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What lessons can be learned in the fog of war?

The subject material from which we draw lessons is often ambiguous. Were the operational failures that Russia experienced in the spring of 2022 the result of incompetence? Or were they perversely the result of Russia holding back the use of force out of the mistaken belief that conquest against cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv would be easy? Lessons can go in different directions even if we are all looking at the same thing.

July 10, 2023 - Alexander Lanoszka - Analysis

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visiting a shipyard in St. Petersburg in 2019. Photo: Chirag Nagpal / Shutterstock

What lessons can be drawn from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine? This question is deceptively straightforward because certain lessons seem obvious. The scale and brutality of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine have vindicated those who have been warning for years about Moscow’s imperial ambitions. Prior to 2022, one can argue that the Kremlin had shrewdly used multiple coercive tools against its neighbours in such a way as to evade responsibility and blame for its actions. Indeed, for some observers and even politicians, what hostile activities the Kremlin undertook were regrettable but necessary for it to defend its bona fide interests. Economic cooperation with Russia was thus still worth pursuing. The extreme violence that Russia has visited upon Ukraine over the course of the last year has shattered such illusions.

Yet when it comes to military matters, the lessons are difficult to trace and often subject to later revision. After all, identifying lessons and then learning from them implies that we have the full suite of information available to us. That assumption may prove heroic considering how our own understandings of how events have unfolded since February 24th 2022 have evolved considerably. For example, by late spring of 2022, it had become commonplace to accord much significance to the use of anti-tank weapons like the US-supplied Javelins and British-supplied NLAWSs against Russian armour, especially in the direction of Kyiv. Early footage released of the Turkish-produced Bayraktar TB2s striking Russian armoured convoys lent the impression that this armed drone was able to rule the skies. Many seasoned experts on war concluded on the basis of these observations that the tank was obsolescent and that drones had overwhelming effectiveness.

These particular conclusions were pre-mature. Studies have since found that artillery battles even in the Kyiv area were what was really decisive, and that Javelins and NLAWs – important as they were – accounted for a minority of Russian armoured losses. The tank would prove still necessary for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to go about defending key positions and undertaking counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory. More information has also come out to reveal that Bayraktar TB2s have suffered serious attrition due to Russian air defence systems, with the result being that Ukraine generally holds them back for reconnaissance missions. Drones are a significant feature in this war, but their average lifespan measures in the days or a handful of sorties.

The fog of war is real – it applies not only to those engaged in direct combat but also to those who are following it closely, whether through social media, frontline reports, or expert assessments. The available data offer at best a very partial picture. Multiple interpretations can exist and those mining the war for what could be learned need to be mindful of those uncertainties and ambiguities. Some lessons themselves may be troubling and raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions.

In the eyes of the beholder

The subject material from which we draw lessons is often ambiguous. Were the operational failures that Russia experienced in the spring of 2022 the result of incompetence? Or were they perversely the result of Russia holding back the use of force out of the mistaken belief that conquest against cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv would be easy? Lessons can go in different directions even if we are all looking at the same thing.

One popular discussion point since Russia began its full-scale invasion is what China might learn from the war as it considers how to seize Taiwan. It is possible that Chinese military planners might conclude that Russia went too soft on Ukraine in its opening air and missile strikes on Ukrainian command and control as well as key pieces of infrastructure. Accordingly, the winter campaign to knock out Ukrainian energy infrastructure was too little, too late, and done too inconsistently so as not to have any easily discernible strategic impact on the war. As such, if China were to make a move on Taiwan finally, then it might have to go in much harder than Russia did in order to throw Taipei into utter disarray and a cause systemic breakdown in Taiwanese governing and military institutions.

It is also possible that Chinese military planners could draw a very different conclusion. After all, Russia achieved its greatest successes in the south of Ukraine where local defence plans were apparently compromised thanks to a combination of Russian infiltration success and Ukrainian counter-intelligence failure. China might then learn that it needs to step up efforts to infiltrate and to gather intelligence on Taiwanese military units and contingency plans. Along these lines, Chinese military and political leaders might assess that Russia had been too aggressive and too eager to use blunt tools of force.

Motivated reasoning can dictate which lessons get identified and receive attention amid such ambiguities. Just as air power enthusiasts might tout the achievements of Ukrainian drone warfare and denigrate the role of the main battle tank, those Chinese defence already eager for a more aggressive approach against Taiwan will seize on evidence of Russian restraint. Those counselling patience would refer to those instances where Russia appears to have translated espionage successes into victory on the battlefield. Those more comfortable with traditional forms of military power will point to how the war is ultimately an artillery war, with the two sides burning through tens of thousands of artillery shells on a daily basis at various points in the war. Those more enamoured by emerging disruptive technologies will look at the role of cyber weapons, social media campaigns, and, of course, drones as well.

Uncomfortable lessons

Some potential lessons may also give cause for serious discomfort. One is particularly cruel in that Europe had ended up doing far better during this deep security crisis than anyone had expected of it. European countries have ratcheted up their provision of lethal military assistance by giving Ukraine those weapons that were once seen as either too escalatory or beyond the organizational capacity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to absorb them. Prior to 2022, lethal military assistance that NATO countries gave to Ukraine on a bilateral basis was very limited. Most NATO countries did not give anything whatsoever. Europe also imposed significant sanctions on many Russian entities that were previously unthinkable, including de-SWIFTing many of its leading financial institutions. European countries also made serious efforts to cut their dependence on Russian natural gas, oil, and coal.

The scope of Europe’s response is appropriate given Russian misdeeds, but the lesson is a cruel one all the same. Assuming that Russia was deterrable, had Europe signalled its willingness to do those things or had done at least some of those things prior to 2022, perhaps the war itself could have been avoided because Russia would find those costs to be intolerable. Now that Russia has plunged headlong into war, it has become willing to bear them. Some observers thus say that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a case of deterrence failure, meaning that Russia simply assessed based on the information it received that the benefits of aggression outweighed its costs. However, as much as the Kremlin almost certainly made that sort of cost-benefit calculus, whether European countries even attempted deterrence, at least with respect to the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, is open to question. The experience of the last year shows that Europe generally is much more tolerant of risk and costs than previously believed.

Another uncomfortable lesson is that the war did reveal that Ukraine and its European partners may not necessarily elicit sympathy from a large segment of the world’s population despite the blatancy of Russian aggression. Experts have consistently showed via opinion polls and social media engagement that members of the so-called Global South have been neutral, if not even sympathetic towards Russia. That such a gap exists is, to put it mildly, unfortunate. Russia’s war against Ukraine clearly violates international law. The forcible deportation of Ukrainian residents, the seizure of Ukrainian territory, and the destruction of Ukrainian cultural sites have all the hallmarks of the sort of violent colonial enterprises that many societies around the world experienced. The world’s poorest and less developed countries would have indirectly been made more insecure had Russia successfully vanquished Ukraine. Such a victory could very well have portended a new age where might makes right and the weak suffer as they must. Of course, this point should not be overstated. Many United Nations General Assembly votes have been in Ukraine’s favour. Some polls do indicate a shift of global opinion against Russia in recent months.

Nevertheless, those stark features of Russia’s war against Ukraine may not be sufficient to persuade. Resentment directed at the United States and its European allies may thus be running deeper than many would like to believe. The legacy of colonialism is but one reason for this resentment. Anti-Americanism could be another one. More recent controversies such as the hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines on the part of the world’s richest countries may be yet another. That China has expanded its economic reach into some countries, including those in Latin America, may be another factor if those governments feel that they have options other than backing the United States. Such governments might sense that they can play for a hard bargain with the US and the EU over what support they can give to Ukraine.

Lessons for what?

Gathering lessons itself is a political enterprise. Chinese military leaders might be gathering their own lessons in order to go about the seizure of Taiwan in the most effective manner that they deep possible and appropriate. Russian military leaders, for their part, have had to adapt to the dexterity shown by the Ukrainian Armed Forces as the war grinds on. Indeed, Ukrainian senior officers have had to assess constantly what succeeds and what does not because the margins of success are so tight against such a powerful adversary. Across NATO, defence establishments might be evaluating what doctrinal changes might be necessary and what new military platforms their countries should invest in acquiring as a result of Russia’s war-making and Ukraine’s fierce resistance to it.

For the rest of us observing the war from the outside, some humility is ultimately in order. Many of us draw lessons because we want to make some sense of an act of such a brazen aggression as what Russia has committed against Ukraine. Yet some lessons that can be gleaned from the battlefield might not stand the test of time as more and better information comes to light about what has been taking place in an environment known for its murkiness and tight operational security. The lessons themselves might be subject to constant revision and scrutiny.

What we do know is that Ukraine has paid an awful price that no society should ever bear, and that Russia, under its current leadership, has no place in the European political order for the foreseeable future. 

Alexander Lanoszka is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and in the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. He is also an associate fellow at the UK-based Council on Geostrategy as well as a senior fellow at the Ottawa-based MacDonald-Laurier Institute.

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