Small Wars Journal

Ukraine is the Modern-Day Sparta 

Fri, 10/28/2022 - 8:56pm

Ukraine is the Modern-Day Sparta 

By Daniel Rice

As I traveled into Ukraine for my fourth trip since the war began, I was again inspired by the resilience of the Ukrainian people.  When I was a freshman at West Point (called a “Plebe”), Brigadier General Peter Boylan had a saying, “You can’t be a Spartan living in Athens”.  Sparta was a warrior nation, every man served, and the entire nation was on a wartime footing.  Whereas Athens was not.  I recalled his words from many years ago as I observed the Ukrainian people, going about their lives, ignoring air raid sirens while sipping coffee at outdoor cafes.   

It occurred to me that Ukraine is the closest we have to a modern-day Sparta.   This war has affected every single member of Ukrainian society, for years, starting with the Russian invasion of 2014 and the illegal annexation of Crimea and Donbas.  

Every member of the 38-million-person country has been touched by this war directly and deeply.  At least 5.5 million refugees, mostly women and children, fled the country ahead of the on-coming Russian horde of rapists, looters and murderers.  Twenty percent of the country was occupied at one point, representing another 8 million Ukrainian lives.  Nearly a million are in uniform, either the military or security forces, including 40,000 women.  Every Ukrainian has either been a refugee, suffered under occupation, served in the military or had a family member who served.  

Russia on the other hand has 141 million inhabitants. The roughly 200,000 in Ukraine are a small percentage of their population.   The war, fought from 2014 until now, is largely a distant war, not being fought on their own soil.   Russia has not been on a wartime footing for eight years like Ukraine.   Only in the last year, have sanctions and corporate pullouts (McDonald’s, Starbucks, Citi, etc.) impacted Russia.   In hindsight, the global community should have put these sanctions in place in 2014, or even earlier when Putin’s aggression started in 2008 in Georgia, or in 1999 in Chechnya.   The Russian culture is not a warrior culture like Ukraine.  In fact, it is a dysfunctional and dying culture with a declining population, high alcoholism, and declining life expectancy.    

Ancient Sparta fought the Athenians in the Peloponnesian war which lasted 27 years from 431 BC to 404 BC.   It was only when Sparta formed an alliance with the Persian empire that Sparta won the war against the larger Athenian nation, much like Ukraine has formed an alliance with NATO to beat the much larger Russia.   Ukraine has been on a wartime footing, at war for its very existence, for eight years.  Russia has yet to experience this war at home.  It is obvious that Russia will never conquer Ukraine.  An alliance with the west helped save Ukraine.  No matter what happens going forward, a strong defensive alliance against future Russia aggression will be needed prior to laying down any arms.  We cannot have a mere piece of paper, like the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by the U.S., Russia and UK, to serve as Ukraine’s defense against another invasion.  We need western air power, air defenses, and boots on the ground to protect Ukraine against future Russian aggression.  Anything less is unacceptable, and Ukraine will continue to fight for its survival. 

Over the course of eight years the Ukrainian military was deliberately converted from the old Soviet Style “command and control” model to a much more western model which pushes down authority and decision making to the lowest levels.  U.S. special forces and NATO soldiers helped lead this transition, creating a learning Army, where soldiers are taught “how to think” not “what to think.”   Militaries often lead their societies through great social changes.  The returning Ukrainian soldiers will bring with them western style thinking and help continue to transform Ukrainian society to be part of the West and reject all aspects of the old Soviet Union once and for all.  

The Russian army on the other hand is an amoral, immoral army.  Those Russians who are lucky to return to Russia, return to a decaying empire.  And those rapists, murderers and looters will lead their society through the continued moral decline of Russia.  The difference between the two futures of Ukraine and Russia could not be starker.  

When this war is won, and the Ukrainian soldiers return to civilian life, this modern-day Sparta will thrive. Life in uniform during wartime is difficult.   But these soldiers have learned discipline. They have learned teamwork.  They have learned how to lead, and when to follow, and they have learned to be incredibly innovative.   When the war is won, and most of the refugees and soldiers return, there will be a construction boom. History suggests there will likely be a baby boom.  The soldiers who were successful on the battlefield will return and want to be educated, and with western and American type universities.   The world will help Ukraine get back on its feet with a Marshall Plan type of relief effort.  Traditionally, Ukraine has sustained enormous agricultural and mining industries. Now Ukraine will lead a future with a major military industrial capacity in order to protect itself from further Russian aggression.   Tourism will likely thrive as the Ukrainian brand has never been stronger globally and never more “top of mind” in the West.   

The Spartan soldiers who won this war will return and lead Ukraine to a bright and prosperous future, integrated into the EU and NATO, and the First Army of Peace will have helped degrade and destroy Europe’s #1 threat, and be rewarded with peace and economic prosperity.   

Author’s note:  there are of course differences between Sparta/Athens and Ukraine/Russia comparison.  Ukraine is a democracy and Sparta was ruled by two kings.  Athens was a democracy and Russia has become a totalitarian regime.   And no, there were no Nazis in Sparta for the Russian strategic communications team. 


About the Author(s)

Dan is the President American University Kyiv and Co-President Thayer Leadership and a 1988 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.  He served his commitment as an Airborne-Ranger qualified Field Artillery officer. In 2004, he voluntarily re-commissioned in the Infantry to serve in Iraq for 13 months.  He has been awarded the Purple Heart, Ranger Tab, Airborne Badge and cited for ‘courage on the field of battle” by his Brigade Commander. 


Dan has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Small Wars Journal, and Chief Executive magazine. In 2013, he published and co-authored his first book, West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage, which features 200 of West Point graduates who have helped shape our nation, including the authorized biographies of over 100 living graduates.. The book received 3 literary awards from the Independent Book Publishers Association plus an award from the Military Society Writers of America (MSWA). Dan has appeared frequently on various news networks including CNN, FOX News, FOX & Friends, Bloomberg TV, NBC, MSNBC, and The Today Show.


Ed.D., ABD, Leadership, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education (graduation expected 2023)

MS.Ed., Leadership & Learning, University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, 2020

M.S., Integrated Marketing Communications, Medill Graduate School, Northwestern University, 2018

M.B.A., Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, 2000

B.S., National Security, United States Military Academy, 1988

Full bio here: