Who Perseveres, Wins

It is up to liberal democracies to support a country that is fighting for all who share its values.

Ukrainian police officer standing in an empty gym
Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / Getty

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

I never attended Ranger School, the U.S. Army’s nine weeks of unadulterated misery in woodland, mountain, and swamp. But I know plenty of those who have, and they have all reported the same thing: The instruction they received in patrolling and minor tactics was insignificant compared with the lesson they learned in perseverance, to “complete the mission though I be the lone survivor,” in the words of the Ranger Creed.

It is a lesson that has applications in the realm of higher policy, too, and now more than ever as politicians, academics, and pundits begin to talk—hesitantly, but their voices will grow louder—about pressuring Ukraine to accept further dismemberment at the hands of Russia. Speculating about motives is pointless. What matters is knowing why, despite these voices, the moment calls for intestinal fortitude, standing by the government and people of Ukraine, arming them to the teeth, and pressing for the defeat of the Russian invaders.

From a purely geopolitical point of view, this war matters enormously. Should Vladimir Putin pull victory from his initial catastrophes, we can expect a riven Europe, which would disable the uneasy alliance that won the Cold War and gave the world more than half a century of prosperity after World War II. A Russian victory would encourage China to eye the possibility of conquering Taiwan and imposing its hegemony in East Asia. And it would lead countries around the world to arm themselves with nuclear weapons, because they would know that, in the final analysis, they are alone. And lonely, fearful countries with nuclear weapons may very well use them.

Conversely, the benefits of victory for Ukraine—defined as at least its return to the borders it had on February 23, consolidation of its freedom and independence, and abundant reconstruction aid—combined with defeat of Russia, to include the destruction of most of its land power and the crippling of its economy, promises a great deal. A Europe whole and free, well-enough armed to relieve the United States of most of the burden of defending it, would be a strategic contribution to America’s security. China would find such a manifestation of the strength and resilience of the West sobering. A Ukrainian victory would encourage if not guarantee change in a Russia that has yet to accommodate itself to the loss of empire and still evidently aspires to its restoration.

The moral stakes are equally high. In few wars has the balance of right and wrong ever been so completely lopsided. Ukraine is the victim of unwarranted and unprovoked aggression. Russian behavior—deportations, massacre, rape, and torture—has reached levels of abominable conduct seldom seen since the Second World War. The result is the most important test the Western democracies have faced since Munich in 1938.

One of the greatest lessons of military history is that persistence matters. It often matters as much as strategy and skill, armament and technology. Many intellectuals and some politicians misunderstand this, overvaluing elegant ideas and the subtleties and conceits of diplomatic maneuvers. But when Winston Churchill said in 1940 that Great Britain was willing to fight “if necessary for years, if necessary alone,” he meant it. When Abraham Lincoln decided in 1860 that “the tug has to come, and better now than later,” he also meant it. In much of their domestic policy, both men were negotiators and compromisers. In their wars, with stakes they understood better than all others, they had a different view. They realized that there is a time to talk and a time simply to put your head down and fight as hard as you can. Churchill would not talk with Hitler in 1940, and Lincoln would not talk with Jefferson Davis, save to accept his surrender.

Both Churchill and Lincoln faced critics who made sophisticated arguments about why compromise was necessary—why one should accommodate German domination of the continent in order to preserve the British Empire or why the reconstruction of the Union with a reversal of the Emancipation Proclamation would prevent further bloodshed. Both men persisted through setbacks and defeats, from Tobruk to Fredericksburg, from Singapore to Cold Harbor.

Something of this spirit is required now. That Ukraine will suffer defeats is to be expected; that, after it has done a masterly job of concealing its losses, we will learn more of them is inevitable; that we will hear stories—assiduously spread by Russia and its sympathizers—of Ukrainian inefficiency or incompetence or corruption is certain. To some degree, these stories will all be true. But the key thing is, nonetheless, to persist.

In war, we often brood on our own side’s weaknesses and are appalled at an enemy who is seemingly impervious to loss. When the historians peer through the records after a war, however, they invariably learn that both sides were subject to the same psychological and emotional pressures. War is thus a matter of comparative stress and breakdown.

The great theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz once observed, “In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect.”

Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance. With what assurance an architect watches the progress of his work and sees his plans gradually take shape! … By contrast a general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen.

Today, all of us are like the generals of the early 19th century that Clausewitz described: bombarded by false impressions and fantastic fears generated from fragmentary information. We can see videos of exploding ammunition dumps and burning cities, and trace troop movements on maps updated daily on social media. The phenomenon, however, remains the same, and so does the remedy. “Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counterweight, provided that no compelling reasons intervene to the contrary,” Clausewitz concluded. “It is steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity.”

So it is now. With arms delivered at scale and with a sense of urgency by the wealthy liberal democracies, with assistance in managing logistics and training, with intelligence provided by a dozen highly competent Western agencies, Ukrainians fighting for their homeland will defeat Russia. Those who deny this possibility have to explain why Israel could defeat invading Arab armies in 1948, or why Vietnamese Communists could defeat first France and then the United States.

There is abundant evidence of Russian weakness, including the physical frailty of its leader, the refusals of its soldiers to fight, the murder of its soldiers by officers and vice versa, and the courageous, if limited, bursts of internal dissent. Russia will feel in the coming months (indeed, years) the consequences of the flight abroad of hundreds of thousands of its best-educated and most productive citizens, the isolation from the Western technology and skill on which its economy depends, and the gradual shrinkage of currency from the sales of its most important resource, oil. The evidence is there if only one cares to see it.

There is a time for clever policies, subtle diplomacy, considered overtures, and exquisite compromise. This is not it. Instead, it is up to the liberal democracies to support a country that is fighting for all who share its values, and to persist, trotz alledem und alledem, despite everything and everything, as an old German poem has it. Should the West do so, it will help bring a victory that is essential to its own security freedom, and not just Ukraine’s.