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Ukraine Can Win

Updated: Mar 19, 2022

(If NATO Provides Safe-Havens For Its Fighters)


When Russian troops crossed into Ukraine on February 24, its people astonished the world with their determination, as fierce as it was unflappable. Russians seemed taken aback. Western democracies were electrified. And yet, the eventual fall of Ukraine is still presented as a foregone conclusion.


How strange. Have we already forgotten that vastly superior U.S.-led coalitions were recently defeated or forced to a stalemate in two wars, against puny and disorganized foes?


Ukraine, of course, is not Afghanistan, where I lived and worked for most of a decade. The situation and the behavior of combatants there do not exactly map onto today’s war in eastern Europe. Still, outmanned and outgunned forces can and do win. Afghanistan (repeatedly), Iraq, and Vietnam prove it. Those recent examples also indicate what winning takes: that is, what may be required of Ukrainians — and of those intent on seizing this moment to fight for democracy and roll back Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship.


  1. Time:


In 2003, Afghanistan’s Taliban seemed to be obliterated, facing impossible odds of returning to power. That was when news of the first hit-and-run atrocities began surfacing in Mullah Muhammad Omar’s former stronghold of Kandahar, where I lived. As the black turbaned fighters filtered back into the region, I watched them absorb losses and regroup, even reorient their angle of approach to their former capital. That took a whole year. Another fifteen passed before they succeeded in defeating the U.S.-led international coalition.


That conflict, let me repeat, is by no means an exact parallel to today’s. The Taliban have none of the legitimacy of Ukraine's citizen-soldiers, and their values are opposite to those championed and embodied by the Ukrainian people. Nor am I comparing the United States and its allies, in moral terms, to invading Russia. The focus here is solely on military realities.


But those realities are instructive. Vastly superior armies are not overcome in a matter of weeks. Vietnamese forces, for a further example, battled for nearly three decades after World War II to rid themselves of two powerful western occupiers: France then the United States.


The war in Ukraine is only days old. A long view will be needed to see it through.

  1. Resolve


Think of how doggedly Vietnamese insurgents fought, through the span of an entire generation. Or, to glance at Afghanistan again, consider the fortitude it took to ride out on motorcycles — or horses — against Soviet tanks or U.S. Stryker vehicles. What a feat of conviction it was to ignore appearances and pursue victory, year in, year out.


And it’s not just the frontline fighters who showed resolve. Their foreign backers faced down hair-raising risks to arm, supply, and assist those on the front.


Today, Ukrainians are deploying the same unshakeable conviction in defense of democratic ideals. Can we match it?

  1. Safe haven

For, no insurgency wins without help. Vietcong guerrillas were equipped by the Soviet Union and China on a par with U.S. troops. Teheran reportedly armed Shiite militias in Iraq with surface to air missiles and vehicle bombs. Similarly, NATO countries and other democracies are rushing an arsenal of advanced weapons into Ukraine, including jets.


But hardware is not enough. Crucial to Afghans’ two victories were the camps across the border where the Pakistani army’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) trained class after class of recruits, offered death-shocked fighters a chance to rest and recover their nerve, and helped plan the insurgents’ campaign. Europe is opening its arms to refugees from Ukraine. But it is hard to imagine its forces repelling the Russians without access to similar safe havens outside its borders.


In that requirement lies both the greatest danger to neighboring countries, and the greatest test of our resolve. For “outside Ukraine” means inside NATO.


A scenario that features Ukrainian fighters taking a few days’ leave or refitting or training in Poland or Slovakia, and Russia bombing their camp, is perfectly plausible. It suggests one way this conflict could escalate.


By putting nuclear forces on alert, Putin is raising the stakes. Even his increasingly unhinged behavior could be a devious charade, aimed at deterring U.S. and European leaders from offering Kyiv the types of assistance it really needs.


They should not get rattled. NATO allies must begin planning to offer territory for Ukrainian fighters who need to rest and refit, or need more than 8 hours’ training with a rifle. Long distance transport should be part of those plans, so the risk does not fall on frontline nations alone.


Ukrainians have already given the world’s democracies an irreplaceable gift: they have jolted us out of our angry and dispirited self-laceration. They have demonstrated what it means to defend democracy. They have delivered a unifying moment. Let’s not waste it. Or them.


17 Comments


In so many ways, the parallel between Hitler and Putin is undeniable, though Putin is probably smarter, His successive massacres in Chechnya, Syria, Crimea, and larger Ukraine have moved more slowly so that the west (including me) has allowed each successive military atrocity to seem unconnected in our collective mind. We must now assume, that he will continue through Ukraine to NATO if he is not stopped and crippled militarily, Biden has done well so far, but we now need a John McCain (BTW I'm a Democrat) not another Neville Chamberlain. It will be perversely and frighteningly interesting, if the Republicans take over and the Putin-appeasers like Trump become the latter day Chamberlains. In contrast, this old peacenik would …

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Unknown member
May 06, 2022
Replying to

Part of being smarter than Hitler may be not harboring ambitions that are quite as messianic. So, rolling into NATO might be a stretch even for Putin. But I agree with your basic point. And it's interesting to hear very serious and highly regarded Russia specialists still saying he needs a "face-saving way out." Hasn't he exhausted his right to one of those? Isn't it more important that whatever happens to him serve as a deterrent to would-be others?


In this light, Trunp's ... is "appeasement" the right word? I might be less polite, and reach for something like "ingratiating entanglement"...looks even more sinister. How quickly that whole issue has dropped from national debate.

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Alex Thomas
Alex Thomas
Apr 02, 2022

@charlesbuell40

It is not about “ other “ countries alone with ubiquitous, endemic, entrenched corruption that needs embedded fights against. Look at Cayman Islands or Monaco or London or Switzerland - where, connections and money allow illicit, illegal and rank criminal proceeds acquire legitimacy, respect, with even a knighthood thrown in! With UN reduced to being a rubber stamp past compare for known reasons, who are @Applebaum’s opinion piece in the lately respectable TheAtlantic fooling? The white west ought look itself in the mirror and dismantle its incestuous arrangement with Latin America euphemistically termed Monroe Doctrine, others of France in West Africa and Sahara, and the self serving Swiss banking laws before any genuine attempt can be made to addr…

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Unknown member
May 06, 2022
Replying to

I heartily agree with this basic point: it's not just the behavior of Russian oligarchs and their enablers that are the problem, it is the degree to which Western interests, going right back to the first Gilded Age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, have constructed and facilitated kleptocratic systems and their practices in other countries, raking in fat profits in the process. Even worse is the degree to which the mirror is reflecting the mirror again -- that is, the US and other Western countries increasingly resemble the corrupt countries overseas that they helped shape. That's where I'd like to see our focus. Holding ourselves up to our own stated principles. That said, I'm not sur…


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The following quote is from Anne Applebaum in today's 3/26 version of Yascha Monck's, Persuasion. She notes the need to fight corruption internationally. The West can learn about the bad side of corruption by how it destroyed the Russian army! Note the last sentence

Applebaum: I think there are three elements of a pushback. Number one is what you've just hinted at: ending kleptocracy, not just changing a few rules and making it harder, but really putting this whole thing to an end; end these practices of giving people visas, shut down the tax havens, shut down the anonymous companies and the shell companies. These things only exist because they're created legally, and so we can uncreate them. Of course,…

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Nancy Lyn Cotter
Nancy Lyn Cotter
Mar 10, 2022

Thank you! I’ve been feeling the same way… by standing back and allowing Putin’s threats to paralyze us, we are ensuring his victory, and who really knows where he will stop? He already took Crimea. And he may continue on just as Hitler did after taking Poland. Yes, we must be cautious, as we don’t want to create WWIII, but, to do nothing but economic sanctions truly is impotent and gives him the green light to continue his unnecessarily murderous and destructive assault on Ukraine.

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Unknown member
May 06, 2022
Replying to

Agreed. And things are shaping up quite interestingly. The Ukrainians have done far better, militarily, than anyone imagined when I wrote this, and the U.S. and others have been helping in significant ways. Not just money, but, we learned today, intelligence. And training, some of it provided, as suggested here, outside Ukraine.

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Thank you so much, Sarah Chayes. I've been a fan of your writing on Afghanistan for many years and your voice on other matters has not lost its clarity and insight.

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Unknown member
May 06, 2022
Replying to

Thanks, Lindsay! I've even taken to doing some non-policy writing. Watch this space.

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