Those who do not learn from history are condemned to suffer for their failure. On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia escalated its war of aggression against Ukraine with a massive attack, intended to topple the government in Kyiv and permanently place Ukraine under Russian domination. The result has been a year of unrelenting, horrific warfare, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, and widespread suffering for the peoples of both Ukraine and Russia, of the sort that until recently seemed the stuff of grainy historical documentary films. As the conflict enters year two, a perverse, yet powerful logic prolongs it: Russia cannot admit defeat with its goals unachieved, yet Ukraine and its supporters do not want to reward Russian aggression as it occupies Ukrainian land.
With no end to the violence in sight, it remains important to look at the conflict thus far and what can be learned from its progress. Some of these are obvious, for example that war is generally the worst possible way to resolve disputes between nations, but others deserve attention, as we look to end the conflict and reduce the chances that other governments will attempt to use violence to reach their goals.
Lesson #1: Everyone Learned the Wrong Lessons Last Time
Obviously, Russia perceived that its interests required application of violence in 2022. That perception was largely shaped by what happened in 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, they were able to wrest effective control of a portion of Ukrainian territory at that time and slow Ukraine’s trajectory toward Euro-Atlantic integration by military means, and they thought to do so again. European governments believed the conflict to have been effectively ended in 2014 and that the Minsk Process would stop the violence. Ukraine, it was commonly believed, would have to accept the loss of Crimea and much of the Donbas as a condition for peace.
Of course, it did not work that way. Russia concluded that military means were the most effective way of altering the behavior of another State, while, for many in the West, Moscow’s appetite for pieces of Ukraine should have been sated.
Lesson #2: Nuclear Weapons Are Not Useful on the Battlefield
Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal but has not been able to achieve its military goals. Despite threats and attempts at nuclear blackmail, Moscow has not gone so far as to use its nuclear capabilities for anything other than deterrence and leverage. All the while, Russian forces have shown no hesitation whatsoever at killing or maiming thousands of civilians or destroying civilian targets.
If the Kremlin thought there was any military advantage to be gained by using a nuclear weapon, it likely would have done so already. Amid the hype over new types of exotic weapons systems in development, it will be important to keep in mind that in a conflict which Russian leaders define as vital to the future of their country and its people, even a ruthless set of military leaders could not find a role for nuclear weapons. Given that the war is being fought on ground that Russia has declared to be Russian, this is unlikely to change, and the international backlash that would follow the use of a nuclear weapon will likely continue to deter such a step.
Lesson #3: Nuclear Weapons Are Useful for Deterrence
The concept of deterrence, and its effectiveness, has been debated for years, but in the case of Ukraine, deterrence has been in operation. The United States, and other friends of Ukraine, have been deterred from getting directly involved, and, in many cases, have withheld supplying advanced weapons to Ukraine by Russia’s nuclear capabilities. The importance of avoiding escalation to a level at which use of a nuclear weapon could become more likely has been a guiding principle for Western governments, reinforcing deterrence as the role of nuclear weapons. Russia’s suspension of compliance with the New START Treaty reinforces the point. Russia has chosen to use the importance the West places on New START to emphasize the increasing nuclear risks and (in Moscow’s view) hopefully provide additional deterrence against NATO involvement in the war.
However, there remains a question for the future. Russia has made extensive use of threats to escalate the conflict in order to compel Ukraine to accept the loss of its territory and other countries to halt their aid. Should the war end with gains for the Russian side, the lesson will be that there are other uses for nuclear capabilities, as tools of statecraft to coerce adversaries into behaving against their national interests. This would have disastrous implications for the future of non-proliferation and would lead to increased danger that such weapons may someday be used. On the other hand, should the war end in Russian failure, there will be an opportunity for renewing interest in arms control based on minimal deterrence.
Lesson #4: Experts Can Be Wrong, Too
When Russia resumed its aggression last February, most experts predicted a short war and an easy Russian victory, based on the undeniable facts that Russia is a much larger country and had been able to seize the lightly defended Crimea region in 2014 and occupy swaths of eastern Ukraine for eight years. In 2014, much of the world was surprised that Russia would use military means to advance its national goals, but by 2022, a resort to force, if not its scale, was less shocking. There were several other key differences from Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea. First, the magnitude of Russian ambition for its 2022 assault was far greater and required greater resources that Moscow had difficulty sustaining for an extended period. The critical factor, however, was the resistance of the Ukrainian people, not, as Moscow would have us believe, foreign support. Facing a tangible threat to their sovereignty and self-determination brought about a greater degree of national unity than anything else and fueled the will to resist. In the past, Ukrainian leaders had been hamstrung by political division and corruption, but a threat to the continuation of the nation, as opposed to the more localized aggression of Crimea in 2014, made a difference. Also, many experts made the mistake of evaluating military potential purely in terms of numbers of bodies in uniform and tanks. Bigger is not the same as better. Both Russian personnel and equipment have performed far worse than advertised. The vital factor in how the war has gone has not been the size of the forces or the nature of the equipment they use, but the willingness of the Ukrainian people to resist, and military experts should focus on this rather than counting tanks. This is an important point to keep in mind when sending assistance to Ukraine. It is not just about numbers but rather empowering the Ukrainian people to protect their own territory and defeat Russia’s strategy.
Lesson #5: Understand the Strategy
Initially, Russia’s strategy was to deliver a violent shock to Ukraine that could cause the collapse to the Ukrainian government, leading to its replacement by one more subservient to Moscow. When that failed, the Kremlin shifted to a strategy of exhaustion – inducing Ukraine and its supporters to seek an end to the conflict for which Russia could impose its terms. The means to this end have included nuclear threats, attacks on civilian targets and propaganda. By adopting this strategy, Russia has ensured that the war can have no early or easy conclusion as the cost to continue the war will constantly rise. This, also, is part of the strategy, to convince Ukrainians that the cost of regaining their territory will be too high. Once again, the lesson of Crimea in 2014 should be clear. Freezing the conflict with Russian gains intact did not resolve the issues that led to Russian aggression and will not do so in 2023. Russia’s long-term strategy is to gain what it can in the present, then reload and see when the situation will allow it to force a change in Ukraine’s government. Anyone working for a sustainable peace needs to understand this.
Lesson #6: What Is and Isn’t Useful
Russia has the world’s largest (by far) inventory of non-strategic nuclear weapons. These have been as useful as air conditioning in Siberia to Russian operations. On the other hand, systems such as mobile artillery, air defense, and secure communications have proved highly valuable. As leaders in NATO countries study the war, they would do well to pay attention to this point. Defense budgets are limited and investments in expensive hardware should focus on what modern military forces need to be effective, not legacy technologies, such as armored vehicles left over from the Cold War and outmoded “battlefield nukes.” When considering future policies for arms control, governments should focus on what should be easy pickings: eliminating non-strategic weapons that do not add to deterrence.
Lesson #7: We Don’t Have Sanctions Right
Despite imposition of economic sanctions, Russia has been able to prosecute its war of aggression. In some measure, this is due to European dependence on Russian energy leading to reluctance to impose sanctions with real bite. Economic measures such as sanctions are often looked on as a valuable alternative to military action, but the experience of the last year has shown the inefficacy of sanctions as a tool to change behavior. If we are to rely on them in the future, we need to examine the economic measures taken against Russia and take steps to strengthen their effectiveness. The obvious step would be to stop buying Russian energy, even at the risk of damaging Western economies, but other actions against Russian finances should be possible.
It’s Up to Ukraine
It should be clear that the best outcome for the war would be a Russian defeat that frees Ukrainian territory and discourages future military adventures, but this condemns thousands of Ukrainians (and Russians) to die as the fighting grinds on. As outsiders, we need to be conscious of the moral implications of a policy that fights to the last drop of Ukrainian blood and instead leave it to the government in Kyiv to decide what is enough. At this point, one year in, the consensus in Ukraine remains that additional losses are preferable to Russian occupation, and this is likely to continue. As long as it does, Ukraine’s struggle should be supported. The converse should govern policy toward Russia – the object should be to make clear to the Russian leadership and people that Russian actions have lost Ukraine, and the opportunity cost of trying to reverse this on the battlefield is unsupportable.
Over the last year, Russian aggression has created a tragedy that seemed unimaginable even a few months earlier and one that defies what most of the world considered the norms of international behavior. Whatever the outcome, Russia’s war on Ukraine will set precedents for how governments approach disputes with other States and decide how and when to make use of the military tools at their disposal, including nuclear weapons. Learning the right lessons from the first year of war will be important as the world looks toward restoring peace and coping with the consequences of Russia’s choices.