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Ukraine's paradoxical lessons for the future of warfare

It's a warning for NATO: a country that is superbly good at one aspect of fighting may be utterly hopeless at another.

Analysis | Europe

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.

Photo: didkovsky via
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