|In this Very Special Episode of Putin, he explains why Ukraine is not a country and invades with 180,000 troops
There are interesting parallels (and differences) between Vietnam and Putin's ‘Very Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine.
In both cases, the occupying / invading army consisted largely of poorly motivated conscripts, experienced discipline problems, relied on overwhelming, indiscriminate firepower (artillery or bombing) and had an unrealistic assessment of the situation (and of both their own and enemy capabilities).
By contrast, the invaded countries (Ukraine and Vietnam) were highly motivated while being numerically inferior; both were also backed by a super power (the United States and the USSR/China).
I've been doing some reading and this is what I've come up with. I'm putting it down mostly for my own sake, to make sense out of what's happening, and try and understand where it may be headed.
|The end of a Roland Emmerich movie or Ukraine? You decide
Ukraine had one hell of a tumultuous 20th century. Towards the end of World War I, Ukraine made a pact with the Central Powers to provide grain in exchange for driving the Bolsheviks out. Cossack General Skoropadsky established a Ukrainian Hetmanate in April, 1918, but fled with the German surrender in November.
A French military expedition to Odessa and Crimea followed, but quickly withdrew ahead of a Soviet invasion. That was rolled back by a Polish-Ukrainian alliance, which collapsed when Poland made peace with the USSR. Ukraine officially became a Soviet in 1922.
The Holodomor followed in the 1930s, during which 3 to 5 million Ukrainians are estimated to have died during an engineered famine.
World War II killed almost 7 million Ukrainians (1.5 million of them Jewish, often killed with the help of their neighbours), roughly 16% of the entire population. The UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) assisted the Germans. Some 80,000 Ukrainians joined the Waffen SS, while others served as concentration camp guards. Anti-semitism ran deep across Eastern Europe. This is where the Nazi slur against Ukraine comes from. A total of around 250,000 Ukrianians assisted the Axis (although arguably some were fighting more for Ukrainian independence and amorally using whatever ally was convenient).
|World war II casualties broken down by nation: Russia gets almost half the pie
The German General Plan for the East called for a reduced population employed as slaves, with the majority being killed off through starvation (grain would instead be shipped back to feed Germany). Nothing but the most rudimentary education (reading sign posts, for example) was to be provided for the population moving forward. The Nazis were taking a page from the Spartans, who kept uneducated Helots to do the hard work. By 1944, the Nazis had been driven out of Ukraine, although Ukrainian nationalists continued fighting an insurgency in Western Ukraine against Soviet domination until as late as 1954. Timothy Snyder, no relation to Zach, dubbed the region between Berlin and Moscow ‘The Bloodlands’, because armies kept running over it, then backing up and running over it again and again. It inspired George Orwell’s depiction of conflict between the superstates Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in 1984. I wrote about that here.
|Shoot that guy: inspirational Soviet propaganda poster
In 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation again. It retained Crimea, assigned to it by Nikita, and a large nuclear arsenal. Clinton persuaded them to give the nukes up in 1994 in exchange for pieces of paper guaranteeing Ukrainian security.
|The piece of paper that guaranteed Ukrainian security, in exchange for surrendering their nuke arsenal
In 2014, 'Little Green Men' occupied Crimea and pro-Russian insurgents seized part of the Donbas (The NVA infiltrated South Vietnam all while also denying they were there). Russia also began funding gangs to rabble rouse across Eastern Ukraine.
The rest is current events: Russia has attacked on at least four fronts (North, South, Northeast and East) against a numerically comparable enemy, without unified command. The have failed to establish air superiority, adequate logistical support or even discipline amongst their troops.
Like Ukraine, Vietnam spent decades subsumed in a foreign political unit, as part of the French colony of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh initially approached the Americans for support for Vietnamese independence, as there had been an anti-colonialist streak in American foreign policy before the Second World War, but that died the minute the Cold War began.
Japanese occupation broke any mystique the French had, and when France attempted to reassert control over Indochina, Minh declared independence. Despite the Americans footing the bill, by 1954 the French were ready to call it quits. Indochina split into three new nations: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Vietnam was divided into a communist North and an ostensibly democratic, but in truth deeply corrupt and autocratic, South.
During the Advisor Period that followed, with up to 16,000 American military consultants backed by airpower. Viet Cong attacks on American airfields dragged in American ground troops, ushering in Johnson's War. Tet finished Johnson politically and shattered American morale, even while annihilating the VC, who never again fielded troops at battalion level. NVA command had expected their attack to inspire an uprising against the Americans across South Vietnam (rather akin to how Bin Laden expected an uprising after 9/11); they were out of touch and projected on to the South their own values and beliefs. No mass pro-communist uprising occurred. On the other hand, the result they got was almost as good. It's one of those rare occasions where a military won the war by losing the battle(s).
Nixon was up to bat next, but even as he bombed the crap out of Cambodia and the North, he was looking for a way out. By 1973, US troops had vacated the arena. In 1975, North Vietnam plowed into the power vacuum and South Vietnam imploded. In less than two months, NVA tanks rolled into Saigon, just like Russian tanks didn't in Ukraine.
|American troops visit a Vietnamese village
The 'Imperial' Armies
|Soviet forces roll into Afghanistan
Civilian casualties and dumb bombs
The MCAV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) required body counts from units in the field: that was established as the measure for success in Vietnam. Not the smartest decision the US military has ever made.
According to Gunter Lewy (and Wikipedia) 1/3 of enemy KIA were civilians, for a total of 220,000 civilian deaths over the course of the war. That's not including bombing casualties in Laos, Cambodia or North Vietnam.
Soldiers were encouraged to make up kill counts if they didn't know the actual numbers. Accuracy wasn't the paramount concern: the military bureaucracy had a box to check, and everyone going up the chain of command needed a number. But who's going to comb through dangerous jungle, or tunnels, for bodies? The numbers were often pulled out of thin air.
|American troops used helicopters to bypass jungle and ambushes
Free Fire Zones were established in which anyone who was unidentified or out after curfew could be shot on sight. Given the incentive system, civilian casualties seem inevitable.
According to Vietnam: 50 Years Remembered, American infantry averaged 240 days of combat per year in Vietnam, but only 10 days in WWII. An incredible statistic which, if true, suggests enormous psychological stress on the GIs in Vietnam, contributing to poor decision making.
In Ukraine, Russia has deliberately shelled residential neighbourhoods, causing mass casualties. Body count may not be a success measure, but terror seems to be part of their modus operandi. Russian troops have also (reportedly) engaged in extensive rape, looting, torture and murder.
To be fair, that's pretty common in war. US troops committed atrocities in Vietnam (My Lai was just the most publicized example) and there were unintended strikes against civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, the modern American military exhibits both a significantly higher level of professionalism, and avoidance of civilian casualties, than the RF.
The Russians are deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods with artillery. Mariupol has been flattened, with an estimated 5,000 civilian casualties. Mass graves have also been uncovered in areas evacuated by Russian troops north of Kyiv.
At it's peak, the United States had 543,000 personnel in Vietnam, supported by roughly 700,000 ARVN troops. The population of South Vietnam was 16 million. North Vietnam had a slightly larger population of 18 million. And yet, even with over 1.2 million men at their disposal (six times the number of Russian troops in Ukraine, a country almost three times the population of South Vietnam), supported by air power and artillery, the US and South Vietnam could not solidify their control.
The NVA and VC had some 100,000 troops in South Vietnam, virtually all of whom were replaced annually due to extremely high casualties. Giap said that by 1969 the North had already suffered 500,000 casualties, but that wasn't going to stop them: "The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little."
Iraq has a population of 40 million; US troop levels ranged between 130,000 to 187,000 between 2004 and 2009, not including private contractors or Iraqi security forces. Prior to the invasion, General Shinseki estimated that 260,000 troops would be required to successfully occupy Iraq. They never came close, and until local militias were co-opted, the country was notoriously unstable.
The Russian army entered Ukraine, a country of 44 million, with roughly 180,000 troops and 2,840 tanks. That's comparable to the troop levels the Americans deployed in Iraq, but there's a marked difference in capabilities and professionalism. America's all volunteer army has higher morale and greater dedication, along with the support of NCOs and contractors.
Deployed against the Russians are (were?) 215,000 active Ukrainian military personnel supported by 2,550 tanks.
So far, Russian forces have suffered the verified loss of at least 450 tanks and over 800 supply trucks. Ukrainians have ambushed Russian columns (the Russians aren't screening their tanks with infantry) as they advanced, which is the same strategy the VC used against the French in Vietnam. They attempted it against the Americans too, but the US moved troops via helicopter and leapfrogged over the ambush sites.
|Livemap of war in Ukraine
Russian casualty figures range from 8,000 to 20,000 for the first month. By comparison, 6,990 Americans were killed in Vietnam in the first nine months of 1967. It took ten years for the USSR to suffer comparable casualty figures in Afghanistan.
Are these fair comparisons? Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were all counter-insurgency wars, with great force disparities, so lower casualty figures for the dominant side would be expected. And of course casualty figures should be taken with a massive grain of salt. Both sides are trying to spin the stats.
Compared to American troop levels in Vietnam and Iraq, it's difficult to believe Russia will be able to successfully occupy Ukraine given the forces it has deployed (if that even is the intent, which it probably isn't).
|B-52 bombers drop freedom
Interdiction of supplies
|Bang! You just shot your propaganda war in the head.
The media war
Since Putin cannot afford to lose, if his military forces continue to be stymied, he may feel compelled to escalate, without limit, for the sake of both victory and his own self-preservation.
|Look! Lyndon Johnson's Daisy Girl is back!
|War is like gambling: not just who has the better hand, but who is willing to sacrifice the most lives without folding. Can a democratic country match a dictator's disregard for his own people?