June 9, 2022

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Speaking of the Russo-Ukrainian war, a number of commentators begin from the premise a nuclear power cannot lose a war. This is utter nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.

It is ritually repeated that the Cold War showed us that nuclear powers cannot be defeated. In fact, the Cold War proved the opposite. Nuclear powers lost wars all the time.

Who won the war between the (nuclear-armed) United States and North Vietnam? North Vietnam, of course.

Who won the war between the (nuclear-armed) Soviet Union and Afghanistan? Afghanistan, of course.

Related topic: the Cold War was a period of decolonization, in which colonial powers lost decisive wars to anti-colonial movements or states. Russia acts today as a colonial power.

Related generalization: in recent decades, it has more often than not been the smaller state that has defeated the larger one on the battlefield.

Nuclear powers do lose wars; big countries often do; and imperial powers will be humiliated. Historically speaking, a Ukrainian victory over Russia would not be surprising.

Misunderstandings of recent history make it harder for Ukraine to win. When we draw the wrong lessons from the past, we give ourselves an excuse for inaction in the present.

If Ukraine loses this war, it will not be because it had to lose. The Ukrainians are doing what they can, and history shows that they have a chance.

If Ukraine loses this war, it might well be because others used bad history to give themselves bad reasons to waste time during the weeks that will define the decades to come.


Levin Professor of History at Yale. Author of “On Tyranny,” with 20 new lessons on Ukraine, “Our Malady,” “Road to Unfreedom,” “Black Earth,” and “Bloodlands”