The tragic war in Ukraine has produced its surprises—especially how well the Ukrainians fought in the early weeks of the war, along with how poorly the Russians did—and there will more surprises in store. But the war so far has underscored lessons we learned, or should have, long ago. Here are a handful.
By Gregory F. Treverton
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
Assessing how well an army will fight is an art, not a science. This has plagued the United States in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan at least. In all those cases, we overestimated the capacity of our allies, while perhaps underestimating that of our enemies. In the instance of Ukraine, all of us—but especially Vladimir Putin—underestimated how courageously the Ukrainians would fight. The challenge is that, as with so many things in life, what we can measure is not what matters; intangibles count for more than tangibles. We can count the number tanks and learn something of their quality. What we cannot measure is the quality of the fighters’ hearts. And so, most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan forces we had trained that were impressive on paper were feckless in fact, literally melting away before our eyes, and those of our enemies.
It is very hard to predict what kind of war will ensue. History is littered—the eminent historian of war, Margaret MacMillan, reminds us—with beginnings of wars that bore no resemblance to what ensued. The first battle of the U.S. civil war, Bull Run in July 1861, earned the epithet “picnic battle” because of the civilians who ventured from Washington to view it, thinking the war would be brief and bloodless, not long and bloody. The Europeans let themselves slide toward war in 1914 imagining that any war would be short; on that score they were catastrophically wrong. They did not foresee the horrors of trench warfare that wiped out a generation of young men.
In Ukraine, Putin apparently imagined Blitzkrieg, a quick victory leading to the installation of a puppet regime in Kyiv. What he got was a war of attrition. For the United States and the coalition it has assembled, the challenge ahead is that Putin will not lose the war and might “win” it if the coalition continues to be careful not to escalate in a way that might risk nuclear war. The numbers are on Russia’s side, though what “win” means if the conquered country is rubble is less clear. When Freud spoke of the “narcissism of small differences,” he wasn’t speaking about Putin’s war on Ukraine, but he might have been.
It is easier to start wars than to end them. Here, World War II is the outlier: while “unconditional surrender” was controversial among FDR’s advisors, it did mean the war would end when it ended, and end clearly. Contrast the Korean War, which more than a half century later remains concluded with armistice, not peace. It is very hard to see a clean end to the war in Ukraine, for the Ukrainians are likely to face the decision about when the dying is too much, and they should seek an end to fighting. Yet that “end” might still involve continuing fighting, and probably would not settle issues about sanctions on Russia, territory, or war crimes. Perhaps in these grim circumstances, the “good news” is that ending World War I for Russia entailed a dramatic change in regime, from the czars to communists.
Beware of lessons. This is perhaps the most important lesson. Discussion of the war is rife with competing guidance, often presented as distilling lessons from history. On one hand, the United States and the coalition are counseled to stand firm now because they didn’t earlier, in 2008 when Russia attacked Georgia or in 2014 when it annexed Crimea and part of Ukraine—a version of the Munich analogy that is so often bandied about. On the other, French President Emmanuel Macron warns against “humiliating” Russia. In a recent piece, my old friend and colleague, Sir Lawrence Freedman, aptly quoted Karl Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” His guidance is worth bearing in mind as the war in Ukraine enters a new phase.