Lessons of the Ukraine War
Having gone on for nearly a year and a half, with immense destruction and death, the Ukraine War has important lessons for all sides. I outline a few below, in the hope that policymakers on all sides think twice before violating basic maxims of international relations and realism, and also think before overestimating their own capabilities.
1. Don’t believe your own propaganda.
This applies both to Russia and the West. Russia managed to convince itself that Ukrainians would welcome them as liberators across the board. This was not the case. Many Ukrainians fought back hard at the violation of their country’s borders. Moscow appears to have finally course corrected only after embarrassing reverses in Kherson and Izyum, applying a greater degree of force and implementing partial mobilisation. Even today, Russia only has enough men on the ground to enforce a stalemate with a tactical edge in the theatre.
By contrast, the West genuinely believed that initial Russian overconfidence and arrogance translated into general incompetence across all spheres, which clearly was not the case. Each ‘wonder weapon’ which the West has sent has been neutralised by Russia. Images now abound on social media, and rarely even mainstream media, of Western armour burning after being hit by Russian missiles and mines. The Western media egged on by arrogant governments convinced themselves that Russia would collapse to defeat after each fresh injection of Western weapons. Well, the front line is still intact. The much-vaunted counteroffensive has not yielded expected results and the tone of media analysis suggests that the West is now preparing to blame the Ukrainians for the failure of their equipment.
2. Understand your enemy’s motivations
Many in the Western media, government and thinktanks pretended not to understand why Russia invaded Ukraine, insisting that the attack was unprovoked. The history of international relations suggests that when a Great Power (or power alliance like NATO) pushes into the backyard of another great power, the results are invariably violent. War was only narrowly avoided in the Cuban Missile crisis by the narrowest of margins. The difference was that in Ukraine the West refused to back down. Had Ukraine adopted a policy of neutrality and acted as a bridge between the West and NATO, as international relations stalwart Mearsheimer had suggested, then perhaps the whole war could have been avoided. There was a lack of empathy toward Russian concerns in the West which led to catastrophe for Ukrainians and Europeans (Europe can no longer rely on cheap Russian gas to power its industry, with the result that it will be poorer). Russia has suffered losses but not unsustainably so, so it has a chance of winning the war in the next year or so having bled NATO in Ukraine. The real winner is the United States, which has succeeded in stretching Russia, denuding Europe substantially of industrial capability and made a lot of money supplying arms.
3. War is complex – leave it to the professionals
Many of the Western leaders have no military background and likely do not understand the gravity of the decisions they are making. An example from the failed counteroffensive: sending Ukraine armoured vehicles but not mine ploughs and anti-mine engineering equipment, despite having at least some idea that Ukraine faced huge Russian minefields suggests an unprofessional lack of attention to detail from civilian bureaucrats, thinktankers, media and government officials who don’t understand military issues. Many of them cheerlead a war that they did not know how to prosecute, especially once Russia professionalised its own operations and started getting the tactical advantage.
Food for thought especially for Western policymakers, who now need to hope that Russia does not get any further advantage and that negotiations can succeed in time.