How a Potential Russia v. Ukraine War of 2022 Parallels the Germany v. Poland War of 1939
Joe Biden is clearly not a student of recent history. Most specifically, he needs to revisit the lessons learned from the start of the Second World War in Europe.
If he doesn’t wake up and smell the coffee, he may be as guilty of starting the Third World War as was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the leading advocate of the “appeasement” of Germany’s militaristic supreme leader. The parallels between 1939 and 2022 are stunning, and if we fail to learn from recent history, we absolutely will be forced to re-live it.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland without provocation, merely because it coincided with Germany’s strategic effort to restore its pre-Versailles territorial boundaries. With more bravado than military capability, three days later, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, acting in defense of Poland. However, having done so, France and Great Britain then did exactly … nothing. They didn’t start a second front along the Franco-German border. They didn’t even launch an aerial assault that could easily flown over borders. They knew that Poland wasn’t strategic to their needs, and despite their moral angst, Poland wasn’t worth the loss of lives by the western Allies.
Despite their seeming invincibility, Germany was still re-arming after their rejection of the Versailles Treaty four years earlier. Their army wasn’t prepared to stand against either kind of attack from the Allies. Essentially all of Germany’s vaunted Wehrmacht (the army) including its powerful Panzer force, and again, literally all of its rightly-feared Luftwaffe (air force), were involved in Poland, unable to defend the “West Wall.” The Army that invaded France in 1940, or the Soviets in 1941, did not yet exist.
In 1939 – not largely recognized then, or now – France and Britain had a potentially dominant superiority over Germany’s armed forces. France not only had the largest land army on earth in 1939, it also had the largest armored force, with tanks in many ways superior to Germany’s best. Great Britain, while not fielding a larger army – though what they had was a tight army of long-service regulars – was perhaps the most professional army on earth in 1939. In addition, Britain had pioneered armored warfare, and had hundreds of tanks equal or superior to the best Germany had to offer. Both western countries also had air forces that, when combined, were stronger than the Luftwaffe. The best aircraft of those two allies were as good as the best the Luftwaffe could field. Most obviously, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane and the French Dewoitine D.520 were all the equal to the vaunted Messerschmitt Bf-109.
While Great Britain and France felt they were doing the right and moral thing by standing by their titular ally Poland, they had no intention of actually committing armed forces to aid in Poland’s defense, something they certainly could have done. Even a “mobilization” of their extensive reserve forces would have so intimidated Germany – such a potential threat would have been seen as very real – as to force that nation’s leaders to recall their invasion and defend their vulnerable western border with France. But neither France nor Great Britain had any real “skin in the game.” For all the hype and propaganda, at some level they knew Poland wasn’t worth the life of a single French or British soldier.
They had no strategic national interests inherent in defending Poland. Stopping Germany before things got out of hand seemed like a good idea at the time, but for nine months after Poland fell, France and Britain fought what the Germans called the “Sitzkrieg,” and what the Brits called “Phony War.” Basically, the two sides – Allies and Axis – exchanged insults over the long border between Germany and the Western allies, while the Wehrmacht moved their entire army from its eastern borders to the West Wall.
So what does all of this have to do with Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, and Ukraine? Unfortunately, a great deal. First, the United States has no pressing strategic interest in Ukraine. Back in 2014, the Russian Federation seized Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea. America under President Obama (and, presumably, Vice President Biden) denounced these moves, and even instituted a few sanctions which didn’t do much. However, the Obama/Biden administration never pretended that we had any strategic interests worth shedding American blood over. That was a savvy “Realpolitik” move – it may have felt unpalatable for those who support liberty and democracy, but it recognized that we were not the world’s policemen. There were compelling strategic reasons to have strong – or at least stable – relations with nuclear-armed Russia. But there were few defensible reasons to militarily defend Ukraine from limited Russian aggression.
If all we do is send Kamala Harris to Ukraine and perhaps Russia to pour oil on troubled waters, then that is Realpolitik, 2022 edition. But that doesn’t seem to be what Biden means with all his saber-rattling.
Before he considers sending troops to the vast steppes, Joe Biden should consider another history lesson. When Napoleon and his La Grande Armée invaded Czarist Russia in 1812, it wasn’t primarily the Czar’s Imperial Army that ultimately defeated him – it was Russia’s rightly-feared “General Winter.” Russian soldiers were used to living and fighting in Arctic conditions, allowing the Czar’s army to shred La Grande Armée in a horrific retreat across the vast frozen steppes.
Napoleon – “the Little Corporal” – rode into Russia with more than 600,000 soldiers under his command. He swiftly captured Moscow, thinking that would mean the fall of Imperial Russia. Mistake number one. Soon, with Moscow burning behind him, Napoleon’s Grande Armée was forced into a disastrous winter retreat. That magnificent Army – the best in Europe – was whittled down to a pathetic 10,000 frozen soldiers along its way back to France.
A century later, in 1941, Germany’s own “Little Corporal” ordered his Wehrmacht to invade Russia with an army of more than three million men. They almost reached Moscow before they were stopped by a heroic “last stand” of Soviet workers sent to the front with no training, but with winter clothes and weapons designed to work well in northern Russia in winter. Eighty years later, those results still speak for themselves.
Fast forward to 2022. We face an almost a direct carbon copy of 1939, except Russia has “become Germany” while Ukraine has “become Poland.” The Russian Federation lost most of its European lands with the collapse of the Iron Curtain thirty years ago, and like Germany in the wake of the punitive Versailles Treaty, Russia wants to restore what was once mostly ruled by the Czar, and later all by the Politburo. On the sidelines, the United States is in the same relative position that France and Great Britain held in 1939. They felt morally inclined to help the underdog – Poland in ’39, but were unwilling to offer actual military force to deter Germany. They didn’t even send their equivalent of Kamala Harris. Today, Biden seems to feel that same moral imperative to help Ukraine, though he is willing to unleash Kamala. Yet just as the Western Allies had neither a strategic imperative nor moral will to actively fight Germany just to help Poland, America has neither the strategic imperative nor – despite Biden’s insistence – the moral will to help Ukraine to fight Russia.
Russia came on hard times with the fall of the Soviet Union. However, they still have a nuclear arsenal that is at least equal to that of the U.S. They still maintain the first strike capability to destroy the U.S. – or, for that matter, Western Europe. It is never wise to pick a fight with an Army that may not be able to beat you on a battlefield, but who – at the push of a bright red button – have the ability to wipe your country off the face of the Earth, dozens of times over.
Then there’s Russia’s vaunted General Winter. Winter in the steppes of Russia and Ukraine lasts until the first of May, and no army has ever been able to defeat Russia in a winter war – except, of course, Finland in ’39, but only because they were even better at winter war than the Soviet Union.
So what’s the bottom line? If we posture without intent, as did France and Great Britain in 1939, we look weak without in any way deterring what seems – at least to Biden – is likely to come. No country in the West seem willing to shed their own blood in Ukraine’s defense – nor should they.
If we recognize that the West has no compelling security interest in maintaining Ukraine’s borders, the aftermath of a Russian take-over is likely to strengthen and reinvigorate NATO. That Grand Alliance has been looking for a raison d’etre ever since the Soviets fell thirty years ago. While we in the U.S. may have forgotten the lessons of 1939, it’s a fair bet that our NATO allies have those harsh lessons engraved on their souls.
Joe Biden has a lot to learn from 1939. Somehow, I don’t think sending Kamala Harris to resolve this is the lesson he needs to learn.
Ned Barnett is a military historian with a focus on the 20th Century, and its lessons for the 21st. He was on-air historian in nine History Channel programs, back when they cared about history, and has ten books on Kindle dealing with the first year of the war in the Pacific between Japan and the US, and he’s written about history’s lessons in a number of publications, including Newsweek Japan. He is the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications in Nevada, where he works with clients – primarily writers – who need ghostwriting, editing or marketing support to bring their books from concept to successful publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: Levan Ramishvili via Flickr // public domain