignore his flirtation with militant Islam.

  11. Mr. Hanson, the problem is that whatever settlement would be reached with Russia would be breached sooner rather than later as Putin’s pattern shows. The Budapest Memorandum promising no violation of Ukraine’s borders in return for returning its nukes to Russian territory was broken by Russia to invade and appropriate Crimea with British and US guarantors impotent. Further incursion into the Donbas by Russian military occurred. The Minsk agreement was also broken. Promised “safety corridors” for evacuation of civilians have been a cruel joke. Now, literally a day after an agreement to let Ukraine export its grain from Odessa, Russian military fired 4 missiles into that port city, 2 of which were not intercepted.

    Putin negotiates the way Muslims do. Every western concession is never met with a reciprocal concession but is treated as weakness and a signal for pressing more demands. His word is worthless.

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