After a year of Russia's war on Ukraine, has the West learned the right lessons?

Opinion piece (Encompass)
24 February 2023

There’s been a lot of talk in the last year about the Russian army’s inability to learn from its disastrous performance in Ukraine. But before Westerners get complacent, they should remember that despite its shortcomings, the Russian army occupies about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory. Ukraine has not yet won this war. Western leaders need to learn from past mistakes as well. Here are four things the West has not yet done but needs to, for its own sake as well as Ukraine’s.

  1. Define its aims based on a clear vision of Ukrainian victory. Despite all the military and financial aid that Ukraine has received, Kyiv’s allies still can’t decide what Ukrainian success should look like.

Some, like Poland, say that Ukraine should recover all its occupied territories, including Crimea. Others worry that trying to recapture Crimea may provoke Putin to escalate the conflict. The Pentagon seems to think that it is beyond Ukraine’s capabilities to defeat the Russians there anyway. French President Emmanuel Macron, speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 17th, said that he wanted Russia to be defeated in Ukraine, but he did not want it crushed – an echo of his comment last June that Putin should not be humiliated – though it’s hard to know how one would identify the lines between “defeated”, “crushed” and “humiliated”.  

For the West, supporting Ukraine’s recovery of all its territory, including Crimea, is not only the moral course but the best option strategically. As long as Russia controls Crimea and a land-bridge to it from Donetsk, it can strangle Ukraine’s economy by closing its ports.

  1. Provide the resources to achieve those aims. The West has supplied many more weapons to Ukraine than anyone could have anticipated this time last year. But help has often consisted of old equipment pulled out of storage like donations to a jumble sale – a few howitzers made in East Germany before unification; some British armoured cars that first saw service in the 1960s; tanks exported to its Warsaw Pact allies by the Soviet Union. When countries send modern equipment, the quantities sometimes seem calibrated to ensure that Ukraine doesn’t lose, not that it wins.

Each time Ukraine has asked for more powerful weaponry, it has had to wait while Western leaders debate whether this or that system would provoke Putin into going nuclear; negotiate limits on the use of new weapons with the country supplying them (while Russia faces no constraints at all); and finally receive the weapons, but always in smaller quantities than are needed. As a result, Ukraine has not always been able to exploit tactical breakthroughs, and it has suffered casualties unnecessarily.

Once its objectives are clear, the West needs to work out the types and quantities of munitions required to achieve them. If it doesn’t have enough, it should work out how to acquire them – including investing in additional defence production capacity. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg revealed that orders for large-calibre ammunition placed now would take two and half years to deliver. That is a recipe for losing a war. Increasing defence spending during a cost of living crisis may not be popular, but it is essential if Putin is to be stopped. There are already signs, however, that some countries, including the US, may start tapering off their military support for Ukraine.  

  1. Understand Putin’s mindset. This war might have been prevented if Western leaders had paid more attention to what Putin said and did, and acted to deter him.

In 2008, Putin told then US president George W Bush, “You have to understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a country”. In July 2021 he wrote a long essay ‘On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, arguing among other things that there was no historical basis for a Ukrainian people separate from the Russians. He did not make a secret of his views on Ukraine. Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly on February 21st, in which he claimed that the current government in Kyiv was part of an anti-Russian project that started in the 19th century shows these views have not changed.

Once Russia had violated international law by annexing Crimea and invading the Donbas in 2014, the West should have shaped its policies on the basis that Ukraine faced a serious threat from Russia and should be defended. Instead, Western leaders went along with the fiction, promoted by Putin, that the solution to the conflict was for Ukraine to make a deal with ‘separatists’ in the Donbas – in reality, a creation of the Russian intelligence services. Crimea was hardly mentioned, and if it was, it was often in the context of advising Ukraine to give it up, since the peninsula’s population was Russian – ignoring the fact that Crimea’s inhabitants also voted for Ukraine’s independence in 1991, and that the indigenous Crimean Tatars, expelled from their homeland by Stalin, were once again being repressed by Moscow.

Putin’s aims have not changed – even if he has to achieve them in stages (he has compared himself to Peter the Great, who took 21 years to defeat the Swedes in the Great Northern War): he wants to bring Ukraine back under Russian control. But the history of Putin’s wars over the last 20 years shows that he can be deterred. He is not provoked by strength, but by weakness. Despite occasional threatening comments, he has never seriously looked like attacking the Baltic states, because he has not wanted to challenge NATO.

Western leaders should worry less about the risk that he will respond to the arrival of a handful of F-16s in Ukraine by starting World War III, and more about the risk that he will interpret their continued absence as a sign that his hints of nuclear escalation have worked, and that his chances of victory have increased.

  1. Ensure Putin fails, and Ukraine succeeds. If Putin emerges from this war with something that he can portray as a success, he will be back for more of the Russian empire’s former territories – if not in Ukraine, then somewhere else. There are stories of coup plots against the pro-European government in Moldova; former Russian president Dmitriy Medvedev threatened that northern Kazakhstan would be Russia’s target after Ukraine. Europe will not be secure unless Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is decisively defeated, and future adventurism deterred.

Europe will also remain insecure, however, if Ukraine wins victory on the battlefield, but lacks the resources to rebuild its shattered economy. Putin has done his best to ensure that whoever is in control of Ukraine when the fighting stops will face a daunting task of reconstruction. Eye-watering amounts of money will be needed. Some should come from seized Russian assets; some from international financial institutions; but inevitably some will come from Western tax-payers. The alternative to investing in Ukraine’s success as a modern, prosperous European democracy, however, is to see it become a failing state. The long-term cost of that will be greater.

This war is far from over. But it will end more quickly, and with a better outcome for Ukraine and the West, if European and North American leaders apply the lessons from their successes and failures since Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Hoping that the Russians remain slow learners is not an adequate substitute for strategy.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.