The Top Five Lessons From Year One of Ukraine’s War

February 13th, 2023 - by Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy

Europe’s Brutal Conflict Has Been
A Harsh but Instructive Teacher

Stephen M. Walt / Foreign Policy

(February 9, 2023) — Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022, the two combatants have each suffered more than 100,000 casualties, along with thousands of tanks and other armored vehicles lost. Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by roughly 30 percent, and more than 30 percent of its population has been displaced.

Its infrastructure is being wrecked, and some 40 percent of its electricity-generating capacity has been damaged. Neither side seems willing to compromise or even consider a cease-fire; if anything, Moscow, Kyiv, and Ukraine’s Western supporters are doubling down.

War is an instructive if harsh teacher, and sometimes the most we can salvage from the sacrifices that others have made is greater knowledge and wisdom for the future. Here are five lessons that leaders and publics around the world might learn after a year of war in Ukraine.

Lesson No. 1:
It Is Very Easy for Leaders to Miscalculate

As I wrote late last year: It is now obvious that Russian President Vladimir Putin erred when he assumed Ukraine could not mount a serious resistance and that it wouldn’t matter if it tried. He badly miscalculated Russia’s military prowess, Ukraine’s tenacity, and Western Europe’s ability to find alternative sources of energy.

But Westerners made mistakes, too: They discounted the possibility of war for years, exaggerated the potency of economic sanctions, and underestimated the depth of Russian opposition to Western efforts to bring Ukraine into their orbit. In this case (as in many others), the fog of war obscured our vision long before the actual fighting started.

Lesson No. 2:
States Unite to Counter Aggression

The Ukraine war also reminds us that states in the international system typically unite to oppose overt acts of aggression. This is another lesson that Putin overlooked: In addition to believing that Ukraine would fall quickly, he appears to have assumed that NATO would not respond as vigorously as it has.

Instead of going one-on-one against a weaker opponent, Russia is waging a war against a country backed by a coalition whose combined GDP is almost 20 times larger than Russia’s. That coalition produces the world’s most sophisticated weaponry and has begun to wean itself from Russian energy supplies.

As discussed below, outside support does not ensure a Ukrainian victory. But it has turned what Putin assumed would be a cakewalk into a protracted and uncertain slog. Russia will be far weaker in the future no matter how the war ultimately ends.

States balance against aggressors because they worry that successful conquerors will try for more. Such fears are sometimes mistaken; revisionist states are sometimes satisfied once they have altered the status quo to their satisfaction. But other states cannot be sure about this — at least not initially — so they join forces to deter further trouble or to defeat it should deterrence fail.

Nowhere is this tendency clearer than in Sweden and Finland’s decision to abandon decades (and in Sweden’s case centuries) of neutrality to seek membership in NATO. World leaders hoping to seize territories they do not currently control should take heed: Blatant acts of aggression are likely to lead other powerful states to combine against you. If they do, then even a successful military operation can leave an aggressor less secure than it was before.

Lesson No. 3:
“It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over”
Americans like to think of war as a brief spasm of shock and awe followed by the awarding of medals and maybe a victory parade. This tendency isn’t surprising, given that the United States’ recent opponents have been third-rate powers and the initial military phase of each war was short and one-sided.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually dragged on for years, but only because the United States chose to occupy each country and enact far-reaching political and social reforms. The result was a potent insurgency that could not be defeated at an acceptable cost.

The war in Ukraine is different: Russia’s initial assault was thwarted, and its goal of rapid regime change in Kyiv was dashed. After 12 months, the conventional forces of two sovereign states are still slugging it out on the battlefield and searching for new ways to bring pressure to the other side. Despite several shifts of fortune, neither side has been able to deliver a knockout blow.

Putin wrongly believed the war would be quick and cheap. When Russia’s initial assault on Kyiv failed and its forces suffered heavy losses, Ukraine and its backers concluded that generous outside aid, Ukrainian resolve, and extensive economic sanctions could inflict a decisive defeat on Russia and maybe even drive it from the ranks of the great powers.

Successful counteroffensives beginning last summer reinforced Kyiv’s hopes of regaining all of its lost territory, including Crimea. Some observers began to dream of regime change in Moscow.

Russia is still a major power, however, with more than three times Ukraine’s population, a large military-industrial base, and substantial reserves of military equipment. Its leaders see the war as an existential conflict that Russia must win. The performance of its armed forces has improved somewhat since the beginning of the war and its missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure have done considerable damage.

A grinding war of attrition does not favor Ukraine; hence the recent rush to get Ukraine more weapons (including tanks) and training. Outside support may enable Kyiv to hold the line and make limited gains come spring, but ousting Russia from all the territory it now controls may be impossible, no matter how much aid is sent. There is also the continued possibility of escalation (including the use of a nuclear weapon), a danger some pundits dismiss but which cannot be ruled out entirely.

Lesson No. 4:
War Empowers Extremists; Makes Compromise Harder
Because the stakes are high, war is a time when cool reasoning and careful calculation should be especially prized. Unfortunately, it is often instead a time when bluster, wishful thinking, moral posturing, patriotic chest-thumping, and groupthink take over and hard-line views drown out more measured voices. As a result, it becomes harder to discuss any sort of compromise, even when neither side has a clear path to victory. That’s not the only reason wars are hard to end, but it is an important one.

As I described at length a couple of months ago, public debate on Ukraine has been extraordinarily vituperative, with hawkish pundits competing to outdo each other in expressing support for Kyiv, while smearing alternative perspectives as naive, immoral, pro-Russian, or worse. (Something similar may be happening on the other side as well: Although it is hard to draw reliable inferences from Russian commentary on the war, Putin’s most vocal Russian critics appear to be mostly hard-liners accusing him of not executing the war with sufficient vigor or ruthlessness.)

It is possible that Ukraine’s most ardent supporters are correct and the West should do “whatever it takes” to enable Kyiv to liberate all its territory. But I wonder if all those hawkish voices at the Atlantic or Atlantic Council (not to mention some outspoken Eastern European politicians) have ever stopped to ask themselves if they might be wrong. Is it barely possible that helping prolong the war could lead to a worse outcome for Ukraine?

There’s a rather disturbing track record here: Generous external support for local forces in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan kept those wars going but didn’t leave those countries in better shape when the United States finally decided that victory was not possible and went home.

It’s true that US and NATO forces are not fighting in Ukraine, but we have a lot of skin in the game. Peace or a cease-fire may still be a long way off, but thinking about how to shut it down is in everyone’s interest, and especially Ukraine’s.

Lesson No. 5:
A Strategy of Restraint Would Have Reduced the Risk of War 
The final lesson — and arguably the most important — is that this war would have been far less likely if the United States had adopted a strategy of foreign-policy restraint.

Had US and Western policymakers heeded repeated warnings about the consequences of open-ended NATO enlargement (including the advice of George F. Kennan; this wide-ranging, bipartisan group of experienced experts; this group of similarly distinguished diplomats and defense officials; or CIA Director William Burns, who is also a former ambassador to Russia) instead of trying to incorporate Ukraine into Western security and economic institutions, Russia’s incentive to invade would have been greatly reduced.

Putin bears primary responsibility for launching a brutal and illegal war, but the Biden administration and its predecessors are far from blameless. The Ukrainian people are now suffering from Putin’s ruthlessness, but also from Western officials’ hubris and naivete.

Bonus Lesson: Leaders Matter (Duh)
Even realists who emphasize the importance of big structural forces recognize that individual leaders sometimes matter. A lot. Although opposition to NATO enlargement (and especially its possible extension to Ukraine) was widespread among Russian elites, a different Russian leader might not have chosen to “roll the iron dice of war” a year ago.

A more imaginative and less dogmatic US president might have done more to defuse the looming crisis before it reached the boiling point. Next, consider how this war might have proceeded if Petro Poroshenko had been president of Ukraine instead of Volodymyr Zelensky.

Would Poroshenko have been able to rally his fellow citizens and win outside backing as effectively as Zelensky has? Seems unlikely. Or what if Donald Trump were in the White House instead of Joe Biden?

Structural forces constrain what states are able to do, but they do not determine outcomes by themselves. National leaders have agency, insofar as they are free to decide how to navigate the circumstances they face as best they can. Because they have agency, they are ultimately accountable for the choices they make.

Mindful of that fact, the men and women who are currently in charge in Moscow, Kyiv, Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere should pay particular attention to lesson no. 3 (“It ain’t over till it’s over”) and especially the fate of George W. (“Mission Accomplished”) Bush.

This war is not over yet, and what we see as bold and effective leadership (or incompetent malfeasance) today may look somewhat different once the guns have fallen silent and the final costs are tallied.

 Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.