What have we learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Peace, Security & Defence
Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, Lecturer for Institute for Security Governance (ISG) in Monterey, California, and Senior Advisor at Extended Reality Safety Initiative (XRSI), San Francisco
One year ago, Russia escalated its illegal invasion of Ukraine to a full-scale, all-out war on a sovereign, European nation.Friends of Europe pays homage to the first anniversary of this unprovoked and unjustified attackwith a series of articles, podcasts and events that tap into the expertise and experience of leading activists, Ukrainian officials, artists, NATO representatives, and security and defence experts and call upon us all to not normalise this war.
Europe, multilateral institutions and the global community have learned some tough lessons about the arrangements put in place to prevent acts of aggression or to guide our actions once they take place, including approaches to multipolar geopolitics, supply chains with illiberal nations, as well as Europe-wide and global agreements in a post-World War 2 world. The war has upended so much that we previously took for granted. For these reasons,normalising this war is not an option. Our commemorative activities aim to identify steps towards the ultimate goals of justice and peace.
Contributors include Friends of Europe’s Luke O’Callaghan White and Senior Fellows Jamie Shea, Chris Kremidas-Courtney and Paul Taylor; the Africa-Europe Foundation’s Youssef Travaly; Ukrainian European Young Leaders (EYL40) Emine Dzhaparova and Oleksandra Matviichuk; Jaime Nadal, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative for Ukraine; Business Ombudsman Roman Waschuk; LGBTQ+ activist of KyivPride, Edward Reese; David Rowe, Professor and Fulbright NATO Security Studies Scholar; Borys Tarasyuk, former Ukrainian foreign affairs minister; journalist Maryana Drach; Inna Shevchenko, Ukrainian author, journalist at Charlie Hebdo and leader at FEMEN International; artist Markus Georg Reintgen; and Philippe Cori, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director Europe and Central Asia; and Giancarlo La Rocca and Alessandro Marrone of the Istituto Affari Internazionali.
Wars tend to accelerate history, shift power balances, turn assumptions on their head and create new realities. In the one year since Russia launched a brutal new invasion of Ukraine, we’ve learned a lot about Ukrainian strength, Russian weakness and Western cohesion. We’ve also learned about new dynamics impacting power politics and gotten a glimpse of future conflict. Here are a few of the main lessons we’ve learned so far.
Ukraine has proven itself more tough and resilient than expected. Many experts (including yours truly) did not believe Ukraine would be able to hold off the Russians for more than a few months, but one year later and after some initial setbacks, Kyiv’s forces have been steadily resisting Russian advances, retaking territory and sinking Russian ships. They are even beating Russia on the strategic communications front – a feat most Western nations have failed to achieve in recent years.
The EU is flexing its geopolitical muscles – but for how long? The EU’s economic might is weakening the Russian war machine through sanctions, the Union is reducing its dependence on Russian energy supplies, and EU money is being spent on weapons and military equipment to help Ukraine. But the staying power of these efforts will be tested in the coming months as various new sanctions are debated and old ones come up for renewal.
Washington’s response has been stout and consistent
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has exceeded all expectations as his leadership, heroism and conviction have given the Ukrainian people and the West a leader to rally around. Just over five months after the world watched Ashraf Ghani flee Afghanistan, the West offered Zelensky the same kind of exit, which he flatly refused, stating “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” His combination of strength, humility and self-confidence as a values-based leader reminds us that such leaders still exist, but they only emerge in dire circumstances.
The transatlantic bond remains strong, for now. For years, pundits in Brussels have tried to convince audiences that Europe ‘can’t rely on the Americans’, but Washington’s response has been stout and consistent: arming and providing intelligence to Ukraine, reassuring allies with additional forces in Europe and supplying liquid natural gas (LNG) to help Europe wean itself from Russian energy supplies. But tepid responses to the crisis in some European capitals could endanger future support from the United States Congress, especially as rising tensions with China will demand more resources in the Pacific. In the words of more than one US official: “We can’t want European security more than the Europeans.”
Putin’s energy weapon turned out to be a misfire – in the short term. After years of fearing Russia’s energy leverage over Europe, the EU has deftly adapted to more diverse and secure sources, reducing their reliance on Russian gas from 83% to 20% over the last year. This shift plus a mild winter have kept ‘General Winter’ on the sidelines for now, but higher energy prices are making some Europeans less patient about when to end the war.
In addition, LNG is more expensive than the cheap Russian gas that German and northern Italian manufacturing have been so heavily reliant on in recent years. So, Western unity may be more difficult to maintain given pressure from the private sector to declare victory and end the sanctions, even if it means permanently ceding Donbas and Crimea to Moscow.
A poorly organised Russian force has been the prey of a smaller but well-trained and well-led Ukrainian force
Former Soviet equipment in the hands of Russian forces is junk; in the hands of trained Ukrainians, it is lethal. The large and well-armed Russian army that invaded Ukraine was expected to defeat Ukraine in months, but its poor training, leadership, maintenance and logistics made it far less effective. Such a poorly organised Russian force has been the prey of a smaller but well-trained and well-led Ukrainian force over the last 12 months. The Ukrainians are using a mixed hodgepodge of equipment and coming up with ingenious ways to adapt and maximise their effectiveness on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the Russian army’s poor performance is proving the point that corrupt regimes don’t have effective militaries. When corrupt officials steal fuel and parts while officers falsify training and maintenance records, the result is a hollow force that is only good for repressing its own people and no match against a trained and disciplined army.
2023 may bring us the first robot war. Semi-autonomous drones such as the US-made Switchblade and Polish Warmate are already being used by Ukrainian forces; the longer the war continues, the more likely it is that fully autonomous AI-driven weapons will be used in this conflict. Even Ukraine’s digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, has stated that fully autonomous weapons are “a logical and inevitable next step” while Russia claims to already have them. Thus, despite years of international efforts to regulate and limit the spread of ‘killer robots’, this conflict may become the first ‘robot war’, which could lead to the widespread proliferation of autonomous weapons.
Private entities are having an outsized impact on this conflict
When the shooting starts, hybrid warfare does not stop – it intensifies. After years of the West experiencing Russian hybrid warfare as threshold activities, the new phase of Russia’s invasion, which started in February 2022, has only intensified the cyber-attacks, disinformation and global influence operations by the Russian Federation and its various instruments of national power. In more than a few cases, the same disinformation audiences that were primed and weaponised during the coronavirus pandemic are being leveraged to weaken Western resolve, reduce empathy for Ukrainian war refugees and gain support for false Russian narratives about the war.
Private citizens and entities are influencing modern conflicts in unprecedented ways. The changing power balance between the citizen and the state due to the democratisation of technology is not only impacting internal dynamics but international ones as well. Private entities are having an outsized impact on this conflict in myriad ways from Ukraine’s global IT army of hackers, to significant private equipment donations, to information first responders debunking Russian disinformation.
At the same time, big global companies have quit Russia and left not only a huge investment gap in their wake but also cut Moscow off from significant high-tech capabilities. While the West welcomes this new dynamic being directed against an adversary, it may not welcome such actions being directed against itself in the future.
NATO allies […] are proving that they are willing to exploit a crisis
During a crisis, multilateral can mean messy-lateral. NATO allies like Turkey are proving that they are willing to exploit a crisis to extract the most benefit for themselves, regardless of the impact on collective security. While Turkey has provided drones to Ukraine, helped to broker the grain deal and closed the Black Sea to any more Russian warships, it has also deepened its economic relationship with Russia. Perhaps more damaging, it is stalling the entry of two strong and stalwart democracies, Finland and Sweden, into the alliance.
Meanwhile, within the EU, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is choosing to align more closely with Russia and Belarus while his government calls for an end to EU sanctions on Moscow. As with any multilateral organisation, member state interests do not always align completely, but as we’ve seen in this crisis, not every member of NATO and the EU places the same value on collective security and defence.
Ursula von der Leyen has emerged as the most influential leader in Europe. Once written off as a lightweight, the European Commission President has successfully navigated the pandemic and carried the Commission into the realm of hard power through the financing of weapons to support Ukraine, while speaking forcefully and decisively in defence of the EU. She has taken the leading role from French President Emmanuel Macron, who had to be seen trying to mediate the conflict to bolster his election chances in 2022, but which came at the price of the trust of central and northern Europe – and with it the mantle of European leadership.
When Washington wants to speak to Europe, they call Ursula von der Leyen
Macron also missed a chance to put France’s vision of strategic autonomy into action by leading a strong European response to Russian aggression, instead choosing a much more cautious approach. Germany’s Olaf Scholz is still struggling to fill the big shoes left behind by Angela Merkel and his foot-dragging on sending tanks to Ukraine has eroded the trust that central and northern European capitals have in Berlin as well. So, when Washington wants to speak to Europe, they call Ursula von der Leyen.
Western support has helped Ukraine not to lose but remains insufficient to help them win. The entire recent debate over providing Leopard tanks to Ukraine is a case in point; they are the kind of capabilities that Ukrainians require to retake the rest of their own territory, but the Leopards are arriving late and in insufficient numbers. The same applies to the provision of fighter aircraft and long-range US ATACMs missiles needed for deep precision strikes to cripple Russian forces by cutting off their logistics.
Each pause in the supply of new weapons and supplies to Ukraine slows Kyiv’s momentum and provides Russia with time to regenerate and resupply its forces for further offensives. Unless and until the West is resolved to provide sustained support to Ukraine at a level to help them win, this war will grind on without resolution. So, the West must enable Ukraine to prevail so they can achieve a just and sustainable peace.
But a strategic awakening could be in the works
European strategic autonomy is not dead, it’s in a self-induced coma. Once again, the “hour of Europe” has arrived and the EU finds itself without the hard power capacities to respond decisively to a major crisis, relying heavily on the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada to fill the gap. In many ways, Europe is still not united nor committed enough to guarantee its own safety.
But a strategic awakening could be in the works, even if it seems to be happening in slow motion. The German Zeitenwende is turning out to be more of a slow curve than a decisive turning point, as it backtracks on defence budget promises made in spring 2022. Nonetheless, Berlin is finally addressing major capability shortfalls, pulling equipment out of storage and purchasing modern fighter aircraft. Whether this also means a shift away from Germany’s sense of strategic entitlement, in which others do the heavy lifting for them, remains to be seen.
France, long the EU’s major military power and champion of strategic autonomy, has meanwhile responded with sharp increases in defence spending to increase capacities in several areas. But Paris cannot carry the EU to the promised land alone and during this crisis does not seem to have the appetite for it.
At the same time, the EU starting to earn its chops in the hard power arena and developing the kinds of situational awareness and crisis decision-making capabilities that the Union will need in the future. So, while the war in Ukraine rages on, Europe is becoming more capable of managing such a crisis on its own – but only a united and sustained commitment will get them there.
The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.