Russia’s war in Ukraine is nothing like World War II

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin seem to agree on one thing: The proxy war their countries are fighting in Ukraine is a new World War II. In his Victory Day speech this month, Putin extolled the sacrifices made during what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War — and continued to describe the Ukrainians as Western-backed neo-Nazis. A few hours later, Biden signed the evocatively named “Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022,” invoking the same victory in Europe, 77 years ago.

Other leaders and experts have been even more full-throated. To Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), “This is the 1930s all over again.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Congress that Ukraine is the Sudetenland. Ben Wallace, Britain’s defense secretary, said Putin and his generals are “mirroring” the tyranny of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hailed America for again assuming the role of the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

Beneath this avalanche of historical analogies, however, is a less grandiose reality. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t World War II — not even close. No war since 1945 has had the magnitude or the impact of what future president Dwight D. Eisenhower rightly termed America’s “crusade” against Nazism.

The scale of World War II dwarfed the current conflict in Ukraine. Nazi Germany sent its panzer divisions to the gates of Moscow and the doorstep of Cairo. The Red Army of Putin’s father fought from Siberia to Silesia. The Russian Army of today is being humbled in a regional intervention on its border. Putin deployed perhaps 200,000 troops into Ukraine; the Red Army lost more than three times as many men just at Kiev in 1941. The war in Ukraine is a brutal, high-intensity conventional conflict, but it isn’t in the same league as the Gotterdammerung of World War II’s Eastern Front.

The Nazis gobbled up most of Europe in barely 18 months: Poland, France, the Low Countries, most of Scandinavia, the Balkans. The Russian military threat today is minimal by comparison. The Ukraine war has required Russia to so denude the rest of its regions of troops that it is not a conventional threat to anyone else — for the time being. As one analyst noted just three weeks into the war, Russia has proved unable to take cities a mere 20 miles from its border; the idea that it threatens Warsaw, let alone Berlin, is not credible.

Putin’s Russia, increasingly totalitarian though it is, also is not Hitler’s Germany. In the interwar period, fascist parties and regimes sprung up all over the world alongside, and in imitation of, the Nazis. Some, such as Benito Mussolini’s original article, predated Hitler’s regime. Putin’s propagandizing has only yielded some foreign politicians who will take his money and a fringe network of far-right admirers, susceptible to stories of Russian strength until that narrative was shattered on Ukraine’s battlefields. Russia’s corrupt, sclerotic autocracy is not a model for anyone.

Putin’s irredentist ends may perhaps rival Hitler’s, but his means fall far, far short. Germany and its allies threw nearly 4 million soldiers at the Soviet Union in 1941 — the largest invasion in history. Putin, after scraping together almost all his available combat power, has perhaps 150,000 troops remaining in Ukraine. His navy, its Black Sea flagship sunk, and his air force, unable to dominate Ukrainian airspace despite enormous material advantages, are in even worse shape. In another indication of his limited strength, Putin thus far has avoided calling for national mobilization.

Putin’s initial view of Ukrainian resistance does seem to have been legitimately Hitlerian. Russia’s disastrous opening gambit, an attempted coup de main that threw paratroops and tanks at Kyiv with minimal support, rested on an expectation that Ukraine would collapse in the face of a Russian onslaught. Eighty years before, Hitler felt the same way about Soviet Russia, telling one of his generals, “We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” We should be grateful for this echo of historic hubris.

But there is a final, less comforting historical difference. Nazi Germany deployed an array of “Wunderwaffe” as World War II neared its end. Jet fighters, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles were all first used in war by the Third Reich. But Hitler never cracked the nuclear code. Putin’s Russia boasts the world’s largest nuclear arsenal — more than 4,000 strategic nuclear warheads — and an array of small “tactical” nuclear weapons that it potentially could use in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is not World War II. But the stakes, should we somehow stumble into the worst possible outcome, are actually higher. This reality, however much politicians and pundits might prefer to ignore or dismiss it, argues for American prudence, deliberation and seeking a finely calibrated outcome: a victory that guarantees Ukrainian independence and self-determination while keeping the risk of nuclear escalation as low as possible. Maximalist goals such as regime change in Russia, an inevitable by-product of World War II rhetoric, court catastrophe.

World War II is still an anchor for American self-identity. The “Greatest Generation” — that appellation itself a product of the nostalgia industry and a rose-tinted view of the past — is disappearing daily. But for the baby boomers who grew up in the war’s wake, and continue to hold most of the wealth and political power in America today, World War II is a touchstone, a constant reminder of American power, resolve and ultimate goodness. Seeking to make the latest foreign policy crisis into an echo of the past is a road to, at best, disappointment, and at worst, disaster.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities and the Military Fellow-in-Residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. He was a Marine Corps infantry officer who deployed twice to Afghanistan, and to Guantanamo Bay and the Persian Gulf.