The explanation for Russia’s military woes in Ukraine is simple, says Gideon Rachman in the FT. “In modern times, when major powers invade smaller countries they usually end up losing.” America failed in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, and also “beat humiliating retreats” after it intervened in Somalia and Lebanon. The Soviet Union failed in Afghanistan; Russia is now failing in Ukraine. China, which has wisely steered clear of war since it “got a bloody nose” in Vietnam in 1979, now seems to be “yearning” for a quick, glorious invasion of Taiwan. Russia’s recent experiences suggest it would be anything but.
People and nations defending their homes are usually far better motivated than an invading army – Russia’s own reputation for military might “was forged in defensive wars against Napoleon and Hitler”, after all. Ukraine can insist that all adult men stay in the country and fight, but Russia has to steer clear of mass mobilisation to keep up the pretence that the invasion is a “special military operation”. Even if you occupy the capital city, as America did in Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll face a draining insurgency “gleefully supported by outside powers”. And widely available modern military tech, like drones and precision-guided missiles, makes it easier for countries to defend themselves. As the historian AJP Taylor wrote: “Though the object of being a Great Power is to be able to fight a Great War, the only way of remaining a Great Power is not to fight one.”