Ukraine: A Year's Worth Of Lessons
As the war in Ukraine drags on and passes its 1-year anniversary, the world before the war and the pandemic fades further into the distance. This war is having an impact on the geopolitical order in ways that come about no more than once in a generation, and often no more frequently than once every two or three generations. Wars such as this change many things and challenge assumptions to the point that make prior assertions and claims seem exceedingly ridiculous in hindsight. With the war still going on, many factors yet unimagined could come into play and shape the world that comes after. However, upon this first anniversary, it is worth looking back on some of the things that we have learned so far.
1.) Industrial warfare still exists.
Since World War II, or at least since the Korean War, it appeared to some like mass industrial style war with mass armies moving and tank offensives were consigned to the history books. Since Korea, there have only been a few cases of a mass tank maneuver style of warfare such as the Six-Day War (1967), Yom Kippur War (1973), and the 2 Gulf Wars (1991 and 1993) that would be familiar to the Germans and the Russians who fought from 1941-1945. The U.S. war experience over the last 60 years has been more of counter-insurgency type operations with its focus on highly mobile infantry forces and winning hearts and minds. Given that this is the U.S. experience and given that Europe hasn’t had a major war in 3 generations, many had concluded that the nature of warfare had irrevocably changed.
But as so often happens in history, ways of fighting that were thought to be outmoded suddenly come back into vogue. In hindsight, it is likely that the pause in industrial style warfare may be more due to the fact that the U.S. has had overwhelming air superiority, coupled with the fact that Europe and the U.S. haven’t engaged with peer or near peer competitors on the battlefield since Korea. What we haven’t seen in awhile is a war between two near peer competitors that have access to modern technology where one doesn’t have complete control of the air. We have that now in Ukraine.
2.) Armies still march on their bellies.
Right at the start of the war, most (if not all) Western pundits and analysts were predicting a quick Russian victory. They looked at the military disparity on paper between Russia and Ukraine and concluded that Ukrainian defenses would simply collapse when faced with the Russian invasion. The American offer to Zelensky of extraction out of Kiev to safety in the West for him and his family is as loud an expression as any as to what the American establishment thought that Ukraine’s chances were. Except for a few folks, no one predicted anything but a swift, easy Russian conquest.
What almost no one thought to question, and this includes the best and brightest of the Western intelligence services, was whether Russia had mastered the logistical aspects of armored warfare to be able to conduct a mass offensive. The answer to this question was clearly illustrated in the stalled Russian column outside of Kiev; a column largely not halted by Ukrainian arms but by its own inept logistical management.
It is often the nature of warfare throughout the ages that key military principles end up having to be re-learned by new generations of political and military leaders. Somewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte was laughing as he watched the Russians painfully learn the lesson of one of his most famous statements. An army marches on its belly. Even in the 21st century warfare, logistics still very much matters.
3.) Russia isn’t as strong as was believed.
This revelation has been not only a shock to Putin, but also the rest of the world as well. In the decade leading up to the invasion, Putin had seemingly rebuilt the Russian military, brought Russia back into the Middle East through involvement in Syria, had fomented a civil war in Ukraine, and overall expanded Russian influence into places that it had been absent since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition, it was believed that Europe (especially Germany) was so dependent on Russian energy that Russia could likely effectively influence German policy in any direction it wanted. Furthermore, Moscow and St. Petersburg were starting to look like up and coming global cities as gas and oil money caused new construction to go up.
We can now see that the strength that Russia projected, as has been so often the case in Russian history, was a façade. Not only did the attempted Russian energy blackmail not fundamentally alter European policy relative to Russia, but its military technology and performance on the battlefield has shown it to be far inferior than was previously believed. And its lack of productive capacity is on display in that it apparently has to import drones from Iran and artillery shells from North Korea; two countries not previously thought of as premier armament suppliers.
In short, the image of an up and coming power that was carefully constructed over the prior two decades is now in ruins.
4.) But isn’t as weak as she now appears.
Despite the revelation of Russia as something considerably less than a first tier power, it is incorrect as some are now doing to imply that Russia will break up into smaller parts. First, Russia is too big to defend, but also too big to invade. The sheer geographic size of Russia means that she has always required a strong central force to hold her together. While the Putin regime might not survive (Putin won’t live forever), I don’t see that the actual control apparatus of the Russian state will disappear. In addition, Russia still has one powerful friend (China) and another up and coming power (India) that is more neutral towards it. While China will likely expand into the eastern part of Russia in the coming decades meaning that Russia in 50 years may be out of some or all of Siberia, the core of European Russia will likely remain. In the shorter term, Chinese support diplomatically, economically as a customer for Russian gas, and possibly militarily, means that Russian weakness is liable to be exaggerated by Western observers.
In addition, while economic statistics provided by Russia can be looked at skeptically, that fact is that sanctions have not caused the Russian economy to collapse, and are not likely to do so. Mobilizing hundreds of thousands of men for war while hundreds of thousands more leave the country will weaken Russia long term relative to what she would have been otherwise. But Russia still has nuclear weapons and will continue to play role in world affairs, even after this war is over.
5.) The U.S. is also not as strong as previously supposed.
While the U.S. is still a superpower with the ability to project military and economic power around the world, this conflict has exposed the limits of its power. In the first months of the conflict, there were some emotional voices urging the U.S. to “stop the war” or to “throw the Russians out of Ukraine”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Russia is a nuclear armed state. The U.S. has been constrained in its dealing with Russia due to this fact.
However, that was always understood. What wasn’t previously understood were the limits of U.S. diplomatic pressure. The U.S. tried to rally the world against Russia through sanctions and by leaning on countries to cut ties with Russia. The effort was designed to collapse the Russian economy and make it difficult to impossible for Russia to continue its war. This effort has clearly failed so far. While western leaders make speeches touting that “the world is united against Russia”, this is far from true. In addition to China and a few rogue states that were always going to side with Russia, states like India, Turkey (a NATO member), the UAE, and even Israel have pursued a more neutral path. In other words, they have not cut Russia off.
In 1993, the U.S. was the world sole remaining superpower and could basically dictate most things to the world. While there was some resistance to the U.S. led order, the U.S. could push countries more in line with its wishes back then. This moment has passed; a fact that has been revealed by the Ukraine war.
6.) The Multi-Polar World Is Taking Shape.
Wars such as the one in Ukraine tend to have out-sized impacts on history, even if those impacts aren’t apparent for years or decades. This war is revealing a geopolitical chessboard that is being shifted. Although Russia will likely emerge in a weaker position, possibly eventually in an extreme case as a client state of China, countries like Turkey, the UAE, and India are increasing their influence. Turkey and the UAE are establishing themselves as trusted intermediaries in diplomatic and business/finance arenas as it still appears to be possible to transact business with Russia through these channels. Even Saudi Arabia has taken a more independent position from the U.S. And India looks set to develop into another pole over the next decade or two in the multi-polar chessboard.
While the war is not over, and other unexpected developments could occur, this is how things appear to be trending at the current moment. Regardless, what the war has made abundantly clear is that the unipolar geopolitical order with the U.S. at its center is now no longer a fact.
7.) NATO is here to stay.
For the last 30+ years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO had struggled to justify its existence, like so many other bureaucracies that have apparently outlived their usefulness. In the 1990’s, despite talk of possibly expanding NATO into even including Russia, it seemed clear that NATO lacked an enemy. While it supported the U.S. in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it was always clear this war was a U.S. endeavor. While allied help was appreciated, it wasn’t critical to the operation. While inertia kept the NATO bureaucracy employed, NATO skeptics were able to question why it stayed around.
The war has infused NATO with a new mission; same as the old mission. While the Russian military has proven that it won’t be able to smash its way to Berlin like in 1945, the posture of Russia is that it is now an enemy and will likely remain so for a long time to come. The need for western arms and a forward military posture means that NATO countries will be increasing their defense spending and moving to a more forward military posture in the Baltic countries, Finland, and Poland. This will continue even after the shooting in Ukraine stops, as the current generation of political and military leaders will remember that they thought a major war in Europe to be an impossibility right up until February 24, 2022. Consequently, they can be expected to work on building up their defenses and using NATO infrastructure to coordinate this for a long time to come.
8.) Germany is likely to decline in influence.
Up until early 2022, Germany was viewed as a leader in Europe, even if it didn’t seem to want to be. It did seem to relish being the economic engine of Europe, but also seemed to be punching below its weight geopolitically. This war has proven to many the ineffectiveness of the German political class. Although Germany announced a change in course in the immediate aftermath of the invasion with a promised large increase in military spending, there have been questions as to the lasting commitment of this spending and even how effective it will be. In a year of major crisis that requires bold leadership, Germany seems to have had to be dragged unwillingly to live up to its commitments. It has been extremely reluctant to send weapons to Ukraine. It’s almost like it is in a position that requires certain actions that go against its DNA.
Going forward, especially if U.S. commitment Europe weakens, expect other countries to develop strategies that reduce any potential reliance on Germany. It is indeed likely that Germany will retain some influence simply due to the size of its economy and the apparent lack of a suitable replacement for the title of “leading country”. However, don’t expect countries to forget, especially in Eastern Europe, that when the moment came for bold leadership, Germany proved to be semi-reliable at best.
9.) Never ever give up your nukes.
If there is one hard lesson that can and will be taken away from the last year it is to never, ever, give up nuclear weapons once you have them. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. pressured Ukraine to return the Soviet era nuclear weapons currently stored on Ukrainian soil back to Russia in exchange for security guarantees. This was, as should be obvious, a colossal error on Ukraine’s part. Ukraine currently has lost Crimea (likely for good), has 20% of its territory under Russian occupation, many cities/towns damaged/destroyed, tens of thousands of it citizens dead, and millions displaced because of this singular decision. With nukes in its arsenal, there is absolutely no way that Russia launches an invasion.
The impact of this is to make global nuclear non-proliferation efforts much harder. If there was anyone prior to the war who actually believed that there was a path to coaxing North Korea to give up its nukes in exchange for something, there is nobody now. Nuclear weapons guarantee the life of a state. This is true of Iran, who will continue to pursue nuclear weapons for the same reason. Likely the only way to stop them will be a brutal and sustained attack on their nuclear facilities, with all of the collateral damage that will cause. They have every incentive to obtain nuclear weapons, given the security guarantee that it provides and the geopolitical influence that it augments.
In such a world over time, expect other more benign countries to decide that they need nuclear weapons too. South Korea and Japan would be candidates, and possibly Taiwan as well. France and England will likely expand their arsenal. And at some point after Germany’s political class and society have evolved into something more suitable for the current geopolitical moment (whenever that might be), even Germany could decide to travel down this path as well.
10.) The conventional wisdom can be so very wrong.
The last year has treated observers to a front row seat to the conventional wisdom about Russia and its capabilities being spectacularly wrong. It often happens that the conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong, and it often seems to happen precisely at the time when this wisdom has been accepted by everyone and nobody is questioning it. While it is not clear why, I think it has to do with certain views gaining acceptance within institutions. Once this happens to a critical level, it becomes unpopular, and even career-endangering, to express an opinion contrary to the conventional narrative. Consequently, people inside the institution start to produce reports and “research” that caters to the conventional wisdom. Facts that support the wisdom get amplified and those that don’t support the narrative get discounted or discarded. That’s how you get institutions that can so badly misjudge the capabilities of Russia and Ukraine.
It is important to bear in mind going forward when listening to something that “everybody knows”, that one should probably immediately question what one is hearing. It doesn’t mean that it is necessarily wrong, only that one should not be quite as sure of the “conventional wisdom” as its purveyors would like you to be.
These are a few of the lessons that have been learned so far. However, the war is still going on and there are likely more surprises in store. Certain noises are starting to be heard regarding peace plans. China has recently floated one that has been largely rejected, but expect there to be others as the war costs escalate. There are now accusations that China is beginning to start supplying Russia with weaponry to replenish its reduced stocks, a fact that would reduce pressure on Russia to stop the war as it wouldn’t have to worry about running low on critical ammunition. In short, there isn’t a clear path to ending the war, and how the geopolitical chessboard ultimately ends up will be heavily influenced by whatever peace agreement eventually comes out. Much is still yet to be decided and more lessons are out there to be learned. The comings months are likely to be as “interesting” as the last 12 months have been.