Lessons from Ukraine war

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 21 Feb 2023

Abdel-Moneim Said marks the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine


A year has passed since the Ukrainian war, so called because it is taking place on Ukrainian soil. Whatever might be said about the parties actually or allegedly involved, the battles have focused on repelling the offensives that crossed the border from the direction of Russia. All major wars, whether between two or more states or even world wars have been subjected to exhaustive studies to explore the deeper roots and circumstances that led to their outbreak, and their tactics and strategies of engagement. The same applies to the current war, even before the end of its first year. In a recent article for Foreign Policy, professor of international relations at Harvard University Stephen Walt discusses “The Five Top Lessons from Year One of Ukraine’s War.”

Lesson one is this: “It is very easy for leaders to miscalculate.” Walt cites the miscalculations made by Russian President Vladimir Putin who had been overly confident in Russia’s ability to attain its targets swiftly, underestimating Ukraine’s ability to mount a serious resistance. He also misjudged Western Europe’s ability to find alternative sources of energy. At a certain level, the American scholar appears to agree with what I wrote in this column, when I discussed the pull between wisdom and folly as a determinant of the role the individual plays in critical decisions before and during major conflicts. The war in Ukraine is much the same as many other wars in this regard, not just because of the miscalculations made by leaders, but also because of errors in intelligence, errors in the conduct of foreign and national security policy, and also the inability to rectify mistakes and accept being wrong. 

The second lesson is: “States unite to counter aggression.” Beneath this heading we find the fundamentals of Walt’s political science outlook. He subscribes to the realist school that regards the state as a main player in international relations. The state behaves in accordance with a balance of power shaped through its own autonomous capacities or in alliance with other states. The whole of European history is a series of alliances engaged with or against each other in varying power balance equations. The two world wars were waged between two opposing pacts. Before then, Great Britain could assert its dominance as the lynchpin in a European power balance no single power could maintain on its own. After two devastating world wars, European policy was intended to prevent such wars from happening again. NATO was a deterrence mechanism and the establishment of what would evolve into the European Union was another. Combined, they formed a military and economic force never before seen in the world, let alone the continent. 

The main, practical purpose of these entities was to absorb post-war Germany or defeat it should it ever rise again as an aggressor. In fact, the reunification of Germany after the end of the Cold War worried many European capitals. NATO and the EU were also tasked with deterring the Soviet Union. But they had never suspected that Russia would invade another European state. When it did, the enormous combined technological and economic weight of the Western camp became a force in itself within the theatre of operations. It helped obstruct Russian advances and made it possible for Ukrainian forces to launch counteroffensives that changed the balance on the ground in the conflict. 

Lesson three is: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” War is not the movies. It is not about “a brief spasm of shock and awe followed by the awarding of medals and maybe a victory parade,” as Walt puts it. So a momentary advance may not signify an end and a counteroffensive from one side or temporary pull-back on the other do not necessarily mean that victory is in sight. The wars great powers engaged in are not cheap and they certainly are not quick. Just as Russia was wrong to expect a rapid victory, so too was the West’s belief that its economic sanctions would bring Russia to its knees. And just as Ukraine showed an unanticipated tenacity in its fight to free its territory, so too did Russia prove that it had the resources, largely autonomous but to some degree also supplied from abroad, to sustain a gruelling campaign that, for Ukraine, is an existential war in which it has no alternative but to rely heavily on its Western allies. 

The fourth lesson is this: “War empowers extremists and makes compromise harder.” The war in Ukraine has indeed revealed how far Russian ultranationalists are willing to go in order to resuscitate the idea of an expansionist Tsarist empire, revive its ancient glory and impose it on the world today. Ukraine, for its part, could not have resisted the Russian onslaught or mounted a counteroffensive without developing its morale which was grounded in a genuine nationalism. This spirit has been crucial to its tenacity in a war in which it lost 20 per cent of its territory and nine million Ukrainians were driven from their homes. 

The fifth lesson takes us back to the period before the war. “A strategy of restraint would have reduced the risks of war” expresses the belief that if the collective West had pursued a realist approach, restricted the use of force in various forms, and refrained from open-ended NATO enlargement, a war might have been averted or quickly contained if it broke out. Indeed, the West issued numerous warnings in the hope the Russian leadership would change its mind, but apparently this was not sufficient. 

Walt then turns to a “bonus lesson,” which is: “Leaders matter.” This applies all the more to precarious historical junctures. What we can deduce from the Ukraine war is that the key powers lacked the kind of great leaders who could have prevented the war from ever happening. Instead, we saw leaders of a lesser calibre, the type adept at a slide into war.

The lessons of the war are more plentiful than the strategic, political and economic lessons mentioned above. Perhaps this is because the media coverage has made knowledge more widely available. In fact, technological advances are playing a more critical role in the Ukraine conflict than in any other war before. Cyber warfare and artificial intelligence technologies have been deployed in abundance to jam the communications of the adversary and detect or even predict their movements. Drones of all sorts have become a hallmark of the battle, especially those capable of striking their targets without a human-operated guidance system. But perhaps the greatest advances are in satellite technologies, some of which work in tandem with sophisticated intelligence and surveillance systems, which can now tap into mobile phones and social networking sites. 

The Ukraine war has also given us other lessons, such as the importance of “decentralised” management of war. Ukraine has shown the efficacy of this military managerial method in how it distributed its forces in a way that forced the Russian adversary into permanent engagement. It should be added that the need for high morale and esprit de corps is a lesson to be gleaned from all wars, and the war in Ukraine is no exception.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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