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.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?