27 February 2022   3 comments

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has encountered stiff resistance from the Ukrainian military and from Ukrainian citizens mobilized to confront the invaders. From all accounts, the resistance has been more formidable than what most observers, the Russians included, had expected. Defenders usually have an advantage over invaders since they know the terrain very well and can fire from fortified defensive positions. Moreover, invading forces always run the risk of extended supply lines that prove to be inadequate. There are reports of many Russian tanks running out of fuel and the logistical difficulties of re-supplying advanced positions are considerable for the Russian military. Nonetheless, not many analysts believe that Ukrainian forces can withstand a concerted Russian push over an extended period of time.

But the successes of the Ukrainian defenses thus far are important, and it is worth recounting the significance of the Belgian resistance to the German invasion of their country in August 1914. Belgium was a neutral country at the time and Great Britain had vouchsafed that neutrality in the Treaty of London in 1839. As Europe began to contemplate the possibility of a large war in which Germany would attempt to expand its 1871 borders, many Europeans thought that the Treaty of London would deny Germany the ability to attack France through Belgium and instead focused on building up defenses along the French-German border.

The Germans, however, decided upon a different track. The German military, led by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, knew that Germany could not win a simultaneous two-front war against both France and Russia (which were bound by a military alliance). But von Schlieffen believed that Germany could win a sequential two-front war if Germany could defeat France in the six weeks it would take Russia to mobilize to open the eastern front. Germany could not defeat France if it pushed through the French-German border. But attacking France through undefended Belgium could be done easily (it was believed) and German troops could defeat France and then move back to the eastern front against Russia within the 6 week window. At least, that was the intent of what was called the Schlieffen Plan.

The Germans, however, had underestimated Belgian resistance. Nick Milne tells the story:

“On August 4th, 1914, the German army began crossing the border into Belgium.  The Belgians, understandably unwilling to allow such a thing to occur without offering firm protest, chose to stand and fight.  Bridges were indeed destroyed.  Roads were blocked.  Barricades were put up — and, while the nation’s small and ill-equipped army could not hope to defeat the German invaders, it did manage to slow them down to such an extent that the carefully drafted timetables of the planned invasion had to be rewritten from scratch, and the British Expeditionary Force was able to arrive in time to further delay the attempted conquest of Belgium and passage into France.  In an abstract sense, the First Battle of the Marne was won in the fields outside of Liège.”

There were many consequences of the Belgian resistance. First, it delayed the German invasion of France by 18 days, throwing off the delicate timetable of the Schlieffen Plan. That led the German general at the time (von Schlieffen had died), Helmuth von Moltke to try to save some time by attacking Paris from the east (where France had formidable fortifications) instead from the west (where France had virtually no defenses at all). Second, it gave the British time to mobilize its forces to defend France and to send them in time for the first great battle of World War I, the Battle of the Marne. Third, the Belgian resistance infuriated von Moltke, leading the Germans to commit unbelievable atrocities (such as the burning of the great Library of Louvain) in a vain attempt to frighten the Belgians into surrendering. Those atrocities only led to a stiffening of Belgian resistance and contributed to near universal condemnation of the Germans as barbarians, as suggested by the US Army poster below.

These consequences also seem to be occurring now. It has been remarkable how the invasion and the Ukrainian resistance has changed the policies of some countries, most notably Germany. The Germans have now dropped their policy of not sending lethal weaponry into conflict zones and has increased its defense spending to levels inconceivable a week ago.

“Germany, Europe’s biggest economy that had long been the key obstacle to more decisive action against Russia, dramatically changed course this weekend as Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a vast increase in the country’s defense spending and green-lighted arms deliveries to Ukraine.

“The moves marked a seismic shift for a country that has been allergic to involvement in international conflict since World War II’s end. It came amid a range of other decisive European Union moves — on a day when 100,000 people turned out in Berlin to protest the invasion.”

If the Russian invasion had succeeded in three days, such changes would not have occurred and Europe would have written Ukraine off as a lost cause. But the resistance has made clear that a Russian victory is not inevitable and has encouraged and inspired the rest of the world to join in the Ukrainian resistance.

However, one lesson from the Belgian resistance is that a frustrated invader might resort to actions with little or no military purpose in an effort to intimidate those who resist. Let us hope that Russian President Putin does not succumb to this temptation.

Posted February 27, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

3 responses to “27 February 2022

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  1. Thank you Vinnie for this in depth update and for the background research.

    I will keep checking into this blog. Thank you again for sharing your wisdom.


  2. Dear Martha, I am delighted that you found the post useful. Vinnie


  3. Graduated a few years back, remembered your site from world politics. Still grateful for your knowledge and your honest words during tough times. As long as we can sing, dance, laugh and love!


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