How Putin, misreading the past, has gone horribly wrong

July 7th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

In his misguided attack on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, who seems to have learned nothing from history, is making all the mistakes tyrants have made in the past. He’s in great company — Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolph Hitler come to mind. Let me explain.

In August 1914, in a war that never should have been, but was, nonetheless, inevitable, the Russian Imperial Army, poorly trained cannon fodder, lacking modern equipment, and insufficiently armed — not much artillery and fewer bullets — significantly influenced the outcome of World War I in spite of the Czar’s  apparent indifference. Here’s how it happened.

In 1870, Germany had defeated France in the  Franco-Prussian War. Germany’s overly greedy and needlessly cruel terms of surrender were excruciating for France and from that point on both countries, each of whom knew they would meet again on the battlefield, prepared for the rematch that would become World War I.

To that end, Germany’s Chief of the General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, devoted his entire tenure (1891 to 1906) to creating what would become the German Plan of Attack. The plan called for a huge, lightning-like strike through Belgium, which would result in the capture of Paris in nearly six weeks, 40 days. But there was a problem: Belgium neutrality and safety, which had been officially guaranteed in 1831 in London at an international conference of European powers — which included Russia.

The Kaiser and his generals decided to ignore Belgian neutrality and proceed with the Schlieffen plan, which was exact in every detail, a model of precision, and it factored in every possible contingency.

The only thing it lacked was flexibility. That is, what to do if something went wrong. And many things did. As that great American philosopher Mike Tyson put it, “All your plans go out the window the first time someone punches you in the mouth.”

The Germans invaded Belgium on their way to Paris on 4 August 1914. In addition to misjudging the determination of the French to defend themselves, they believed Britain would either stay out completely or join the battle late. They underestimated the valor of the Belgians, who refused to roll over and play dead. And they failed to appreciate that Russia, a signatory to the treaty for defending Belgium, would mobilize, join the war, and, with 800,000 soldiers — poorly equipped and insufficiently armed — engage with and delay the German army weeks before Schlieffen’s plan anticipated. Russia’s actions upset the Schlieffen timetable, and, rather than champagne in Paris after 40 days, the Germans settled in for four years of trench warfare and a defeat that would lay the ground for Hitler’s rise and another war that should never have been, but was, once again, inevitable.

And so it was that, after taking power in January 1933, Nazifying all of Germany in the next  seven years, conquering Poland nearly overnight in 1939, leading to the deaths of more than three million Poles, 1.4 million of them Jews, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941 and invaded the Soviet Union.

The German invasion went according to plan in the first six weeks as its troops tore into Ukraine¹ and Russia at breakneck speed. Early in the campaign they took more than three million prisoners. Stalin panicked, retreating to his Dacha not knowing what to do. But over a weekend he recovered his nerve, assembled his generals, and got to work fighting the invaders.

Like Schlieffen before him, Hitler had mistakenly thought his war with the Soviet Union would be brief, perhaps a couple of months, but as Stalin’s forces regrouped and continued to pour soldiers into battle from what seemed a nearly limitless human arsenal, — the number would eventually reach 14 million, more than half of them Ukrainians — everything slowed down. Summer and autumn turned into winter, the coldest ever recorded, once reaching -49° Fahrenheit, for which the Germans were nearly completely unprepared. With little food, overstretched supply lines, equipment that wouldn’t work in the cold, and soldiers who were, literally, freezing, they soon found themselves, just as they had 27 years earlier, in a four-year slog of a war they could never win. The eastern front was where Hitler lost World War II. The Russians don’t call it the Great Patriotic War for nothing.

And so, in both the first and second World Wars, Russians and soldiers from regions occupied by Russia (the vast majority being Ukrainians) saved Europe from German domination. More than 12 million of them died in the process (again, more than half were Ukrainian). Despite the brutality of Czars and  the cruelty of Communists, made manifest in Joseph Stalin’s malign and barbaric Ukrainian genocide by starvation², these patriots fought with heroism and profound self-sacrifice.

Today, Vladimir Putin is making precisely the same mistakes made by Schlieffen, Kaiser Wilhelm, and Hitler. Like them, he thought he could capture a docile country in less than a month, putting it back where he was sure it belonged, that would be in his pocket. His army — and mercenaries — have committed documented crimes against humanity, atrocities similar to those perpetrated by Hitler’s SS.

In his “Special Military Operation,” he has gravely miscalculated everything. He has completely underestimated the determination, and skill, of Ukrainians and their leaders to successfully resist his monstrous invasion. He has misjudged the continuing unity of NATO in providing the arsenal Ukraine needs to defend itself. In effect, he has created a unified NATO to an extent no one ever thought possible. He has weakened his position as Russia’s leader, and, despite sending Prigozhin and his 25,000 Wagner mercenaries packing off to Belarus³, he has opened the door to the carping of his critics and wanna-be successors. Rather than smashing him down like a tiny bug, he has raised Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy to superstar Churchillian status. He has been forced to buy weaponry, mostly drones, from Iran and grovel for more from China, which has been smart enough not to give any, not that we know of, anyway.

But what strikes me above all else is that in his manic drive to be seen as the second coming of Peter the Great, he has viciously and barbarically attacked the very country that, more than any other, saved his country, Russia, from defeat at the hands of the German Goliath in World War II. There’s gratitude for you.

Now, having dug himself and his country into the deepest of holes, he has yet to find anything better to do other than to keep digging.

It is only a matter of time before all the dirt he has shoveled out falls back in and buries him. Like Hitler after Operation Barbarossa, his days are numbered.


¹ In a terrible twist, in addition to millions of Ukrainians fighting with the Red Army, a significant number in the western part of the country joined forces with the Germans when the invasion came.

² In 1932 and 1933, more than 3.9 million Ukrainians were starved by man-made famine as Stalin sought to tamp down Ukrainian nationalism. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine is often called the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor).

³ Although reports from yesterday suggest Prigozhin may have left Belarus. To go where? We don’t know.