The Ukraine War is Becoming Putin’s Vietnam

s the war in Ukraine drags into its fourth month with no end in sight, a number of observers are beginning to ask, “Will the West grow tired of supporting Ukraine?” Some commentators have opined that “time is on Putin’s side,” and that the fierce response of NATO and other global democracies will gradually wane in the face of economic challenges stemming from inflation, Russia’s choking off of Ukrainian agrarian and hydrocarbon products from the global economy, internal political divisions (especially in the U.S.), and issue fatigue as the relentless 24/7 news cycle moves on.

I’m old enough to remember the U.S. experience in Vietnam, and Putin’s situation is increasingly reminiscent of that long, painful misadventure. He is losing more of his cards than he had at the start. As the year progresses, it will be more obvious that Putin is on both the east and Ukraine’s side.

Let’s start with the military facts on the ground. Putin’s original goal was to conquer all of Ukraine in one sweeping thrust, decapitating the Zelensky government and installing a puppet regime in Kyiv. That “Plan A” has failed, a result of over confidence, bad intelligence, worse generalship, execrable logistics, and terrible on-the-ground leadership. His “Plan B,” is a retreat to traditional Soviet/Russian tactics: grinding out small stretches of territory and terrorizing the Ukrainian civilian population with a deliberate campaign of war crimes.

However, Ukraine’s vast majority are deeply against the aggressor. This is similar to Vietnam where the U.S. was welcomed with vodka bottles. Russian soldiers received Molotov cocktails instead of the promised vodka bottles when they invaded Ukraine. The Ukrainian resistance will be strengthened by the revelations of war crimes and the time to do so will strengthen its resolve.

Thus Putin’s chances of truly upending the situation on the ground and gaining a significant additional amount of territory appear small. Putin started his campaign with the control of 15 percent of Ukraine, with the goal to reach nearly 100 percent. He may only end up with between 20 and 25 percent. That’s a failing grade on any test.

Putin, who has access to foreign sanctuaries is a foe similar to America’s Vietnam experience. It was not possible for the U.S. to cut down weapons flows to Vietcong. The Russians are unlikely to block significant aid heading to Ukrainians. The Ukrainians have far greater weapon flows, superior intelligence, cyber support and significant financial resources than any Vietcong.

Continue reading: Ukraine is in worse shape than you think

Both Russian soldiers as well their equipment are suffering increasing casualties. Reliable estimates indicate Russian killed in action heading toward 20,000—a staggering number almost triple what the US lost in 20 years of the forever wars. Russian navy was stunned by the loss of their Black Sea flagship Moskva. More than a thousand Russian tanks were destroyed. Without Putin making Russia a fully war-footing over the next few years, this level of damage is not sustainable. It will also impact Putin’s domestic hold, regardless of how much media control he has. LBJ could see the difficult choices that lie ahead of Putin.

In some ways, Putin’s situation is worse than the U.S. in Vietnam. Putin’s democratic opponents—the U.S., most of Europe, all of NATO, Japan, Australia and others—represent nearly 60% of the world’s GDP. Russia’s economy is only around 10%, and they are thus seriously outgunned in the economic sphere. China does not seem to be interested in offering Russia any assistance. If the U.S. places secondary sanctions against Russian businesses, Putin’s economic position will worsen.

Fortunately for Kyiv, the cost of support to the Ukrainians—set against the huge size of Western economies—is quite small. At current support levels, Ukraine’s cost is small compared to what was spent on Afghanistan and Iraq during peak operations.

Strategic communications have finally been successful against Putin. President Zelensky has proven a master communicator, easily outstripping the ham-handed and implausible Russian narrative of toppling the “Nazi regime” in Kyiv. Over time, Zelensky’s skills in promoting the cause of his nation will strengthen his case.

Putin’s most likely course of action will be to secure as much territory as he possibly can before the “burn rate” in terms of Russians killed in action, destroyed equipment, crushing sanctions, and international opprobrium really kicks in. Putin is hoping that as an exit strategy the west will just pressure the Ukrainian people to agree to an armistice granting Russia de jure control of over 20%.

That appears unlikely at this point, given all the war crimes and the Ukrainian’s spirited resistance. In the months ahead, both of these factors will become more important. Putin has a terrible hand of cards. He is on the verge of a major defeat, just like the U.S. He is losing time.

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