Ukraine is Putin’s Vietnam

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s outrage in Ukraine has been called his Afghanistan. A better analogy is Vietnam. Why? 

First, North Vietnam won by not losing. Ukraine can do the same by not losing and bleeding the Russian army to defeat. The North lost every battle and won the war.  One big difference perhaps: Ukraine seems to be winning on the ground. 

Second, Putin’s rationale for “special military operations” against Ukraine was even more flawed and fabricated than America’s reasons for war in Vietnam. Putin claimed Ukraine was a direct threat to Russia; that its neo-Nazi government, headed by a Jewish president, was attacking innocent Ukrainian Russian speakers and murdering its citizens; and then created fake news stories to prove its case.

{mosads}Based on the ill-conceived Southeast Asian Domino Theory asserting that if one nation fell to monolithic, godless communism all would, in 1961 the Kennedy administration began a military buildup in South Vietnam. Retaliating, the VietCong increased attacks on American forces in South Vietnam. In early August 1964, North Vietnamese PT boats set upon the Navy destroyer USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf. No damage was inflicted.

Maddox and the USS Turner Joy were ordered back on patrol. Both claimed North Vietnamese naval forces were firing on them. In fact, no attacks had taken place. But that made no difference. Americans believed its navy had been attacked.

So did Congress. With only two dissenting votes in both Houses, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on Aug. 7, 1964, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law. The U.S. was locked into a losing decade-long quagmire.

Third, Russia is waging a terror bombing campaign on civilians and is killing Ukrainians indiscriminately. It is painful to remember. but the U.S. dropped more ordnance on South East Asia than it did during World War II. The targets were supposed to be “military.” In the South, the “search and destroy” strategy was to wipe out the enemy with the infamous “body count” as the metric.


The CIA conducted an assassination program in the South called Phoenix. About 50,000 Vietnamese “agents” were terminated with extreme prejudice. No one knows how many Vietnamese were killed in that and the larger war.  The number could have been in the millions.  

If today’s modern communications had been omnipresent in Vietnam, the images would resemble what is happening in Ukraine today and in every war. Then, film was put in aluminum boxes and flown back to America to be edited and televised, many hours later. War at every level was a compilation of millions of individual horrors, tragedies and acts of courage and desperation caught by the camera. 

Fourth, Russians are remaining loyal to their president and government while proof of the carnage its military is promiscuously imposing is irrefutable. The answer is simple. People defer to leaders and rally to their nation in crisis.

Consider how long Congress and the public believed that a “light at the end of the tunnel” persisted in Vietnam. Or how the American public continued to support the two-decades-long war in Afghanistan when it was clear it was unwinnable. And how many Americans challenged the George W. Bush administration’s “slam dunk” assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in 2003?

Fifth, some readers may find likening Putin’s war to Vietnam is distasteful because of comparisons with the U.S. But one parallel is clear: Nations that start wars lose them. That phrase should be chiseled into the ceilings of the Oval Office in the White House and the presidential office in the Kremlin so both presidents can look up and see them every day.

{mossecondads}Last, as Vietnam began the long decline in American power and prestige, Ukraine will make this decline more precipitous for Putin and Russia. That will create great uncertainty and potential chaos for a nuclear superpower. The U.S. and the West must tread carefully in how Russia is treated once this war ends. Memories of post-World War I Germany cannot be forgotten. 

For the short-term, NATO’s cohesion will continue. Defense spending almost certainly will rise. Against that backdrop, the U.S. must not fall prey to the same catastrophic error it made during the second Gulf War in 2003: not asking and answering, “What next?” The war in Ukraine may mark the beginning of a different era — not cold or hot war but bad war.

The U.S. did not retain what it should have learned from Vietnam. If the world is to be safer and more secure, Russia must not be allowed to repeat this failing. The crucial question is how to do that.                               

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” His latest book is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.”

Tags Afghanistan War Gulf of Tonkin Resolution Lyndon Baines Johnson NATO Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine USS Turner Joy Vietnam Vietnam war Vladimir Putin

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