3 Things Putin may have missed
Victory in war is about more than numbers.
After seven deployments and more than two decades of service in the Marine Corps infantry, I am opposed to war in a way that only people who have experienced it can understand. Being called, “anti-war” is a compliment to me, despite the accusatory tone that often accompanies it. However, peace at any cost is a recipe for tyranny; sometimes it is time to fight. In Ukraine, the time to fight is now.
Through no fault of their own, the people of Ukraine have been given the option of surrendering to tyranny or standing against it. They are aware that choosing the latter amounts to death, yet that is the choice they have made. It is too early to tell, and I know better than to try to predict the future, but at this point I am confident the people of Ukraine will emerge from this fight victorious against the Russians, and revered by the world. The success of Ukraine will rest on three factors that Putin seems to have underestimated: global interconnectedness, national identity, and leadership.
- Global interconnectedness
When President Johnson wanted to escalate the war in Vietnam, he knew he needed Congressional approval. He also knew that without a specific instance that evidenced the menace of the North Vietnamese, Congressional support for escalating the war would be difficult. The solution? Fabricate an attack against American forces by the North Vietnamese. And just like that, quicker than most Americans could find the Gulf of Tonkin on a map, President Johnson had his war. Unfortunately, such deliberate disinformation is not uncommon in the sordid history of warfare.
Similarly, Putin has attempted to justify the invasion of Ukraine through disinformation and lies. Thankfully, events of international significance are more transparent than ever; anyone with a smart phone is a de facto journalist. This fact will work against Putin as videos, images, and recordings of the Russian invasion and its accompanying atrocities begin to circulate. Disinformation is still possible, but anyone who knows how to think critically will have unprecedented access to a litany of sources that tell the whole story. The effect of global interconnectivity is already apparent in Ukraine; solidarity for the Ukrainian people has been expressed from Saturday Night Live to professional soccer. Even a despotic tyrant like Putin is ill equipped for that backlash.
2. National identity & Snake Island
Regardless of previous apathy or divisiveness, few things galvanize a nation more than existential threats posed by an external foe, and the rallying slogans they produce. To observe this phenomenon, one has merely to consider the United States on December 8th, 1941 and Roosevelt’s demand to “tell that to the Marines”. Another example is September 12, 2001 and the “Let’s roll” spoken by passengers on Flight 93 as they fought the terrorists on their plane. Perhaps the quintessential example of the symbolic power of national identity comes from Texas in 1836 when an outnumbered band of Texians defined the character of a new nation when they were slaughtered by their Mexican opponents. In strictly military terms, the Battle of the Alamo was insignificant and even ill advised. But, as Putin will soon learn, there is more to war than numbers. “Remember the Alamo” became a meaningful rallying cry that defined the nation of Texas and brought overwhelming support to the fledgling Texas revolution.
Generations of Ukrainians may soon rally around the memory of an obscure place called Snake Island thanks to the words of the stalwart border guards in response to the attacking Russian Navy who advised them to capitulate. After brief discussion the Ukrainian guards acknowledged, “this is it”, and then advised the Russian Navy to “Go f*ck yourself”. For many, the memorable quote in this exchange is the vulgarity, which indeed makes the story a compelling one. But Putin is no stranger to being told to f*ck himself, and defiance alone is not enough to thwart his advances. The part of the Snake Island exchange that should worry Putin is when the guard says, “this is it”. In those three words he exemplified the will of the Ukrainian people. He knew he could surrender and live, or he could fight and most definitely die. In a matter of seconds he chose death. No invading military in the world can win against people who would rather die than be occupied.
Much has been made of Russian military advantages, and the speed with which the Russian attack has penetrated Ukraine. But first blood is merely a detail, and military strength alone is often not enough to win. The Mexicans struck first at The Alamo, the Japanese struck first at Pearl Harbor, the terrorists struck first on 9–11, but from the ashes of those defeats came the motivation for Americans to fight back, inspired by patriotic slogans. Snake Island, and “Go f*ck yourself” is likely to have the same effect for Ukrainians.
3. Leadership, “I need ammunition, not a ride”
As the world watches the Ukrainian people demonstrate the irrepressible strength of national identity, they will be especially attuned to the ultimate intangible factor in conflict; leadership. Specifically, all eyes will be on Volodymyr Zelenskyy who, thus far, has personified what it means to be a war-time leader.
Zelenskyy, a 44-year-old comedian turned national leader, has inspired with his words. In his emotional appeal to the Russians when an invasion seemed imminent, he implored, “We know for sure that we don’t need the war. Not a Cold War, not a hot war. Not a hybrid one. But if we’ll be attacked by the [enemy] troops, if they try to take our country away from us, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not attack, but defend ourselves. And when you will be attacking us, you will see our faces, not our backs, but our faces.”
In a speech that seemed aimed at the inactivity of Western European nations and the United States, Zelenskyy resolutely claimed, “We have been left alone to defend our state. Who is ready to fight alongside us? I don’t see anyone. Who is ready to give Ukraine a gurantee of NATO membership? Everyone is afraid.”
More importantly, Zelenskyy inspires with his actions. Leaders know it is not words, but deeds that matter. Inspiring words are important only because of the actions they produce. Leaders also know they can never ask anyone to do what they are unwilling to do themselves, and that is why the image of Zelenskyy donning body armor and standing shoulder to shoulder with his countrymen is so important.
But perhaps the most significant display of Zelenskyy’s leadership lies in his determination. Upon learning of Zelenskyy’s imperiled position in Kyiv, the U.S. government offered him assistance in evacuating Ukraine. Zelenskyy responded, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” As a superior military force converged on Kyiv, and the Russian military targeted Zylenskyy and his family, it would have been easy for him to avail himself of his privilege and abandon his people, but he stayed. Putin cannot hope to win against people with a leader like Zelenskyy.
The war in Ukraine is new, and predictions about its outcome are premature. But even in this early stage, it is clear to me Putin has overplayed his hand and underestimated the situation in Ukraine. The world will not be put off by Putin’s disinformation, the people of Ukraine are willing to fight to the end rather than surrender, and they are united by a genuine leader who appears to be built precisely for this moment. Putin should have considered the significance of these intangible factors prior to invading Ukraine, he is very likely becoming aware of them now. Were I his adviser I would suggest to Putin that the border guards on Snake Island suggested to him the most favorable course of action.