When it was first launched in the wee hours of February 24, the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was supposed to last just a few days and end with the quick capture of Kyiv.
Fast-forward six months: Those plans collapsed in spectacular fashion as Ukraine beat back Russian troops through a combination of sheer determination and plentiful Western arms. But despite Ukraine’s success, the conflict is far from over. On the contrary, it appears to be settling into a long, attritional battle that will test Ukrainian and Western resolve.
The conflict, moreover, has already transformed much of what the world thought it knew about not only military operations and strategy, but also diplomacy, intelligence, national security, energy security, economic statecraft, and much more. So as the war hits its half-year mark, we asked experts across our vast network to share the biggest lessons they’ve learned from the crisis.
According to Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center, since day one, there’s been too much reluctance in the Biden administration: to share real-time intelligence with Ukraine for fear that not everyone in the Ukrainian government is trustworthy; to send heavy weapons for fear that Ukrainians don’t know how to use them (and that it would take too long to train Ukrainians); to send large enough assistance packages for fear of corruption. There’s also been an enormous reluctance to use the right language to describe the United States’ actual goal; when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talked about defeating Moscow so badly that it cannot attack Ukraine again, US President Joe Biden dressed him down.
Yet time and again, Ukrainians have proven themselves worthy of America’s trust (and then some). With Western intelligence, they were able to withstand the invasion of Kyiv’s Hostomel Airport, which could have been decisive, and eradicate scads of Russian generals in addition to the Russian Navy’s flagship, the Moskva. With US weapons, Ukrainian soldiers pushed the Russians out of Kyiv and forced them to retreat to the Donbas. Now, with American long-range rockets, they’ve hit dozens of high-value targets.
The bottom line is obvious: When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team say they need something, the request is legitimate, and the United States should honor it immediately.
According to William F. Wechsler, Senior Director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, when a state possesses substantially more power than its adversaries, a policy of strategic ambiguity can spark reluctance among those adversaries to take actions that might provoke retaliation—especially if the more powerful nation has a reputation for responding unpredictably or disproportionately. But when a state’s relative power is perceived to be in decline, then a policy of strategic ambiguity can, conversely, inspire adventurism in an adversary—especially if the declining power is seen to be withdrawing, or otherwise appears weak or distracted.
The long era of strong American relative power allowed US policymakers the luxury of adopting policies that featured strategic ambiguity. But those days have unfortunately passed, as was demonstrated when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, undeterred by the intentionally ambiguous signals that the United States had sent during the preceding decades about the nature of its commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. He was also encouraged by the perception of US weakness in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and dysfunction in its domestic politics. There is an important lesson here for US policymakers who might prefer to cling to strategic ambiguity when seeking to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for instance, or Iranian aggression in the Gulf. Today, more explicit statements about US red lines are in order. In the current environment, such statements are likely to help prevent rather than provoke an escalation.
According to Colonel John Buss Barranco, Senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategic and Security, Russia spent around $65 billion on defense in 2021, or more than ten times what Ukraine did that year. If equipment was the deciding factor, Russia would have achieved the overwhelming, lightning-fast victory it sought months ago. But in this war, Ukraine has shown that good leadership and training—of which it has plenty, but Russia has very little—make all the difference.
Since both countries share a long military tradition dating back to Imperial Russia, the difference in their respective performances on the battlefield (and the reasons why) are instructive. Since 1993, Ukraine has been part of the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program, in which its armed forces have been trained according to the US model of giving mission-type orders to junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), explaining the commander’s intent, and empowering them to make on-the-spot decisions based on the changing facts on the ground. No one becomes an expert combat decision-maker overnight, so realistic exercises are held and a culture is fostered that encourages individual initiative and demands rigorous assessment. This open and transparent way of operating has resulted in high morale and performance on the battlefield.
By contrast, Russia’s armed forces (which rely heavily on conscripts) lack professional NCOs and discourage initiative and feedback. Decision-making authority remains heavily centralized, with only senior officers permitted to act independently. This is why so many Russian generals have been killed in this war; nobody at a lower level had the leadership experience, big-picture understanding, or authority to act decisively when things didn’t go as planned. The Russian way of war has been predictable: battlefield failure and low morale.
Six months ago, there was a plethora of doom-and-gloom analysis: The notion that the Russian military believed it could take Kyiv in thirty-six hours was reportedly shared not only by Putin but also by Western academic and intelligence-community analysts. Almost everyone got this fantastically wrong. Except, of course, the one entity that mattered most: the Ukrainians, who fought bravely and nearly unanimously believe they’ll win. A quick Russian blitzkrieg turned into a morass that will go down in military history, with 80,000 Russian casualties and no end in sight to Putin’s “special operation.” Now we see that the Russian military is a Potemkin village—corrupt, unfit, and fundamentally lacking in basic principles of logistics.
Equally important, Russian hybrid-warfare efforts in Ukraine—particularly in the information-operations space—have also fallen short. Previous efforts around the world, such as Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, had spooked many (and perhaps for good reason). But Russia succeeded in the past mainly because it operated without pushback. No longer: Ukraine now appears one step ahead at every turn. Consider the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s expert trolling on Twitter after a presumed strike by Ukrainian forces on a Russian airfield deep in occupied Crimea: It showed Russian tourists fleeing the beach to the sound of the 1983 Bananarama track “Cruel Summer.” How times have changed: Ukraine trolling Russia, not vice versa. This is exactly what was needed in the information-operations sphere: an offensive strategy that was proactive instead of reactive.
As Russian troops assembled in Ukraine early this year, many defense analysts believed the threat of severe economic sanctions would be enough to deter a Russian attack. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, revanchist territorial aims outweighed any potential harm that might be done to the Russian economy through Western sanctions. While great damage has been done to the Russian consumer economy, the ruble has strengthened and foreign reserves have increased due to high oil prices and shifting Russian markets. Vladimir Putin’s judgment appears to have been correct, at least in the short term.
NATO leaders had made it clear that they would not commit troops to defend Ukraine, which led Putin to miscalculate on two fronts—underestimating Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves and the West’s willingness to rapidly arm them. So Western defense officials have relearned a Cold War-era lesson: What deters Russian aggression is NATO troops on the Alliance’s eastern flank, not the threat of economic sanctions. It’s possible that if Alliance troops had deployed to Ukraine, it could have deterred the invasion; but they may have also started World War III. Deploying troops forward on NATO territory now will assure that Putin does not miscalculate again.
The cornerstone of the recent NATO summit was an effort to absorb and implement this lesson. NATO’s deterrent posture is shifting from “deterrence by punishment” to “deterrence by denial,” and allied forces are being positioned forward to deny Russia’s ability to occupy any bit of NATO territory. Battalion-sized NATO battle groups have now been deployed to eight frontline allies, and American forces in Europe have increased to one hundred thousand. Many believe that even more needs to be done to assure deterrence by denial—for example, by deploying brigade- or even division-level NATO forces to frontline allied countries.
What is the last card in the hands of US President Joe Biden to show a real victory in Ukraine, which can significantly restore his already sunk approval ratings and save his party from a catastrophic doom during midterms and 2024 presidential election? In my judgement the only option is sending troops, and Biden most definitely is taking secret preparations in that direction. America needs to deploy at least fifty thousand troops along side additional number of NATO troops in Ukraine immediately. At the same time, Biden administration can use its drone-guided Ninja missile attacks targeting key individuals in Russia.