Quick Bites | A few insights from the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, one year ago, the two combatants have each suffered more than 100,000 casualties, and untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians have died or been subject to atrocities and war crimes. Tens of thousands of homes, buildings, and vehicles have been lost. Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by roughly 30%, and more than 30% of its population has been displaced. Its infrastructure has been wrecked, and 40% of its electricity-generating capacity has been damaged. Neither side seems willing to compromise or even consider a cease-fire; if anything, both sides are more committed to war than ever.

Have any lessons been learnt? This short note is not a commentary on the financial aspects of the war, but rather a short reflection on geopolitics: I feel it is important to mark this tragic anniversary with a few insights (mostly gleaned from Professor of International Relations at Princeton, Steven S. Walt, and courtesy of Foreign Affairs magazine), and these comments reflect my thoughts and mine alone.

Lesson No. 1: It is easy for leaders to miscalculate

It is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated. He assumed Ukraine could not resist a quick invasion and the capture of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, and that the government would quickly fall, to be replaced by a Russian puppet regime. Putin badly over-estimated Russia’s military prowess and underestimated both Ukraine’s tenacity and the western allies’ resolve to assist Ukraine. But the west miscalculated too. It exaggerated the potency of economic sanctions and misunderstood the depth of Russian opposition to western efforts to bring Ukraine into its sphere of influence.

Lesson No. 2: States unite to counter aggression

The Ukraine war reminds us that states typically unite to oppose overt acts of aggression. In addition to believing that Ukraine would fall quickly, Putin assumed that NATO would not respond as swiftly and as united as it has. He hoped for another Crimea (which he invaded in 2014 without much international outcry). Instead, Russia is waging a war against a country backed by a coalition whose combined GDP is 20 times larger than Russia’s. That coalition produces the world’s most sophisticated weaponry and has begun to wean itself off Russian energy. Foreign support does not ensure a Ukrainian victory, but it has turned an expected “3-day war” into a protracted struggle. 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. If Ukraine falls, will Poland or Lithuania or Finland be next? Such fears are sometimes mistaken, but because other countries cannot be sure about this, they join forces to aid deterrence e.g. the decision by Sweden and Finland to abandon neutrality and seek NATO membership. World leaders hoping to seize neighbouring territories should note that blatant acts of aggression are likely to lead other 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: War is unpredictable

Russia’s initial assault on Ukraine was defeated, and its goal of rapid regime change in Kyiv was dashed. Instead, President Zelensky has emerged as an unlikely global hero for his inspirational leadership. 12 months later, Russian and Ukrainian forces are still battling across a broad front, each side losing hundreds of fighters a day. Despite shifts of fortune, neither side appears capable of delivering a knockout blow.

Despite the costs of war, Russia’s economy has proven resilient. Russia is still a major power, with more than three times Ukraine’s population, a large military-industrial base, substantial capital reserves and almost boundless natural resources. In size, it is the largest country in the world. Yet because of its geography, and the lack of any natural obstacles on its western borders, it has always felt threatened from the west and Putin sees the war as an existential conflict that Russia must win.

A grinding war of attrition does not favour Ukraine; hence the rush to get Ukraine more weapons (including tanks). Outside support may enable Ukraine to hold the line, but ousting Russia from all the territory it now controls including Crimea is unlikely, no matter how much aid is sent. There is also the possibility of escalation (including the unlikely use of a nuclear weapon).

Lesson No. 4: War empowers extremists and makes compromise harder

Because the stakes are so high, “truth is the first victim” in war times. It is often instead a time when wishful thinking, moral posturing, and patriotism take over and extreme views drown out moderate voices. As a result, it becomes harder to compromise, even when neither side has a path to victory. Peace or a cease-fire may still be a long way off, but thinking about how to end the war is in everyone’s interests.

Lesson No. 5: A strategy of restraint would have reduced the risk of war

It is likely that if the United States had adopted a strategy of foreign-policy restraint, and heeded warnings about the consequences of NATO enlargement, Russia’s incentive to invade would have been reduced. Putin bears responsibility for launching a brutal and illegal war, but American administrations are not blameless. The Ukrainian people are now suffering from Putin’s ruthlessness, but also from American arrogance and naivete.

And what of western Europe’s greed for cheap Russian oil and gas, despite American warnings of strategic dependencies? Germany in particular was happy to get rich off cheap Russian energy, while letting the US defend it.

The war in Ukraine is a tragedy, the costs of which are at present almost unfathomable. Let us hope that it will be long over before we have to commemorate another anniversary.

Thanks to Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University and Foreign Policy magazine.


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