Military History Doesn’t Say What Ukraine’s Critics Think

It is in the differences from past wars that insight into today’s battles lies.

Collage showing Russian war tank of the present superposed with Russian war tank of the 20th century.
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

Updated at 11:21 a.m. ET on February 15, 2023.

Commentators on the Ukraine war who think that American support for Ukraine is pointless or dangerous commonly reach for references to military history. They not only often get it wrong, but they frequently get it backwards, construing that history into a case for Russia’s likely success.

Christopher Caldwell, for example, writes that American aid is intended to “fast-forward history, from World War I’s battles of position to World War II’s battles of movement,” and that this enterprise is doomed to fail. In his view, both Russia and Ukraine will continue to fight a war characterized by hordes of mud-covered soldiers huddling in freezing trenches before perishing in their thousands in a hail of fire as they go over the top, and some shipments of Western battle tanks to Ukraine will not stop that. Thus, and perversely, not bringing this futile war to an end by twisting Ukraine’s arm is America’s fault.

What is wrong with the analogy? To begin with, the fact that Russian and Ukrainian soldiers huddle in dugouts and have to worry about hypothermia (the Russians more than the better-equipped Ukrainians) is something they share in common with soldiers in many wars. Trench warfare was not an innovation of the Great War, as a walk through the Civil War battlefields of Cold Harbor and Petersburg would show. The advent of long-range rifles in the mid-19th century quickly taught soldiers the imperative of digging in as soon as possible. They have done so ever since.

Where references to World War I like Caldwell’s really break down, however, is in the fact that combat during World War I was not, in its concluding phase, characterized by the human-wave assaults familiar to us from movies about the war. The German offensives that nearly broke the Allies in the spring of 1918 relied on deep, accurate artillery fire followed by storm troops using infiltration attacks to achieve breakthroughs of up to 40 miles. That summer and fall, Allied offensives smashed German defenses, forcing that country to sue for peace. These were methodical combined-arms assaults in which the infantry was backed by tanks and aircraft in carefully coordinated attacks to seize terrain piece by piece. They succeeded even more definitively than had the Germans barely six months earlier. These operations, on both sides, shaped the tactics used in World War II in battles such as El Alamein, conducted by one of the promising young leaders of World War I, Bernard Montgomery.

In contrast, the many costly small frontal attacks now being conducted by the Russian army are infinitely less sophisticated than either the German or Allied assaults of 1918. Indeed, on all evidence, the Russian army today is well-nigh incapable of conducting modern combined-arms warfare at scale.

In some respects, the Russian military is now a pre-1918 army. Captured orders and observed behavior suggest an army that struggles to do much more than throw huge quantities of artillery shells at an enemy and then advance, often piecemeal, into a meat grinder. Conducting systematic reconnaissance, coordinating artillery and air support on the move, applying deep precision fires, executing combined-arms tactics, and synchronizing the maneuvering of large units all seem to be beyond the reach of the large majority of Russian forces. Although the Ukrainians do not have the capacity to coordinate and maneuver the way the United States Army does, they are a lot better than the Russians. The defeat of Russian forces outside Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson reveals as much.

If the actual history of the First World War doesn’t offer grounds for abandoning Ukraine, how about the Second? After all, some Russian propagandists and Western pessimists point to that war as evidence of the futility of hoping to defeat the successors of the mighty Red Army. In this view Russia is, as the Soviet Union was, a country with nearly unlimited resources, capable of mobilizing and marshaling its industries to wear down its opponent. Russians, because of their large population and tolerance for casualties, believe they have a decisive advantage even if they are tactically unsophisticated. Western pessimists agree.

But that comparison, too, is incorrect.

The Soviet Union survived World War II in part thanks to the West supplying much of the raw materials and equipment (including 11,000 railroad freight cars) that it needed. But the U.S.S.R.’s own war economy was relatively robust. By late 1941, Russia’s war industry outproduced that of Germany. Today, Russia’s economy is merely the size of a middling European country’s. Its military-industrial plant is limited by Western sanctions, riddled with corruption, and unable to adequately equip troops on the front. Meanwhile, the West’s military industry, a much larger and more sophisticated enterprise, albeit one that is mobilizing too slowly, is sustaining Ukraine.

To the extent that Soviet armies fought ferociously in World War II (and bearing in mind that they included many Ukrainians), it was because they were fighting a war for survival, largely on their own soil until late 1944. If one thing remains constant in war, it is the importance of the will to fight. The imbalance in this war, as opposed to that of 1941–45, is entirely in favor of Ukraine, as the hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing the draft or mobilization would suggest.

The Soviet Union was able to reconstitute its forces after huge losses in 1941 partly because Germany was suffering its own difficulties from overextension, but chiefly because it already had a huge organizational base from which to work. Joseph Stalin’s military had nearly 3 million men under arms in the western military districts of the U.S.S.R. alone, plus a somewhat smaller number in the east, hundreds of thousands of whom were later brought back west during late 1941 and 1942.

By contrast, the Russian army in February 2022 had perhaps 300,000 soldiers in total, with roughly another 100,000 in various elite or special units—400,000 for the entire country, and no organized reserve system as Western militaries would understand the term. In other words, Russia’s army in 2022 was an order of magnitude smaller than that of 1941, without any effective mobilization system. Once that initial force had taken as many as 100,000 casualties in the first phase of the war, it was bound to have extreme difficulty rebuilding. And after suffering another 100,000 following the chaotic press-ganging of its “mobilization” of the past six months, it will face even more obstacles to re-creating a modern army.

Despite the purges of the late 1930s, the Russian army of 1941 was filled with tough young men used to manual labor in the factory or field and suited to military tasks. They were led by young officers serving in a prestigious profession. That was not the case in 2022. In World War II, Stalin’s son served in uniform and was captured. Today, the sons of the elite flee the country or escape military service in less savory ways.

And, finally, Stalin was a far more capable civilian war leader than Vladimir Putin, working closely with a general staff that included exceptionally capable officers. He did not force them to sit 30 feet away from him.

World War I and World War II offer analogies and metaphors for those reflecting on the Ukraine war, but not templates for understanding a conflict that is characterized by clouds of drones, sophisticated command-and-control systems, extensive long-range precision fires, and ubiquitous satellite-based reconnaissance, among other notable phenomena—almost all of which have favored the Ukrainians. This war has to be understood on its own terms, and displays of historical pseudo-literacy just get in the way of that.

As Carl von Clausewitz, the preeminent theorist of war and no mean military historian himself, put it, “Every war is rich in unique episodes. Each is an uncharted sea, full of reefs.” It is in the differences, as much as the similarities, with the world wars of the past century that insight into today’s battles lies. And by and large, those differences favor Ukraine.

This article previously stated that the West supplied 11,000 trucks to the Soviet Union in World War II. In fact, that is the number of railroad freight cars that were supplied.