The military lessons of the war in Ukraine to date have a somewhat paradoxical character. They have simultaneously confirmed the supreme importance of both the most modern and the most archaic features of warfare.
These lessons also embody a warning for NATO, for a country that is superbly good at one aspect may be utterly hopeless at another.
On the one hand, the Ukrainians have resisted what at the start were vastly greater numbers of Russian tanks and aircraft with the help of the very latest military technology supplied mainly (but not exclusively) by the West. One key factor has been satellite and communications intelligence provided by the United States. Again and again, concentrations of Russian troops and the location of Russian headquarters were identified, allowing the Ukrainians to accurately target them. Hence, among other things, the remarkably high number of senior Russian officers killed in the first months of the war. Surveillance drones have also played a part in Ukrainian successes.
In addition, ultra-modern unmanned killer drones have been used in large numbers and have proven extremely effective against even the most modern heavily armored tanks. Both sides have used drones to shower grenades on enemy soldiers.
Though, of course, none of this could have been accomplished without Napoleon’s old “Queen of the Battlefield,” the artillery — not just ultra-modern systems like the M142 HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) provided by the West, but Cold War-era guns whose basic design has not changed much since 1918, and which have been used on a colossal scale by both sides.
At the start of the war, especially in the area north of Kyiv which I visited in March, a highly important role was also played by that humble instrument of modern communications, the cell phone. Ukrainian civilians on the Russian side of the battle lines called directly to the Ukrainian artillery to inform them of the precise location of Russian troops. To do this, however, took patriotism and courage, because the Russian troops responded by shooting people whom they suspected of spying on them in this way.
In these ways, the war in Ukraine has provided a kind of belated vindication of the “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) of the 1980s, when advances in U.S. satellite, information, automation and communications technology — combined in what was dubbed a “system of systems” — allowed U.S. commanders (and the military-industrial complex) to boast that the “fog of war” had been abolished and that “anything on the battlefield can be identified, and whatever is identified can be destroyed.” The RMA has also been called “network-centric warfare,” and, if the need for close coordination between intelligence, ground forces and air power has been evident since 1940, it has certainly been emphasized again by the (initially at least) dismal Russian failure in this regard.
The RMA’s importance was not fully appreciated until the war in Ukraine because this has been the first major war in recent times in which roughly evenly-matched modern opponents have been pitched against each other. U.S. victories against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, although wildly hyped at the time by some American commentators, did not really tell us much. Defeating the Iraqi army in open battle in deserts and semi-deserts would have been achieved easily by any army with overwhelming superiority in tanks and aircraft.
The importance of the RMA was also blurred by subsequent U.S. failures in Iraq and Afghanistan against local insurgencies armed with basic weapons: Kalashnikovs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The enthusiasm of the U.S. military and military-civilian leadership for the RMA was not due to military assessments alone. It also appealed tremendously to the passionate desire of modern democratic states for military technologies that bring victory without the sacrifice of significant numbers of their soldiers, and consequent protests in their populations. This dream harkens back to the 19th century, when modern weaponry allowed Western imperial armies to defeat vastly larger numbers of enemies at very low cost to themselves.
From this point of view, however, the war in Ukraine on the other hand provides a lesson that directly contradicts Western hopes for the RMA. For it has also demonstrated the continued supreme importance — along the lines of Stalingrad, Verdun and Austerlitz — of access to huge numbers of well-trained infantry, which in modern societies can only be generated by conscription. First Ukraine and then Russia have resorted to mass conscription and have extended it further and further as their casualties have grown.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of young Russian men have fled Russia to escape the draft, embarrassing the state and undermining Russia’s economic future. The (accurate) perception that the sons of the rich are avoiding service while the poor are sent to die is creating social tensions that political figures are already starting to exploit.
Ukraine, however, is also not without problems in this regard. Ukrainian border guards prevent men of military age from leaving. Deserters are risking death trying to flee across mountains and rivers. Police patrols are press-ganging young men, who in turn are exchanging internet messages tipping each other off about where these patrols are operating.
The warning for NATO in all this is twofold. First, conscription is politically impossible for the United States and the great majority of its European allies. Faced with a war of choice that requires a draft, most NATO countries will either refuse to fight, or lose.
Second, the fighters have to be willing to fight – something that has been true since the Spartans made their stand at Thermopylae, or indeed since our ancestors banded together to hunt the wooly mammoth. In the first months of the war, the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian troops and civilian volunteers was absolutely critical to their success in stopping their less motivated Russian adversaries.
Fighting spirit does not, however, come from nowhere. In the case of most of the Ukrainians, like so many other peoples, it is due above all to their country having been invaded. On the assumption that the United States and Germany are not going to be invaded, conjuring up such morale even in NATO’s professional soldiers and their civilian populations would be very difficult.
Tremendous fighting spirit can be generated in relatively small units from some combination of ideology and collective pride. But these can pose other dangers in their wake, especially in the turbulent aftermath of bloody wars that have ended with what is perceived as unnecessary defeat, and after which military veterans have felt that the political elites have ignored their sacrifices.
In Italy and Germany during and after World War I, this was true of the “Arditi” and “Stosstruppen,” or shock troops, whose veterans later formed the backbone of the Fascist and Nazi militias, under the leadership of former corporals Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, respectively. They received the backing of many other former surviving soldiers from 1914-18, who had also become bitterly disillusioned with their postwar political systems and with their own lives and sought an answer in radical collectivist ideologies.
In Ukraine and Russia, the two forces that have above all emerged with greatly enhanced prestige from this war are the Ukrainian extreme nationalist (many have said fascistic) “Azov Regiment,” which so heroically defended Mariupol against overwhelming odds; and the Wagner private military force under Yevgeny Prigozhin (largely recruited from Russian jails — but then, as Wellington famously described his own British private soldiers as “the scum of the earth,” nobody questioned their fighting spirit). Wagner has achieved some of the few Russian battlefield gains in recent months, and its commander already seems to be preparing a political career based on support from military veterans, nationalism, and resentment of elite corruption and draft dodging.
We are repeatedly told that the war in Ukraine is a war to defend democracy and help secure it across the world. Our American, French and British ancestors (and even the Russians, from March to October 1917) were also told the same about the Allied side in the First World War. It did not quite work out that way, and nothing guarantees that it will happen that way in Ukraine.
As to the wider lessons of the Ukraine war to date for Western militaries, one of them is that they should not confuse their populations’ willingness to send advanced weapons to Ukraine with a willingness to send their soldiers to fight and die there; or, in the case of most European countries, with those soldiers’ own willingness to fight and die. Illustrative in this regard were some remarks last week by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary General and current advisor to President Zelensky, that if NATO refused membership or security guarantees to Ukraine at its Vilnius summit next month, some NATO members might send their own armies to fight in Ukraine:
“I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that Poland would engage even stronger in this context on a national basis and be followed by the Baltic states, maybe including the possibility of troops on the ground. I think the Poles would seriously consider going in and assemble a coalition of the willing if Ukraine doesn’t get anything in Vilnius. We shouldn’t underestimate the Polish feelings, the Poles feel that for too long western Europe did not listen to their warnings against the true Russian mentality.”
What is so striking about this, apart from its exceptionally dangerous implications? Well, Mr. Rasmussen is also the former Prime Minister of Denmark, but he didn’t say anything at all about Denmark going to fight in Ukraine. Doubtless this is because he knows his countrymen and their army very well. Denmark has sent Leopard tanks to Ukraine, and Leopard tanks are supposed to be among the best in the world. Whether Danish tank crews are among the best in the world is a very different matter.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.