The War in Ukraine Is Not Comparable to World War II | Opinion

Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine rages on with no clear end in sight.

The United Nations estimates that over 3,800 civilians have been killed and over 3,600 injured. The war has shattered Europe's sense of security and comparisons to World War II are abundant. President Joe Biden recently signed lend-lease legislation to help streamline aid to Ukraine—reminiscent of the original lend-lease act of 1941 which provided aid to U.S. allies fighting Nazi Germany, including the Soviet Union. Across the pond, the United Kingdom's Defense Secretary Ben Wallace compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, claiming Putin and his inner circle of generals "are now mirroring fascism and tyranny of 77 years ago."

Comparisons to World War II may boost public support and evoke a feeling of righteousness, however, they risk a false assessment of the current state of European and American security—which in turn could lead to tragic consequences should Western policy makers blunder into an unnecessary escalation with a nuclear-armed Russia.

While the Soviet Union ultimately lost the Cold War, the "Great Patriotic War," as World War II is known in Russia, would become a national founding myth for the new Russian Federation. President Vladimir Putin carefully cultivated the image of Russia standing alone to defend Europe from fascism as a means to unify a traumatized populace following the disintegration of the Soviet empire. To strengthen domestic support for his invasion, Putin claimed a primary objective of the war was to "denazify Ukraine."

Likewise, Americans and Britons tend to view World War II as the "good war," given the moral and strategic clarity of defeating Nazism in Europe. After muddling through failed military campaigns in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, Western policymakers long for the black and white simplicity of a similar cause. However, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the scale of the Russia-Ukraine war and what is at stake for Americans in particular is not at all comparable to the threat the United States faced during World War II.

Funeral of Denys Antipov
Mourners attend the funeral of Denys Antipov, a soldier and popular economics lecturer at the Kyiv School of Economics, on May 18, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Unlike Nazi Germany, modern Russia lacks the military and economic wherewithal to threaten total domination of Europe. A failure to subjugate Ukraine after three months of fighting, in addition to embarrassing logistical failures, questionable tactical decisions and depleted morale all point to Russia's conventional ineptitude. The British Ministry of Defense estimated that Russia lost a third of its initial combat force—some 170,000-190,000 Russian troops are assessed to have invaded Ukraine. Moreover, severe sanctions levied on Russia by much of the Western world weaken its ability to maintain its current pace, with reports indicating Russia may be running low on precision guided munitions which are expensive and difficult to source.

In comparison, Nazi Germany's blitzkrieg through Europe saw the Netherlands, Belgium and France all fall in just six weeks. Hitler's legions drove the British Expeditionary Force off the continent before launching the world's largest invasion, ordering 3 million men to attack the Soviet Union. World War II necessitated American involvement in Europe to prevent Nazi Germany, which already conquered most of the continent, from defeating the remaining two European great powers—the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Should that have happened, Nazi Germany would be able to unilaterally harness the resources of Eurasia to target the United States.

Today, wealthy and capable U.S. allies in Europe have more than enough economic and military power to deter, and if needed, defend themselves against Russia. The European Union maintains a GDP over nine times greater than Russia, yet only 8 out of 30 NATO members met the alliance's target of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Much of Europe has lacked the political will to prioritize defense spending, however Russia's invasion of Ukraine should serve as a wake-up call for Europeans to take their security seriously. In turn, the United States, with a myriad of pressing domestic concerns and increasing competition with China, can pass the burden of defense to its European allies.

Hyperbolic comparisons to the titanic struggle of World War II increase the risk of escalating a conflict currently localized to Ukraine. Given the risk of nuclear escalation should the United States find itself in a war with Russia, the leaders of our time may in fact be pushing us closer to World War III. Instead of making emotional appeals to the glory of victory in World War II, Western and Russian leaders would be wise to reflect on what came after—a Cold War with the ever-present threat of mutually assured destruction.

Sascha Glaeser is a research associate at Defense Priorities. He focuses on U.S. grand strategy, international security and transatlantic relations. He holds a master's of international public affairs and a bachelor's in international studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.