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Column: Russian history, military philosophy help explain the Ukraine invasion



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column of those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Augusta Press.

The enemy in our house

A young university student was sleeping in his attic room when he was awakened by the sound of aircraft. Irritated, he stomped to his open window, looked up … and could clearly make out the black and white crosses of the Nazi air force. It was May 1940, and the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands had begun.

Five days of fighting followed, but as the Netherlands is about a quarter the size of Alabama and lacked air cover and modern equipment, the outcome could not be in doubt. The Dutch Army surrendered, and the people suffered through five years of occupation.

That young college student was my father, a native of the Netherlands. What the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands did to my parents is hard to explain. They couldn’t really explain it. I remember my mother saying that the only cheerful sound they heard in those five years was the roar of the Anglo-American bomber fleets overhead.

We are now seeing the same kind of aggression again, as Ukraine is being invaded from many directions by Russian armies under the direction of dictator Vladimir Putin. Some are fleeing, some are fighting, but all are facing the strong possibility of living under hostile occupation.

My father once told me that the worst part of it was the uncertainty; you never knew what the occupying army and police would want to do with you tomorrow. It’s an experience that most Americans have thankfully never had. In fact, the only major foreign attack that any living Americans have experience was 9-11, and even that did not lead to an occupation. So, it’s not easy for us to understand Ukraine’s suffering – but we can understand why its people are resisting so hard.

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A Russian dictator

None of this would be happening if it were not for Putin – and so to understand and forecast events along the Dnieper River, we have to consider his motives. At first glance, his motives look pretty traditionally Russian (which is what he wants his own people to believe, incidentally). Russia has always fought to gain control of the borderlands around its heartland. In the 16th century, the country fought (and lost) a 25-year war to gain control of the Baltic coast. In the 17th century, it gained control of Ukraine. In the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great devoted immense resources to gaining control of the Baltic and Black Sea coasts. When the Russian Empire collapsed into revolution in 1917-18, many of these territories became independent of Russia. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin regained a great deal of territory by making deals with Adolf Hitler to absorb the Baltic region, and a huge slice of what was then eastern Poland. Ergo, you might say that Putin, by gobbling up various territories or extending his influence (Ukraine is just the latest and biggest), is following in the shoes of his predecessors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Photo courtesy the Kremlin, www.kremlin.ru

No, he isn’t.

Putin may share his predecessors’ desire to rebuild the Soviet Union/Russian Empire, but his approach is completely different. Putin is a risk-taker. In fact, his KGB supervisors criticized him for this when he was a lieutenant colonel in that outfit.

Russian and Soviet leaders traditionally have not been risk-takers when it comes to foreign affairs. Consider, for example, Stalin’s territorial acquisitions. Stalin gobbled up a slice of Poland after making an agreement with Poland’s other major neighbor, Nazi Germany, and he waited for the Nazis to invade Poland from the north, south, and west, before he sent the Red Army into its east. The Baltic countries, he absorbed easily. He launched a war of aggression against Finland, but the only countries that could have helped Finland, Britain and France, were already at war with Nazi Germany. So, Stalin was playing a game very much stacked in his favor, and one with almost no risks.

At first, to be fair, this appeared to be true of Putin. He certainly held many cards, because there was little Washington or its European allies could do to oppose the Russian president’s pressure on the Ukraine. Putin and stooge Sergei Lavrov (shades of Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentropp) appeared to be ratcheting up demands to force the West and Ukraine to make some concessions. Instead, Putin proceeded to recognize the independence of pro-Russian “republics” inside Ukraine and then launch a multipoint invasion of the Ukraine, bringing Russia into direct conflict with the entire Western world. (True, he has Chinese backing, but even some Chinese are worried about Vlad’s behavior.) I cannot think of a single Soviet or Russian leader who has been this reckless, with the possible exception of Tsar Paul I, who ordered the Russian army to cross Afghanistan and invade British India. Tsar Paul’s courtiers promptly assassinated him rather than deal with the consequences of his recklessness.

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Now that the invasion has begun, what are Russia’s immediate military aims?

There are actually any number of possibilities. A rapid blitz-style conquest does not seem to be part of the current plan. Instead, the invasion in many places has been slow and ponderous.

What are the goals? To flood the roads with refugees, crippling movement of Ukrainian troops and supplies? To overawe the Ukrainians, to discourage resistance and bring about a rapid surrender? Perhaps hoping still for concessions and diplomatic settlement favorable to Russia? Hoping to draw the best Ukrainian forces into battle and destroy them, thereby facilitating the later phases of the conquest?

One reason that this is difficult to analyze is an important concept in Soviet/Russian military doctrine, maskirovka. There is no precise English equivalent. It combines camouflage, concealment, and deception, and has as its purpose to mask the operational and strategic intentions of the Soviet/Russian forces. I doubt that the Russian Army, embarking on its biggest operation since 1945, has suddenly forgotten this important doctrine. (The Pentagon agrees with me, BTW.)

Finally, when analyzing Russian strategy, whether executed by Putin or a saner leader, keep in mind that the foundation of Russian strategy can best be described as “offensive defensiveness.” Contrary to what Karl Marx thought, the Russians historically have not thought in terms of conquering the world, or even conquering Europe. Rather, they keep adding territory and taking other steps to improve their long-term defensive position. The one thing that undergirds almost all Soviet and Russian military thought is the belief that an attack is coming. The history of Russia makes it pretty clear why this is so; the country has been invaded throughout its history, and its geography has made that fairly easy.

However, this fear can lead to some strange things. It can lead Russians to believe Putin’s propaganda. Not too long ago, the KGB kept demanding of its spies in the United States to find out the date that America intended to attack! Paranoia is not the best foundation for strategy.

Holding all the cards . . . Or not

At the beginning of the crisis, Putin held all the cards. Geographically, no major power other than Russia borders Ukraine. He was on good terms with Turkey and China, and there was little chance that the Western countries would unify, even on economic and political sanctions.

He may well win the war, but the costs will not be negligible, nor will the victory be easy. The Russian military has strengths and weaknesses. It has an enormous firepower advantage, and its special forces are excellent, but its general-purpose forces suffer from low morale and poor training. The Russians are engaging in street fighting, the one area where civilians can effectively resist organized and trained armed forces. Popular opposition to the war in Russia is significant. Putin cannot be completely sure about whether his military and security forces will remain relevant forever.

Putin has also strengthened his foreign opposition. NATO has become relevant again. Unity between America and European countries has strengthened. I tremble to think of the hours that American diplomats must have been working in the last few days to get Britain, France, and Germany on the same page. NATO forces are moving into Eastern Europe as we speak. (I have had the privilege of working with U.S. diplomats in Russia and in Belarus, and I can personally assure you that they are a superb group of people.)

Ukrainian President Zelensky has also shown both his insight and his courage by remaining in Kyiv and mobilizing and arming civilians. He is daring the Russians to invade his cities, knowing that that will be the most difficult and costly theater of war for the Russians to fight in. Worse (from a Russian perspective), this raises the possibility of a partisan war even after a conquest. The Russians could destroy Kyiv, but that would hardly count as a victory; they are claiming an entitlement to take the Ukraine because of its tremendous early-Russian history; destroying Kyiv would not leave much of that propaganda intact. Zelensky is also showing the world that his people are prepared to fight; that is not only inspiring, but it convinces Westerners that sending aid is not a lost cause.

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Did Putin miscalculate on the critical issue of whether Ukrainians would resist?

It wouldn’t be the first time. Joseph Stalin made gargantuan errors because he was not getting accurate information – because his people were afraid to give it to him. So, one wonders whether Russian intel was bad (unlikely), he was fed bad information (possible) or he ignored the intel he didn’t like (very possible).

Where will all this go?

Wars acquire a dynamic all of their own. Once begun, leaders and governments increasingly lose control, especially if they fall into “we-have-no-choice” type of thoughts. In other words, escalation can take place quite rapidly even though no single leader or government specifically willed it.

Hubert P. van Tuyll is a history professor emeritus at Augusta University. His expertise is in the World Wars in Europe, and specifically Russian-American relations during World War II and how that influenced the outcome of the Russian war effort on the Eastern Front. His first book, Feeding the Bear, was the product of his Russian studies.


  1. Great information, one thing history has taught us is tenacity is a greater enemy than a well armed military. It seems that the Ukrainian people are willing to die for their sovereignty. That’s a tough thing to defeat. All you have to do is look at Vietnam…

  2. Interesting article, but, below, one can see by THE FACTS, the demise of RUSSIA, a socialist/marxist/communist Country VERSUS The UNITED STATES, a Republic, founded under CAPITALISM.

    A clear example of what is in store for Americans if the Democratic Left society continue their agenda.
    Lest we forget, lest we forget.

    THE FACTS, BELOW: (gathered easily on the internet)
    RUSSIA – GDP IN CURRENT DOLLARS(rounded to nearest $1,000 ; 2013- $16,000; 2014- $14,000; 2015- $9,000; 2016- $11,000; 2017- $11,000; 2018- $11,000; 2019- $11,000; 2020- $10,000(Covid).

    UNITED STATES – GDP IN CURRENT DOLLARS(rounded to nearest $1,000) : 2013- $53,000; 2014- $55,000; 2015- $57,000; 2016- $58,000; 2017- $60,000; 2018- $63,000; 2019- $65,000; 2020- $64,000(Covid).

    RUSSIA Population:
    2022 is 145,805,947, a 0.07% decline from 2021.
    The population of Russia in 2021 was 145,912,025, a 0.02% decline from 2020.
    The population of Russia in 2020 was 145,934,462, a 0.04% increase from 2019.
    The population of Russia in 2019 was 145,872,256, a 0.09% increase from 2018.

    UNITED STATES Population:
    Year Population Growth Rate
    2022 334,805,269 0.57%
    2021 332,915,073 0.58%
    2020 331,002,651 0.59%

    RUSSIA Life Expectancy in Years:
    Year Life Expectancy Growth Rate
    2022 72.84 0.190%
    2021 72.70 0.190%
    2020 72.57 0.190%

    UNITED STATES Life Expectancy in Years:
    Year Life Expectancy Growth Rate
    2022 79.05 0.080%
    2021 78.99 0.080%
    2020 78.93 0.080%

  3. I tend to believe Russia invaded Ukraine for one preventable reason – the constant expansion of NATO eastwards. I would how this country would react to a Russian or Chinese led military alliance on our own borders?

  4. Hubert, thanks for bringing a quality of analysis and writing to the public square that is seldom seen. In a world that lives in the moment, finding history irrelevant, uninteresting and bothersome, your work is refreshing.

  5. According to the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Global News and other well respected publications, the use of “the Ukraine” rather than “Ukraine” throughout this article is disrespectful to Ukrainians.

  6. With the oral history handed down through the generations by those Ukrainians that survived it , the extermination of almost 4 million of them by Russia, Putin picked a fight with the wrong kid on the block if he was looking for a quick easy victory.
    ” Fool Me Once…” has a lot of application here:”
    In for a penny in for a pound, I’m sure the Ukrainians did not want this, but being ruthlessly attacked there now has to be a sense of fighting back not only for their living loved ones, but also for their slaughtered ancestors.
    That’s strong motivation.

    “The Holodomor’s Death Toll
    The Ukrainian famine—known as the Holodomor, a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death”—by one estimate claimed the lives of 3.9 million people, about 13 percent of the population. And, unlike other famines in history caused by blight or drought, this was caused when a dictator wanted both to replace Ukraine’s small farms with state-run collectives and punish independence-minded Ukrainians who posed a threat to his totalitarian authority.”

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