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Opinion: 8 lessons from Russia's war in Ukraine

Russia's war on Ukraine is still raging, and no one knows when or how it will end. Nonetheless, the past two years have borne out several predictions concerning what does and does not work in 21st-century conflicts involving major powers.

June 11, 2024 11:41 AM 5 min read
Two soldiers with the Ukrainian military's 1st Tank Brigade peer out from tank hatches in an undisclosed location in Ukraine on March 31, 2024. (Ukrinform/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Russia's war on Ukraine is still raging, and no one knows when or how it will end. Nonetheless, the past two years have borne out several predictions concerning what does and does not work in 21st-century conflicts involving major powers.

June 11, 2024 11:41 AM 5 min read
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Former U.S. assistant defense secretary
This audio is created with AI assistance

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Two years ago, I outlined eight lessons from Russia's war against Ukraine. And though I warned that it was too early to be confident about any predictions, they have held up reasonably well.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he envisaged a quick seizure of the capital, Kyiv, and a change of government – much like what the Soviets did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the war is still raging, and no one knows when or how it will end.

If one sees the conflict as Ukraine’s “war of independence,” rather than focusing too much on borders, the Ukrainians are already victorious. Putin had denied that Ukraine was a separate nation, but his behavior has only strengthened Ukrainian national identity.

What else have we learned? First, old and new weapons complement each other. Despite the early success of anti-tank weapons in the defense of Kyiv, I warned – correctly – that proclamations about the end of the tank era might prove premature as the battle moved from the northern suburbs to Ukraine’s eastern plains. However, I did not anticipate the effectiveness of drones as anti-tank and anti-ship weapons, nor did I expect that Ukraine could drive the Russian navy from the western half of the Black Sea. (Artillery and mines also have played a major role as the conflict has settled into World War I-style trench warfare.)

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Second, nuclear deterrence works, but it depends on relative stakes more than capabilities. The West has been deterred, but only up to a point. Putin’s nuclear threat has kept NATO governments from sending troops (though not equipment) to Ukraine. But the reason is not that Russia has superior nuclear capabilities; rather, it is that Putin has designated Ukraine a vital national interest for Russia, whereas Western governments have not. Meanwhile, Putin’s nuclear saber rattling has not prevented the West from extending the range of the weapons it provides to Ukraine; and the West, so far, has deterred Putin from attacking any NATO countries.

Third, economic interdependence does not prevent war. Some German policymakers assumed that cutting trade ties with Russia would be so costly that neither party would allow for open hostilities. But while economic interdependence can raise the costs of war, it does not necessarily prevent it. More to the point, an uneven economic interdependence can be weaponized by the less dependent party.

Fourth, sanctions can raise costs, but they do not determine outcomes in the short term. Recall that CIA Director William Burns met with Putin in November 2021 and warned, to no avail, of impending sanctions should Russia invade. Putin probably doubted that the West could maintain global unity on sanctions, and he was right. Oil is a fungible commodity, and many countries – not least India – are more than happy to import discounted Russian oil transported by an irregular fleet of tankers.

Ukrainian soldiers with the 42nd Mechanized Brigade's aerial reconnaissance unit receives a batch of FPV drones near the front line in Lyptsi, Kharkiv Oblast, on May 19, 2024. (Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, as I anticipated two years ago, China’s concerns about getting entangled in secondary sanctions do seem to have set some limits on its support for Russia. While China has provided important “dual-use technology” (suitable for either military or civilian purposes), it has abstained from sending weapons. Given this mixed picture, it will be some time before we can fully judge the long-term effect of sanctions on Russia.

Fifth, information warfare makes a difference. Modern wars are not only about whose army wins; they are also about whose story wins. The careful disclosure by the United States of intelligence revealing Russia’s invasion plans proved effective in debunking the narrative that Putin wanted Europeans to believe, and it contributed greatly to Western solidarity when the invasion occurred as predicted. Equally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has done an extraordinary job of promoting his country’s story in the West.

Sixth, both hard and soft power matter. While hard, coercive power trumps the soft power of attraction in the near term, soft power still counts for a lot. Putin failed the soft-power test early on. The sheer barbarism of Russian forces in Ukraine led Germany finally to cancel the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – an outcome that years of U.S. pressure had failed to bring about. Zelensky, by contrast, has been relying on soft power from the start. Using his skills as an actor to present an attractive portrait of Ukraine, he not only won Western sympathy, but also secured deliveries of the military equipment that underwrites hard power.

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Seventh, cyber capability is not a silver bullet. Russia had used cyber weapons to meddle with Ukraine’s power grid since at least 2015, and many analysts predicted that a cyber blitz against Ukraine’s infrastructure and government would make any invasion a fait accompli. But while there have been many (reported) cyberattacks during the war, none has proved decisive. When the Ukrainians’ Viasat network was hacked, they started communicating through Starlink’s many small satellites. With training and battlefield experience, Ukrainian cyber defense and offense has only improved.

Another lesson, then, is that once a war has begun, kinetic weapons provide greater timeliness, precision, and damage assessment for commanders than cyber weapons do. That said, electronic warfare can still interfere with the linkages that are essential to the use of drones.

Finally, war is unpredictable. The most important lesson from the Ukraine war remains one of the oldest. Two years ago, many expected a quick Russian victory; and just one year ago, there were great expectations of a triumphant Ukrainian summer offensive. But as Shakespeare wrote more than four centuries ago, it is dangerous for a leader to “cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

The promise of a short war is seductive. Putin certainly never expected to be bogged down indefinitely. He has managed to sell his war of attrition to the Russian people as a “great patriotic” struggle against the West. But the dogs he has unleashed could still turn around and bite him.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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