Hannibal thought that if he could get an army into Italy and win some conspicuous victories, the other Italian city-states, restless under Roman rule, would revolt and enable him to break Roman power for good. The Romans thought that their superior legions with their fighting spirit and discipline would quickly show Hannibal who was boss.
Both sides discovered that their initial strategies did not work. The Romans were shocked by a series of disastrous military defeats and faced the greatest challenge in Roman history. Hannibal achieved his initial goals, getting his army over the Alps and winning a series of dramatic victories, still studied today by ambitious young military officers all over the world. But his strategy failed. Even after his overwhelming victory at Cannae, only a handful of Italian city-states went over to his side. Roman power survived, and the war dragged on.
Mr. Mead then moves to World War I as another example:
The French and the Germans had both planned what they hoped would be decisive attacks, the French over their eastern border and the Germans with the Schlieffen plan for an attack through Belgium that would capture Paris. Both offensives fell short, leaving the countries locked in a conflict that neither side knew how to win—and neither was willing to lose.
Putin’s war has a familiar ring to it, explains Mead. Russia’s plan of breaking the Ukrainian state by quickly taking the capital and major cities (Kharkiv) has failed. Ukraine’s hope that the “shock of military setbacks plus major economic sanctions would either force Mr. Putin to accept peace terms favorable to Ukraine or lead to his overthrow,” also seems to have failed.
Faced with a war neither side knows how to win, is there a compromise both sides can live with?
Ukraine cannot accept a peace that leaves it exposed to further Russian aggression and that involves further territorial sacrifice, and Mr. Putin cannot end the war without demonstrable gains at the expense of Ukraine. The logic of warfare now seems to lock the two sides into further, perhaps escalating military, economic and political conflict as each looks for some pathway to victory. Russia is refocusing its military efforts on the east and stepping up the level of violence on the battlefield and against civilians to terrorize Ukrainians into accepting Russian dominance. Ukraine is redoubling its appeal to Western countries for more military aid and tougher economic sanctions.
Mr. Mead writes of the three “ugly” choices facing the Biden administration.
Option #1: Helping Ukraine Win
This is emotionally appealing but the costs and risks are high.
Russia won’t accept defeat before trying every tactic, however brutal, and perhaps every weapon, however murderous. To force Russia to accept failure in Ukraine, the Biden administration would likely have to shift to a wartime mentality, perhaps including the kind of nuclear brinkmanship not seen since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. With China and Iran both committed to weakening American power by any available means, a confrontation with the revisionist powers spearheaded by Russia may prove to be the most arduous challenge faced by an American administration since the height of the Cold War.
Option #2: A Russian Victory
A Russian victory would inflict a massive blow to American prestige and the health of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, especially if the West were seen as forcing Ukraine to surrender to Russian demands.
Option #3 Freeze the War (Handing a Partial Victory to Putin)
Freezing the conflict is also perilous, as this would presumably leave Russia holding even more Ukrainian territory than it did following the 2014 invasions of Crimea and the Donbas. It would be hard to spin this as anything but a partial victory for Russia—and Mr. Putin would remain free to renew hostilities at a time of his choosing.
Derail Putin with No Shots Fired
A WSJ reader writes of a 4th option: Stop funding Putin’s war by dropping all the nonsensical climate regulations. Eliminate all new Biden regulations, and actions taken by the EPA, and drop the regulatory activities preventing oil exploration and pipeline construction.
- Drop oil to $40/barrel, where it was when Biden took office.
- Supply Europe with natural gas.
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