Rational and self-imposed restraint disadvantages Russia in Ukraine; the United States and its United Nations allies experienced similar limitations during the Korean War. While Ukraine is already exploiting this to its advantage, Washington and Brussels would be wise to do the same.
In the 1950s, global peace and stability were on the precipice. World War II had devastated swathes of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Tens of millions of people, mostly innocent and defenseless civilians, were killed in the bloodiest conflict of all-time.
To end the war, the United States demonstrated the destructive power of nuclear weapons twice, killing more than 100,000 civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the 1940s weren’t apocalyptic enough, the Soviet Union also detonated its first atomic bomb at Semipalatinsk in 1949.
Like today, Moscow was busy challenging the newly formed United Nations’ mandate to preserve peace and stability wherever it could. The United States oversaw Western Europe’s reconstruction. The Marshall Plan was enacted, NATO was established, and the Schumann Declaration laid the legal and intellectual foundations to institutionalize peace on the European continent.
Yet East Asia remained unstable. General Douglas MacArthur had consolidated the U.S. occupation of Japan and helped revive Japanese democracy. Nevertheless, contrary to the decisive defeat of the Soviet and Yugoslav-backed communists in the Greek Civil War, Mao Zedong led the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to victory against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang in China – forcing Chiang and his KMT government to flee across the strait to Taiwan.
The outbreak of the Cold War inevitably led to brinkmanship on the newly liberated and hotly contested Korean Peninsula. Communist China and the Soviet Union both backed the Korean communists, led by Kim Il Sung. Washington and its United Nations allies supported the internationally recognized government of South Korea, led by Syngman Rhee.
Yet the United States fought with a figurative arm tied behind its back in the Korean War because Washington was obsessed with avoiding a repeat of the apocalyptic 1940s and preventing the outbreak of World War III. Rational and self-imposed restraint on U.S.-led United Nations forces in Korea was twofold.
First, their own rules of engagement forbade them from attacking military infrastructure located outside of Korea. Even though all Chinese, Soviet, and Korean communist military targets were technically fair game on the Korean Peninsula itself, the United States refrained from attacking their transport networks, logistics hubs, ammunition dumps, training centers, military bases, weapons depots, and soldiers stationed beyond Korea’s borders in China.
Second, their own strategic objective was not to expel the Korean communists from Korea into China, but to hold them at the 38th parallel – the pre-war border between North and South Korea. The U.S. insisted on fighting the war under these conditions, even if it meant extending the duration of the conflict and sustaining additional casualties. Highly controversial given the treasure sacrificed to the Korean cause, over time, this even resulted in a public dispute between MacArthur and President Harry Truman.
Above all, Washington prioritized containing the conflict within Korea’s borders, avoiding potential massive retaliation from China and the Soviet Union, and preventing the outbreak of World War III. In restraining itself, the United States enabled the Soviet Union and China to provide the Korean communists with an indispensable lifeline: a consistent supply of weaponry and manpower, which helped them fight the war to a stalemate.
Moscow is trapped in a similar predicament today. Despite calls for peace by pro-Putin appeasers, it is Russia – not the West – that is most concerned with preventing escalation.
In fact, the evidence suggests that the Kremlin is willing to extend the conflict’s duration, sustain additional military casualties, tolerate Ukraine’s ground incursions into border regions like Belgorod, risk Ukrainian drone strikes destroying military targets in the Russian Federation, endure canceled commercial flights at international airports in cities such as Moscow, suffer crippling economic sanctions, and even endure embarrassing international isolation to avoid fighting a full-scale war against NATO.
Like the U.S. in Korea, Russia will not risk striking military targets located in NATO countries because Moscow seeks to contain the conflict within Ukraine’s borders, avoid massive retaliation from the Alliance, and prevent the outbreak of a great power conflict – or nuclear exchange. Given that Moscow’s mission to capture Kyiv in three days has turned into a 19-month fiasco, Russia already has its hands full with the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Triggering NATO’s Article 5 and having the most powerful military alliance in history join the fight against Russia would be suicidal. This, above all else, is Moscow’s ultimate limitation in Ukraine.
The AFU is not subject to that same constraint. Having learned from the United States’ experience in Korea, the AFU is committed to expelling Russia from Ukraine’s borders. It is also able and willing to strike military targets deep within Russian territory to accomplish that objective. Furthermore, like the Soviet Union and China in Korea, Kyiv’s partners can afford to underwrite the war for as long as the Ukrainian people are able and willing to fight.
Hypothetically, the West could train tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and provide Ukraine with an unlimited supply of high-quality weaponry, ammunition, and humanitarian assistance. No matter how many weapons factories, storage facilities, repair shops, and training centers the West builds in neighboring NATO countries like Poland, Romania, and Czechia, Russia has no way of stopping those indispensable lifelines from reaching Ukraine.
Put simply, Russia can’t achieve total victory in Ukraine today for the same reason why the U.S. and its United Nations partners were unable to defeat the Korean communists decisively in the 1950s: rational and self-imposed restraint. The West would be wise to recall the lessons from America’s difficulties in the Korean War, reverse-engineer the requisite solutions, and expedite the transfer of deliverables required for Ukraine to expel Russia from its territory.
An isolated and impoverished but nuclear-armed North Korea is terrible for Asia, and a permanently divided Ukraine would be just as bad for Europe.