When Russian troops crossed into Ukraine on February 24, its people astonished the world with their determination, as fierce as it was unflappable. Russians seemed taken aback. Western democracies were electrified. And yet, the eventual fall of Ukraine is still presented as a foregone conclusion.
How strange. Have we already forgotten that vastly superior U.S.-led coalitions were recently defeated or forced to a stalemate in two wars, against puny and disorganized foes?
Ukraine, of course, is not Afghanistan, where I lived and worked for most of a decade. The situation and the behavior of combatants there do not exactly map onto today’s war in eastern Europe. Still, outmanned and outgunned forces can and do win. Afghanistan (repeatedly), Iraq, and Vietnam prove it. Those recent examples also indicate what winning takes: that is, what may be required of Ukrainians — and of those intent on seizing this moment to fight for democracy and roll back Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. The cost is high, but with time, resolve, and access to a safe haven, the Ukrainians can win.
In 2003, Afghanistan’s Taliban seemed to be obliterated, facing impossible odds of returning to power. That was when news of the first hit-and-run atrocities began surfacing in Mullah Muhammad Omar’s former stronghold of Kandahar, where I lived. As the black turbaned fighters filtered back into the region, I watched them absorb losses and regroup, even reorient their angle of approach to their former capital. That took a whole year. Another fifteen passed before they succeeded in defeating the U.S.-led international coalition.
That conflict, let me repeat, is by no means an exact parallel to today’s. The Taliban have none of the legitimacy of Ukraine's citizen-soldiers, and their values are opposite to those championed and embodied by the Ukrainian people. Nor am I comparing the United States and its allies, in moral terms, to invading Russia. The focus here is solely on military realities.
But those realities are instructive. Vastly superior armies are not overcome in a matter of weeks. Vietnamese forces, for a further example, battled for nearly three decades after World War II to rid themselves of two powerful western occupiers: France then the United States.
The war in Ukraine is only days old. A long view will be needed to see it through.
We Can Do It! North Vietnamese women learning how to use a machine gun.
Think of how doggedly Vietnamese insurgents fought, through the span of an entire generation. Or, to glance at Afghanistan again, consider the fortitude it took to ride out on motorcycles — or horses — against Soviet tanks or U.S. Stryker vehicles. What a feat of conviction it was to ignore appearances and pursue victory, year in, year out.
And it’s not just the frontline fighters who showed resolve. Their foreign backers faced down hair-raising risks to arm, supply, and assist those on the front.
Today, Ukrainians are deploying the same unshakeable conviction in defense of democratic ideals. Can we match it?
Afghan guerrillas prepare for action with Soviet and government forces in 1980. The guerrillas were able to slip in and out of neighboring Iran, where they re-supplied from Muslims who sympathized with their struggle.
For, no insurgency wins without help. Vietcong guerrillas were equipped by the Soviet Union and China on a par with U.S. troops. Teheran reportedly armed Shiite militias in Iraq with surface to air missiles and vehicle bombs. Similarly, NATO countries and other democracies are rushing an arsenal of advanced weapons into Ukraine, including jets.
But hardware is not enough. Crucial to Afghans’ two victories were the camps across the border where the Pakistani army’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) trained class after class of recruits, offered death-shocked fighters a chance to rest and recover their nerve, and helped plan the insurgents’ campaign. Europe is opening its arms to refugees from Ukraine. But it is hard to imagine its forces repelling the Russians without access to similar safe havens outside its borders.
In that requirement lies both the greatest danger to neighboring countries, and the greatest test of our resolve. For “outside Ukraine” means inside NATO.
A scenario that features Ukrainian fighters taking a few days’ leave or refitting or training in Poland or Slovakia, and Russia bombing their camp, is perfectly plausible. It suggests one way this conflict could escalate.
By putting nuclear forces on alert, Putin is raising the stakes. Even his increasingly unhinged behavior could be a devious charade, aimed at deterring U.S. and European leaders from offering Kyiv the types of assistance it really needs.
They should not get rattled. NATO allies must begin planning to offer territory for Ukrainian fighters who need to rest and refit, or need more than 8 hours’ training with a rifle. Long distance transport should be part of those plans, so the risk does not fall on frontline nations alone.
Ukrainians have already given the world’s democracies an irreplaceable gift: they have jolted us out of our angry and dispirited self-laceration. They have demonstrated what it means to defend democracy. They have delivered a unifying moment. Let’s not waste it. Or them.
Sarah Chayes covered the Balkans, Algeria, and Afghanistan for National Public Radio. She ran a soap factory in downtown Kandahar in the midst of a reigniting insurgency, which led to advising commanders of the international forces in Kabul and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen. After leaving the Pentagon she spent five years at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This is adapted from her blog, found at www.sarahchayes.org.