The signs that a new war could soon start on European soil are growing increasingly difficult to view without deep concern. It’s not just the warnings from US officials that Russia could invade Ukraine at any moment, or the fact that multiple countries are removing diplomats and advising their citizens to leave Ukraine, or that international airlines are canceling flights to Kyiv.
More than anything, it is Russia’s steady military encirclement of Ukraine that suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin might, at some point, order Russian forces to invade the neighboring country. Unless he doesn’t. Uncertainty still engulfs the Russian strongman’s plans.
Amid all the unknowns, there’s only one thing we know with certainty about how a war would play out in Ukraine: it would be unpredictable. Whatever happens, it’s not going to unfold precisely as military planners predict, no matter how detailed and well thought-out they might be.
That is the lesson the world has learned in conflict after conflict over the past decades of warfare — and in the centuries before that.
It’s the geopolitical manifestation of the wisdom famously imparted by former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Both Washington and Moscow learned that bitter lesson in Afghanistan. The Kremlin may have felt some satisfaction watching America’s ignominious departure from Kabul last summer, but the satisfaction was surely tempered by its own experience in Afghanistan.
Back in 1979, when the Soviet Union was one of the world’s two superpowers, Moscow dispatched the legendary Red Army to support a struggling communist regime. Surely, the scruffy rebels in Afghanistan’s barren hills and caves would be no match for the army that helped defeat Adolf Hitler and stared down the United States across the globe during the Cold War. But they were.
The Afghan rebels, supported by Washington, started bleeding the Soviet invaders. Thousands of body bags and tens of thousands of wounded soldiers returning home to the Soviet Union helped to undermine popular support for the Soviet regime. After nine years, the Kremlin withdrew in shame. Months later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
In the US, after 9/11, Washington thought it could make quick work of the Taliban, the heirs to the Mujahadeen that defeated the Soviets and then hosted the mastermind of the terrorist attack, Osama bin Laden. For a brief time, the operation was so successful, so easy, that the US turned its attention to another campaign that didn’t go anything as planned, the war in Iraq.
Initially, the campaign to topple the Taliban under whose hospitality bin Laden planned the attacks on the US, looked like a flawless military operation for a new era. With small teams of special forces, the US managed to end the Taliban’s rule in a few weeks. A new interim government was in place less than two months after America dropped the first bombs.
That mirage of success undoubtedly fueled America’s hubris in Iraq. With the drumbeat warnings of a “Shock and Awe” campaign, Saddam Hussein left power and his regime promptly fell. Barely 40 days after launching the war, then-President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier festooned with a giant “Mission Accomplished” sign, a moment that lives in infamy in US military history.
In Afghanistan, the US underestimated the ability of the Taliban to recover from the attack and lead a successful insurgency; in Iraq, it made a series of blunders that aided the cause of militants. Two decades later, a residual US force is still in a limping Iraq, and America is still paying the strategic price of defeat in a devastated Afghanistan.
When Putin sent his forces into Syria in 2015, then-President Barack Obama confidently predicted Russia would get stuck in a “quagmire,” echoing America’s experience in Vietnam. “It just won’t work,” Obama declared.
Russia’s intervention in Syria seems to have paid off, helping the country’s dictator, a Russian ally, survive. But success in the battlefield can breed arrogance. The early “success” in Afghanistan made Washington overconfident about the outcome in Iraq. Could the success in Syria make Putin excessively confident about a military risky gamble in Ukraine?
Early optimism about war is a common occurrence — a commonly disastrous one.
When a Serbian nationalist shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, nobody expected the chain reaction that led to tens of millions of deaths and embroiled much of Europe, along with nations from Japan to Brazil in World War I, or the Great War, as it came to be known for a time.
Young men enthusiastically joined the war effort, with military leaders convinced it would all be over in a few months, with everyone back home for Christmas.
Far from the quick affair the strategists had envisioned, the fighting featured a new generation of weaponry — as happens with some regularity — transforming the conflict and leading to unprecedented carnage. The political and diplomatic knitting of the region ended up bringing an ever-growing number of countries into the fray.
The war continued for four years, and when it ended it had sown the seeds for World War II, which forever rechristened the Great War into World War I.
That early optimism was also evident in the deadliest war for Americans, the Civil War. On both sides, spirits were high as idealistic youngsters signed up for 90 days in their crisp new uniforms. The excitement faded as the war raged for four brutal years. The death toll, somewhere around 750,000, amounted to some 2.5 % of the young country’s population, the highest number of US deaths in any war, equivalent to more than 7 million today.
Wars almost never play out exactly as planned. That is not to say that no war is ever worth fighting. But when disputes shift from diplomacy and politics to shooting on a battlefield, everything changes.
As Putin’s forces mass along three sides of Ukraine, we can only hope he, too, is a student of history and understands there’s a high likelihood that an invasion will not turn out quite as he expects.
Even if he doesn’t care about history’s verdict, perhaps he can glean its warning to avert disaster — not just for Ukraine, but also for Russia, and potentially other parts of the world.