Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Classical Choices
Is it to be Salamis, Thebes, Thermopylae—or Melos?
By Victor Davis Hanson
March 13, 2022
Several pincers are poised to envelop increasingly damaged Ukrainian cities. The initial euphoria that Vladimir Putin’s surprise shock-and-awe assault failed may be waning, even as Ukraine inflicts historic damage on the Russian army. Even after three weeks, Russia has failed to grab key infrastructure and decapitate the Ukrainian leadership, as it did in the comparatively quick and relatively bloodless Georgia and Crimean campaigns in 2008 and 2014, respectively.
That supposed easy conquest didn’t happen because of dogged Ukrainian resistance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s “Finest Hour” Churchillian leadership has captivated the West. For a while, Europe, and the United States seem awakened from wokeness, as they rush thousands of sophisticated anti-armor and anti-aircraft shoulder-fired weapons to Kyiv, along with leveling global financial sanctions on all things Russian.
But in response, Vladimir Putin has now pivoted to a traditional Russian medieval tactic of annihilation. In the fashion of the World War II-era Red Army, he is razing with bombs, shells, and missiles stubborn enemy strongholds as a prequel to surrounding the ruins, starving out the population and then absorbing what is left. Apparently, Putin feels he must destroy much of Ukraine to save it for Russia, or at least show former Soviet territories—and the world—the wages of resisting reunification.
Putin ostensibly is not bothered by the global outrage over his savagery—especially given that he is on the road of no return, and defeat could mean his end. But for now, he would probably channel Hitler’s remark about “Who remembers the Armenians?”—both now and in the context of earlier Western silence during 1999-2000, when Putin flattened Grozny (the U.N. labeled its ruins as the most destroyed city on earth). Then he killed up to 80,000 Chechens and nixed the idea that a former Soviet republic inside the Russian Federation could secede.
In other words, if Putin cannot easily reabsorb Ukraine and immediately benefit from its manpower, natural resources, and industrial base, then he is perfectly willing to destroy it on his theory that what is lost in the short-term is more than gained in long-term deterrence.
Putin appears to believe that by leveling cities he can at last squeeze half of Ukraine back into Russia, declare victory, digest the rubble, and be ready for a second helping of western Ukraine in three or four years. In the meantime, he conjectures that current grandiose European talk of defiance, sanctions, and rearmament will fade in accustomed Western ennui in a year or so—but not the fear of nuclear Russia, an unpredictable and supposedly nutty Putin on the prowl, and the European green need for Russian gas and oil.
What are the options left for Zelenskyy, as perhaps 4 to 5 million of his Ukrainian brethren will have fled the country by early April? He will probably still not have air parity with Russia and will find no way to disrupt Russian supply depots and air and missile bases inside the borders of Belarus and Russia.
So far Zelenskyy has been brilliant as he expresses his appreciation for Western sanctions and arms. His insight seems to balance his otherwise unhinged demand for far more dangerous escalations—specifically to establish a no-fly zone and thus in World War III style confront, in the air above Ukraine, a bellicose Russia with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.
Still, Zelenskyy must be careful not to push Westerners into such a nuclear confrontation, given there is some residual anger at Ukraine for its interference into U.S. affairs during the 2016 and 2020 elections and the first impeachment of Donald Trump—partisanship which extended to the ambassadorial level. The ubiquitous Alexander Vindman was offered the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense by the incoming Zelenskyy government—odd considering he later was mostly responsible for prompting the impeachment of a U.S. president. In turn, the shadowy involvement of State Department official Victoria Nuland and the Biden family syndicate in Ukraine were not recommendations for Americans interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine.
Nonetheless, what now are Zelenskyy’s choices?
Salamis, 480 B.C.
If it were not for the brilliant and wily Athenian admiral Themistocles, Athens might have either been defeated, refounded the city elsewhere, or “Medized” by joining Xerxes’s massive Persian invasion of Greece in 480 B.C. The asymmetry in numbers was about as disadvantageous to what was left of the Greek resistance in the Bay of Salamis as Ukraine’s effort is against Russia, which possesses the largest army in Europe.
In desperate but brilliant fashion, Themistocles evacuated Athens, sent the population to safer enclaves, tapped Athenian familiarity with the waters and currents of Salamis, employed ruse and deception, and eventually destroyed a fleet that may have been at least three times the size of his own.
In general, anytime a big power seeks to defeat a stubborn and determined smaller force, it must first shut off all the invaded nation’s borders and sources of supply. What ultimately deadlocked Americans in Korea was the always-open Chinese border. In Vietnam, defeat came from the resupplies through the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Haiphong harbor. Iraq was never secure given the porous Syrian and Iran borderlands. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban was nourished through the unfettered mountain routes into nuclear Pakistan.
Putin, for now, cannot stop daily supplies into Ukraine from four NATO bordering states, all of which presumably are under the NATO nuclear umbrella.
In addition, Russian armies historically are as deadly to invaders—whether the Swedes, French, or Germans—as they are lackluster when invading others, given their failures and difficulties against Afghanistan (1979-1989) or the Poles (1920).
Zelenskyy might not give an inch. He would continue to fight in the streets of Kyiv as the Russians themselves did in Stalingrad. He can be rearmed at will. His forces are demoralizing Russian conscript armies. And if he is willing to take Themistoclean risks, Zelenskyy might yet defeat Putin militarily, at least in the sense of denying the Russians all that they did not have before the invasion.
Add in the eventual toll of Western sanctions and the cultural ostracism of Russia, and Zelenskyy could calibrate that time is actually on his side, not Putin’s. The longer he simply survives, the greater the odds he will always survive. So, Zelenskyy in Leonidan defiance says to Putin who demands he lays down his arms: μολὼν λαβέ—“Come and take them!”
Thebes, 480 B.C.
Then there is the choice of concessions and de facto negotiated capitulation.
As King Xerxes’ quarter-million combined naval and land forces absorbed Greece and pulled up before Thebes, the outnumbered city-state of no more than 40,000 residents saw no hope of salvation—other than joining the apparent winners. The result was that the ancient city (to its eternal shame) “Medized” and joined Xerxes rather than face annihilation.
A year later, Thebans fought side-by-side with their new Persian masters, as both were routed by free Greeks at the battle of Plataea. If the Russians pour in even more tanks, planes, and men, Zelenskyy might negotiate a surrender, either de facto rejoining the Russian Federation or being relegated to neutered status analogous to Austria and Finland during the Cold War.
Zelenskyy could say the odds were now hopeless. He had to worry not about heroic resistance but whether women and children lived. And he figured life within the old confines of Russia was preferable to sure death in the ongoing asymmetrical battles outside it. He could rationalize his battle dead by reasoning that three weeks or a month of hard fighting won him better terms from the victor.
Thermopylae, 480 B.C.
On the other hand, Zelenskyy at some point could privately conclude that his cause of stopping Putin is doomed but still worth continuing. He then would consider a glorious Thermopylaean last stand. If the Russian encirclements continue, if the Ukrainians cannot stop the aerial bombardment and shelling, if the country runs out of food and supplies, if the world shifts its attention, if the media relegates Ukrainian heroism to weekly slog news, then its army may well go down to defeat.
But Ukrainian diehard resistance may have been worth it, by exposing to all the weakness of the Russian military, by reminding the world of Putin’s cruelty, by insulating western Ukraine from the worst of the Russian devastation, by buying weeks if not months for rearmament and resupply in free areas of Ukraine, and by allowing critical time and space for growing urban resistance to Russian occupations.
Zelenskyy knows that he is now the darling of the West. But such infatuation is predicated on his continued resistance, his refusal to take up Joe Biden’s stupid offer of “a ride” out of the country, and to be honest, possible eventual martyrdom. Let us hope he does not end up like King Leonidas with his head on a Russian stake.
Melos, 416 B.C.
There is a fourth, still darker fate—that of the doomed Melians, made famous in Thucydides’ famous “Melian Dialogue” in book five of his history of the Peloponnesian War. There the Melian envoys explain to the Athenian attackers why they simply cannot surrender their ancient freedoms, despite the lopsided Athenian odds and because of the clear moral right on their side.
Instead, the poor Melians vow to fight against seemingly hopeless odds, with some slim expectations of succor from the Spartans, with hopes of dissension growing among the ranks of the Athenian allies, and of trust that everything is unpredictable in war.
The Athenians replied that such unrealistic hope was “danger’s comforter” and cannot be indulged by the weaker. The issue is not then in extremis whether Putin had some actual grievances in invading Ukraine, or even whether the noble Ukrainians were not only undeserving of such a savage invasion but are the clear moral superiors of the hypocritical Russians, whose Ukrainian adventures reveal just how cynical and bankrupt they have become.
Putin, like the Athenian diplomats, has no interest in rehashing past biased histories and counter-allegations. He will deal only with present realities, namely that Ukraine is weak, and Russia is strong. Thus, idealistic but doomed Ukrainian resistance is a selfish and immoral act on the part of Zelenskyy because his sense of heroism and gallantry will end up getting thousands of innocent women and children needlessly killed who otherwise might have at least lived under Russian domination.
In other words, Zelenskyy’s rockstar defiance, like the noble but utterly unrealistic resistance of the Melians, could earn his Ukrainians a Melian-like nonexistence.
These four choices depend not just on reason, morality, and emotion, but on the pulse of the battlefield in the next few days. Are Putin’s Russians tiring and simply want the mess just to go away? Or are they ashamed of their initial disorganization and now increasingly buoyed that their sheer numbers and savagery can still crush Ukraine?
Are the Ukrainians nearing exhaustion as their families live in rubble in wintertime and their dead pile up? Or are they just getting started, given the ferocious toll in men, planes, and tanks they are exacting on the supposedly invincible Russians?
The answers to those hypotheticals will determine whether dogged Ukrainian resistance leads to an incredible and unforeseen victory, or soon a negotiated surrender and a harsh emasculation by Russia, or a glorious last stand that leads to resistance and eventual success—or the end of everything the Ukrainians hold dear.