October 18th, 1967 – University of Wisconsin, Madison – Students amass for a protest against a recruiting event for the Dow Chemical Company. The Dow Chemical Company was the main producer of a sticky, flammable mixture of gasoline and thick less-volatile petroleum jelly dubbed “napalm.” Students saw this as the university doing a public favor for Dow in allowing the Vietnam war-fueling company to recruit on campus.
“People want to go work for Dow that’s their business, however, to use the University buildings to, in effect, provide a subsidy to Dow, by providing them the space, we thought was absolutely wrong,” Paul Soglin, a student at the time of UW-Madison recalls.
The students occupied the commerce building, the building in which the recruiting was to be held, and university officials “had no choice” but to disband the protest. The newly elected Chancellor of UW-Madison, William Sewell, under pressure from the state government, called the Madison police. What ensued was a clearing of the building by the police, in which the police ruthlessly beat and arrested protestors.
February 24th, 2022 – Moscow – The same day that a large-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine begins, thousands of anti-war protesters gather in the streets of Moscow and 58 other Russian cities. Protesters chanted “Нет войне!” Nyet voyne. No to war.
Russian police made 1,820 arrests on Feb. 24, 1,002 of which were carried out in Moscow alone. On March 4, the Duma, Russia’s parliament passed a law threatening 15 years of prison time for outspoken criticism of the invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an echo of the Vietnam War, and it could have the same devastating effect on the Russian regime. Russia is at an equal or worse disadvantage as the United States was in Vietnam.
The soldiers Russia is sending into Ukraine are young, inexperienced conscripts. This is not only having the effect of an ineffective fighting force, but also a loss of public support back home. Russia could see the same erosion of support as the U.S. did in Vietnam.
Jim Rowen recalls the Vietnam War, “People were getting angrier and angrier and angrier about the war and the draft and the news that they were seeing, the images on television, the level of violence, the body counts, the bombings. It was all mounting.”
Indeed, Ukraine has made sure that the images coming out of Ukraine to the Russian people will have the same devastating effect that the U.S. coverage of Vietnam did. Just as the North Vietnamese sent the U.S. videos of American captured POWs, including the late Senator John McCain, Ukraine has launched a campaign to make sure interviews of Russian POWs make their way back to Russia.
These interviews not only erode the war support back home, but provide us with evidence that the war is not going as planned. Young, as in some no more than 18 years old, soldiers when asked why they are in Ukraine cannot give a clear answer. The echoing story is that they were doing exercises on the border and then one day they were driving into Ukraine.
Much like U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, none of the soldiers can give a clear answer to why they are there.
Additionally, one of the main reasons that the Ukrainian invasion will prove to be an echo of Vietnam is that it is an unwinnable war, at least as far as we can tell now. The future of the Russo-Ukrainian war could look very similar to that of the Vietnam war because the amount of civilian resistance is simply too high. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians are willing to take up arms against Russia, and this is on top of a military force that is almost as big as the invading force.
Russia has only sent in around 200,000 troops according to the most severe estimates. Ukraine has a military of 170,000 active-duty troops, with 100,000 more reservists and national defense forces. All of this with thousands of civilians enlisting daily or joining a civilian resistance. This is shaping up to be just as difficult of a resistance movement as the Viet-Cong was for the U.S. to root out.
Putin simply hasn’t allocated enough troops to the invasion. In this way, he is even worse prepared for the invasion than the U.S. was in Vietnam. Consider this table, which shows three conflicts troop to civilian ratios: the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Winter War. Vietnam and the Winter War invasion of Finland are both similar in that they ended with no real victory for the U.S. and Russia respectively.
|Peak Troop Presence
|Occupation soldiers per 1000 civilians
|Vietnam (In 1967)
|Ukraine (In 2022)
|Finland (In 1939)
*With estimated amount of pro-Russian separatists subtracted, since they are likely to support occupation
**The most severe estimate from the U.S. Department of State as of March 4th, 2022
This ratio of troops to civilians, 5:1000 is just not enough to occupy a country. The United States failed to succeed in Vietnam with a ratio of 11:1000, and even Russia in Finland with a whopping ratio of 129:1000 failed to secure a victory. When most of the civilian population of a country rallies behind a resistance, there is slim hope for a successful occupation, no matter the ratio.
Pair this with other early signs of trouble, poor supply lines, western arms support flowing into Ukraine, and the failure to take any key strategic targets even a week into the invasion. Entire convoys of tanks are breaking down and running out of fuel. It is clear that the war is not going as planned.
During the Vietnam war, as casualties mounted, Lyndon B. Johnson censored media and attempted to make the war seem less catastrophic than it was. However, no regime can fully prevent leaks, and eventually the public caught on that the war was not going as well as Johnson described. The result was a “credibility gap,” that would ruin Johnson’s popularity for the rest of his presidency.
Putin is attempting the same censorship, with the Russian military only confessing to a few hundred Russian casualties. Meanwhile Ukrainian officials and U.S. intelligence suggest that number to be in the thousands. The government can attempt to conceal casualties all it wants, but the Russian people will notice when their sons do not come home.
Putin has joined the imperialist forces of the world in beginning a belligerent war that will never be won. The West criticizes Putin for his irresponsible and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, a hypocritical critique for the western powers to make.
At the beginning of the crisis, Adam Price, a Welsh politician tweeted, “issue is whether we will live in a world governed by international law and established norms of behaviour – or a lawless world of geopolitical Darwinism, where guns not laws determine the shape of the future, a precedent that will reverberate from Bosnia to Taiwan.”
To which Adam Johannes responds, “Most of the Global South will be surprised to hear we were all living in a world governed by international law until Russian troops moved into Ukraine and suddenly turned us into a lawless world based on military might.”
Western hypocrisy aside, Putin has begun a war he is likely to never truly win and will bog down his popularity and regime for years to come. It is a transformative moment for Russia.
Will the people of Russia respond in the way that Americans did in response to Vietnam, with anti-war protests eroding the popularity of the war until the regime can no longer justify remaining in the country? Or will Putin tighten Russia to an authoritarian level making it unrecognizable from the post-Soviet democracy of the late 1990s?
In the coming months, the answer to this question will not only be found in how the war actually plays out in Ukraine, but also how the public opinion in Russia affects Putin’s legitimacy. Pay attention to both.