Ukrainian Echoes From America's War for Independence


May 23, 2024

Print of a painting by Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq depicting the surrender of the British forces after the Battle of Yorktown, public domain photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

Print of a painting by Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq depicting the surrender of the British forces after the Battle of Yorktown

Public domain photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress

By Eugene A. Procknow and William Courtney

This commentary originally appeared on RealClearDefense on May 23, 2024.

Ukraine's fight for freedom has significant echoes from America's war for independence that could help Americans better understand and assess the war in Ukraine.

A Gallup poll shows that 36 percent of Americans think the United States is doing too much to help Ukraine defend against Russia's aggression. But some of these skeptics might be more supportive if they understood how much it resembles our struggle nearly 250 years ago.

American and European support for Ukraine—over $100 billion this year—is vital. Without it, Ukraine may be unable to fend off a much larger aggressor. Europeans see Russia's war as a direct threat to their security. A victory by Moscow could embolden Russian chauvinists and risk wider war, posing new challenges to America's security.

A victory by Moscow could embolden Russian chauvinists and risk wider war, posing new challenges to America's security.

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Five parallels might be especially relevant:

Foreign Aid Can Be Decisive

In the American Revolution, Continental soldiers fired French arms and wore French-made uniforms, used in America's first capture of a British Army at Saratoga, New York. In the last major battle of the war at Yorktown, Virginia, Continental and French armies, protected by the French navy, defeated British forces. Western aid is no less essential to Ukraine's defense. This year, the West is spending well over $100 billion on arms such as artillery, air defense, and combat aircraft (F-16s), as well as on economic and humanitarian aid.

Imperial Arrogance Can Be Consuming

In 1774, the British Parliament infuriated American colonists by adopting the Coercive Acts, known to Americans as the Intolerable Acts. In response to the Boston Tea Party, they closed the Port of Boston, revoked Massachusetts' charter, and assigned coveted Ohio Valley lands to Quebec. The Acts led to the first shots of war at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Showing no less insensitivity, the Kremlin touts the falsehood that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” and Russia seeks to deny Ukraine's right to remain an independent country.

Aggression Can Unify Victims

When the Revolutionary War erupted, as many as 30 percent of Americans remained loyal to England. During the fighting, many switched sides or left America for other parts of the British Empire. This left the United States more unified. Before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, 64 percent of Ukrainians identified themselves above all as Ukrainians rather than another identifier. Six months later, it was 85 percent.

Wars Have Uncertain Outcomes

Over their eight-year Revolutionary War, Americans often courted with failure. In 1776, a wind shift might have allowed the British to capture General Washington's army at the Battle of Brooklyn. On the cusp of victory in 1783, the Continental Army might have mutinied over long-delayed pay. War in Ukraine also has unpredictable elements. At the outset, Russia's army seized a large swath of eastern Ukraine but was routed trying to capture Kyiv. At present, the combatant's armies are stalemated on land, but Russia has lost a third of its Black Sea Fleet to ingenuous Ukrainian attacks.

Economic Power Complements Military Force

British occupation and naval blockades of U.S. cities imposed severe economic pain. In return, American privateers harassed and destroyed British merchant shipping. Almost 1,700 U.S. ships did so much damage that British maritime insurance rates skyrocketed, and some naval forces had to be diverted to protect the home front. Due to Western sanctions and war privations, Russia's economy today is over 5 percent smaller than predicted before the full-scale war. The economy is far underperforming other energy exporters. Hinting at the war's rising cost, Putin recently made an economist his new defense minister, to put the military and the economy “in sync.”

Americans during the American Revolution and Ukrainians today share many aspirations.

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While there are important parallels, America then and Ukraine now have some different war experiences. The American Revolution spread armed conflict to Asia, Africa, and Europe, whereas the war in Ukraine has not escalated to other regions. In North America, the British fired mostly on military targets, whereas in Ukraine, Russia also wages war on civilians. Ukraine remains focused on regaining its lost territory. It does not attempt to conquer new lands, in contrast to the Americans in their 1775 Canadian invasion and 1779 campaign against the Iroquois Nation.

Americans then and Ukrainians today share many aspirations. They seek to live securely in their countries, enjoy democratic and economic freedoms, and oust foreign oppressors. They see their fight as benefiting not only themselves but a broader cause of liberty.

For these aspirations to be fulfilled, the West cannot shirk its duty any more than Ukraine's courageous people can.

Eugene A. Procknow is an author and military historian focused on the American revolutionary era. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND, and a former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia.