Ukraine could well be Vladimir Putin’s Vietnam. Will Putin’s “special military operation” turn into a quagmire that disembowels the Russian army and ultimately leads to its defeat? Or will Putin continue that war no matter the cost, expecting Russia’s advantages in size and mass to overcome Ukraine’s heroic resistance?
Many Americans may feel uncomfortable comparing Putin to any U.S. president, with the possible exception of Donald Trump. However, many of the mistakes Lyndon Johnson and his administration made in Vietnam have been repeated by Putin and Russia in Ukraine. Consider some of the similarities.
South Vietnam emerged along with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam after the 1954 Geneva Conference and France’s military defeat and subsequent withdrawal from IndoChina. The North still harbored plans for the South that it would pursue for two decades.
In 1991, after the Soviet Union imploded along with other former Soviet republics, Ukraine became independent and the Russian Federation replaced the former USSR. Putin believed that this dissolution was the greatest geostrategic disaster of the last century. And Putin began to wean Ukraine back into the Moscow sphere.
The Vietnam War was viewed by the Kennedy-Johnson administration as a vital national interest in preventing what was popularly perceived in America as the Sino-Soviet, godless monolithic threat of global communism that had to be stopped. South Vietnam became the battlefield for nearly a decade and a half to halt that advance. Some 58,000 Americans and many times more Vietnamese on both sides would die.
Putin’s goal was to stop NATO’s expansion and influence in the east and prevent Ukraine from joining that alliance. These were vital Russian interests that Putin concluded could only be achieved through the use of force. And while the Russian army was all volunteer, Putin would have been forced to mobilize some 300,000 Russian recruits, i.e. conscripts, just as the majority of US soldiers sent to Vietnam were conscripts.
The United States expected the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to be quickly overwhelmed by America’s vastly superior military forces. As that war stalled, though the United States won virtually every battle it fought, with massive “body counts” of enemy deaths, Hanoi would not give up. To force the North to the conference table, the United States began a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam called “Rolling Thunder”.
Putin similarly believed that his troops would quickly rout the Ukrainian army and march into Kiev, capturing it and thus guaranteeing the surrender of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. There was every reason for Putin to believe that the outcome was inevitable. The Russian army had been modernized into battalion battlegroups equipped with time-tested weapons that had proven themselves in Syria, where some 5,000 Russian troops and Kalibr cruise missiles kept President Bashar al-Assad in power.
However, Putin’s army is badly bloodied and torn apart. The death toll has favored Ukraine by a large number, as 100,000 or more Russian casualties have been killed or wounded; thousands of its tanks, artillery pieces and armored vehicles destroyed or captured; and much of its ammunition, missile and drone supplies were depleted in the fighting. Faced with defeat on the ground, Putin turned to missile strikes against Ukraine’s energy, water and food infrastructure to force Kiev to negotiate or capitulate.
The well-known 1968 North Vietnamese Tet Offensive was a military failure and a public relations success for Hanoi, as many Americans became convinced that the war was unwinnable. Rolling Thunder did not bring North Vietnam to its knees. However, the 1972 Christmas bombing brought North Vietnam back to the negotiating table.
By 1973, the United States had withdrawn virtually all of its troops from Vietnam. And two years later, the tanks of the North rolled into Saigon and finally unified Vietnam. Russian tanks are unlikely to roll into Kiev. But whether Ukraine will essentially become North Vietnam and expel all aggressors is also highly unlikely.
Although the struggle in Ukraine seems to be heading for an impasse, one aspect of the Vietnam War may be decisive. Vietnam was largely lost in American living rooms as the war continued and more Americans were killed. The United States was not used to fighting long wars.
The United States declared war on the Central Powers in April 1917 which ended in November 1918. World War II lasted from December 1941 to September 1945. And the Korean War was fought from June 1950-1953.
Will Ukraine be decided in Russian living rooms? That is perhaps the most important comparison with Vietnam. The answer is most likely no. But what if the Russian public turned against the war? Putin would be unwise to ignore that prospect.
By Harlan Ullman @ United Press International.
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor to the Atlantic Council in Washington, lead author of “shock and awe” and author of “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large ” .” Follow him @harlankullman.