As 2022 draws to a close and the war in Ukraine reaches the 10-month mark with no end in sight, Grid turned to a pool of experts to answer a simple but profound question:
What do you believe has been the most important lesson of the war in Ukraine?
We asked former commanders and intelligence officials, scholars of Europe and NATO, experts in nuclear security and military history, leading analysts in the fields of media and human rights. We asked a former CIA director, a former prime minister, and a former Russian TV presenter. Fifteen people in all, each of whom has contributed to Grid’s coverage of the war.
Some gave their answers in brief — in one case, a lesson in just three words. Others offered several paragraphs. Their answers ranged from issues of morale to military preparedness, from the power of strong leadership to the importance of history. One warned that if certain lessons went unheeded, a U.S. conflict with China might be more likely.
We’ve grouped the contributors in alphabetical order and edited their answers only slightly, for clarity.
Here, then, are 15 experts and 15 lessons from the war in Ukraine.
Political scientist, University College London; author, “Hypocrisy and Human Rights”
I’m not sure this is a lesson so much as two evergreen reminders.
The war in Ukraine has been a demonstration of what a profoundly different and simpler position victims of interstate aggression are in versus those whose own governments commit atrocities against them, in terms of the ability to seek international attention and assistance and to pursue accountability in a timely fashion.
And at the same time, it’s yet more evidence of how badly the international system fails all victims of mass atrocities when it comes to preventing or halting the violence against them.
Adjunct senior fellow, Center for a New American Security
This is easy. The most important lesson of Ukraine is that major conventional war between developed nations is possible — even under the shadow of nuclear weapons — and that it’s as brutal as it’s always been. For decades, many Western observers have viewed major conventional wars as anachronisms for reasons both fair (nuclear deterrence, strong alliances, economic interdependence, international prohibitions on military aggression) and foul (chauvinism).
There are myriad strategic and operational lessons from this war, but they pale in importance next to serving as empirical proof that the unthinkable is possible.
Fellow for Europe, Council on Foreign Relations
The most important lesson of the war in Ukraine is the fallacy of linear thinking.
The first example is the most obvious: the assumption that a Russian attack on Ukraine would result in Moscow’s military victory. Even after Russia’s defeat in the battle of Kyiv, it took months for policymakers and analysts to internalize that Russia’s initial failures in the war were more than only a temporary setback — and that Russia is actually on the losing side in this war.
The second example is the recurring prediction of a stalemate — similar to the First World War — between Ukrainian and Russian troops dug in their positions and with both sides unable to achieve significant forward movement. This prediction has been refuted repeatedly by Ukrainian counteroffensives. It would be another fallacy to assume that Ukrainian counteroffensives will remain successful just because they have been in the past. But it suggests that the war is more likely to produce surprises instead of continuities.
The third example is the linear thinking underlying much of the Western debate about Russia. Despite speculation about domestic unrest, regime destabilization and possible successors to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the majority assumption is that anyone (or anything) following Putin would be bound by his legacy and molded in his image. In reality, we don’t know. And it would be wise to also prepare for exactly the opposite scenario than the one which seems most likely now.
Director, Mayak Intelligence
I think the most fundamental lesson from Ukraine — or rather, reminder — is that full-scale warfare is still much less predictable than we may have assumed from our metrics, algorithms, war games and simulations. The role of morale, national leadership, initiative, imagination, discipline and willful self-deception — all those intangibles that do not lend themselves to easy quantification and which can seesaw overnight — have been shown to play crucial roles in the battlefields of Ukraine.
U.N. director, International Crisis Group
One overarching question has been whether Russia’s war on Ukraine is a European war or a global crisis. The U.S. and its European allies have consistently presented Moscow’s actions as a threat to global order. But a lot of non-Western powers have seemed at most partially convinced.
We seem to be in an era of what I think of as “global hedging”: A lot of countries feel uncertain about where the world is headed and are rationally trying to avoid taking sides in the Russian-Western standoff. Basically, if there is going to be a new Cold War, many states outside Europe would like to sit this one out.
Watching the war from the vantage point of the U.N., it has been clear that Asian, African and Latin American officials have a lot of sympathy for Ukraine. Yet their sympathy comes with caveats. Non-Western diplomats have a list of crises, from global warming and the global food price shock to wars in Africa, that they insist should receive equal attention to Ukraine. Early in the war, a lot of European diplomats in particular didn’t really seem to register the importance of these issues. Over time, the U.S. and Europeans have got better at listening to their non-Western counterparts. But they still clearly see the war in different ways.
Western diplomats get frustrated by their non-Western counterparts’ failing to condemn Moscow in harsher terms, but for many governments it is simply a safer bet to send some firm and limited signals of disapproval to Russia, without definitively backing the U.S. and EU.
Director of the Russia Institute, King’s College London
The war has demonstrated (at least) two frightening things. One is just how fragile peace is, how easy it is for people to break faith and how quickly we can find ourselves in the midst of genuine catastrophe. We have for generations now allowed ourselves to believe “This can’t happen here,” and that illusion has now been shattered. It can happen here, it is happening here, and it will continue to happen here unless we do things to prevent it from happening.
And that gets to the second frightening thing, which is just how little we understand about how our world works. Our sense that this “couldn’t happen here” was predicated on a set of assumptions about human behavior — the behavior of world leaders and common citizens alike. These assumptions allowed us to believe that the world, or at least “our” corner of it, was stable and predictable, but we never really examined many of these assumptions and particularly failed to examine them from the point of view of people who are not “us.”
The good news is that if we can get better at dealing with the second frightening thing, we’ll be better placed to tackle the first frightening thing.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges
Former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe; senior advisor, Human Rights First
Three things stand out for me at this point in the war:
First, there is no substitute for positive, galvanizing leadership and well-trained, disciplined soldiers — the human factor;
Second, “hard power” is back. It doesn’t replace soft power but enables and supports it. The need for real kinetic capability and the willingness to use it are essential if our enemies are to be deterred or defeated.
And third, war remains a test of logistics and industrial capacity. We still need transport, huge amounts of ammunition, maintenance and battlefield medical care.
Former finance minister, Ukraine; chairperson, Aspen Institute Kyiv
We underestimated the yearning and value of freedom. The Ukrainian people have shown the world their strength, courage and resilience. Their defiance in the face of devastation, destruction, terror and attempted genocide is inspiring the entire world — from the streets of Iran to China.
Having underestimated the will of the Ukrainian people and Ukraine’s power on the battlefield, global leaders were caught unprepared to support Ukraine and its defense of democracy. The delay and gradual nature of implementing sanctions, providing sufficient financial support and weapons necessary to defeat Russia on the battlefield have drawn out this war — enabling too much death and destruction — and the global effects of the war will be longer and more painful as a result.
Former reporter for Russia’s Novaya Gazeta; analyst of Russian media
I think the main lesson of this war is that the West should learn the futility and even the danger of appeasing the aggressor. Don’t forget that the first Russian aggression against Ukraine began in 2014. I mean not only the annexation of Crimea but also the unleashing of a bloody war in Donbas. The Minsk agreements then seemed like an illusion of peace, and many in the West thought that if we gave Putin what he wanted (actual recognition of his control over Crimea and the occupied part of Donbas), then he would stop.
The practice has shown that he did not stop. After each peace agreement, Putin starts a new war as soon as he gains strength and when it becomes beneficial for him for domestic political reasons. And in each new war, he raises the stakes more and more. If we allow him to win, then in the next war, a clash between Russia and NATO will be inevitable.
Journalist, filmmaker and former Russian TV presenter
In our world and within our lifetime, everything is possible — including the destruction of mankind. In my opinion, this primary lesson gleaned from the war in Ukraine was best articulated by Vladi, a 44-year-old rapper from the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, in his song “How the f--k is this possible?!”
The song has become a hit in Russia. People are sending the track to each other, especially those who weren’t interested in politics a year ago and never imagined they would see a war in Europe.
The song’s heroine is a Russian woman in the movie business who has collaborated with Ukrainians and always tried to steer clear of politics. She is used to hearing about how globalization, technology and art make our world kinder, safer and more comfortable.
And then the first missile attack on Ukraine destroys her entire view of the world.
“All this was bulls---, it was so absurd,
Turns out you can burn down cities …
How the f--k is this possible?!”
Many different lessons can be learned from the war, but this is perhaps the most important one: Our world is smaller than it seems; we are all, no matter where we live, closer to one another than it seems; and our confidence in a stable future is worth no more than a square foot of real estate in Mariupol, a once-prosperous city that has been leveled.
This war has also shown how ineffective a dictatorship can be on the battlefield. The only institution that has proved to be effective and indispensable in Putin’s Russia is the state propaganda system that has turned the Russian people into a society ready to support an attack on their “brotherly neighbors.”
The main obstacle to any dictatorship is freedom of speech, pluralism of opinions, diversity of different media and a bulwark against a monopoly on information. It was the destruction of all this in Russia that made possible the strengthening of Putin’s power, then the destruction of all types of opposition in Russia, and then the invasion of Ukraine.
Senior fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis; former senior editor, Economist
Europe’s strategic nakedness.
Former acting director, CIA; distinguished practitioner in residence, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
There are some very obvious lessons, such as we now know the Russian military is not as good as everyone thought. But that’s too easy. I’d say the more interesting ones are:
Affirmation that the elusive “will to fight” trumps almost everything else in battle. The Ukrainians obviously have overflowing amounts of this — attributable to the rightness of their cause (defeating unprovoked aggression by a cruel adversary) and to superior leadership (“I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition!”). In contrast, Russian troops’ will to fight was anemic due to an ill-defined cause, shameful logistics, awareness of corruption in upper ranks and poor treatment by superiors. (I still carry in my wallet the leadership card from Army Officer Candidate School 55 years ago. The goal: “Accomplishment of the mission; the welfare of your men.”)
Second lesson: When estimating the outcome of conflict, pay equal attention to both sides. Everyone focused on the Russian military — the bright shiny object at the outset. I doubt many people looked carefully at what the Ukrainians had accomplished in training, equipment and experience — having fought since 2014. I’ve been there many times and knew they would resist and would not welcome any invader as liberators. But I can’t say I knew how well they were prepared as a professional military. So always look at both sides, not just the big noisy one.
Gen. David Petraeus
Former commander of U.S. Central Command; former director of the CIA
The most important lesson of the war in Ukraine is that strategic leadership — that is, leadership at the very top — really matters.
To be successful, strategic leaders have to perform four tasks properly: First, they have to get the big ideas (the overarching strategy) right; second, they have to communicate the big ideas effectively throughout the breadth and depth of their organization (in this case a country) and to other stakeholders as well; third, they have to oversee the implementation of the big ideas by the organization (country) they lead; and fourth, they have to determine how to refine the big ideas in order to perform all four tasks over and over again.
In the Ukraine War, we are seeing exceptional strategic leadership demonstrated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has performed each of the four tasks brilliantly and led the total mobilization of his country in a positively Churchillian manner and achieved very impressive results. And we have seen abysmal strategic leadership demonstrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has failed miserably at the first task by repeatedly making catastrophically bad decisions and then been appalling in performing the other three tasks as well.
As a result of the performance of these two strategic leaders and that of their respective citizenries (and also as a result of the enormous support of Ukraine by the U.S. and Western countries), Russia finds itself in an increasingly desperate situation on the battlefield and an increasingly costly situation at home as well. And each of those situations will deteriorate further until Putin finally recognizes that continuing the war is unsustainable.
In the meantime, we and our allies and partners should do all that we can to hasten the day when Putin realizes that Russia can no longer sustain its brutal, unprovoked and terribly costly war in Ukraine.
Director of the Center for Slavic, Eurasian and East European Studies, University of North Carolina
The most important thing is something we already knew but regularly forget. Prognoses before the invasion tended to focus on the great difference in apparent military capacity and personnel between Russia and Ukraine, leading many (especially in the Kremlin!) to expect a short victorious war. However, we have learned that the power of a whole nation united against an invader is an enormously important factor that cannot be overlooked. In this case, the united defenders (with crucial support from allies) have not only held off, but pushed back a better armed, much larger aggressor. Military might alone, without any semblance of soft power, is very limited in what it can achieve.
The Hon. Kevin Rudd
President of the Asia Society; former prime minister of Australia
The most important lesson from the war in Ukraine is also the simplest: the tragic reality of war, death and destruction on an industrial scale. It’s also the hard truth — previously lost on far too many nations — that large-scale war is by no means an impossibility in our modern, globalized world. Ukraine is a global wake-up call, prompting us to reassess the dangers of other potential conflicts that could be sparked into full-blown war by underlying geopolitical tension.
War is no longer unimaginable. The most significant among these is the possibility of war between the U.S. and China. It is a prospect that we must now acknowledge is no longer unthinkable. Such a conflict, with its vast scope for escalation across every domain, would likely be of a scale not seen since 1945. There would be no winners. It would be a catastrophe for both countries — and for us all.
But a U.S.-China war is not inevitable. It is indeed “the avoidable war.” To prevent war by accident in the short-to-medium term, muddling through will be insufficient. To avoid sleepwalking into crisis, conflict and war, both countries must act to construct a joint strategic framework of managed competition so as to keep their respective strategic redlines within political control. For the medium to long term, it will require effective deterrence by the U.S. and its allies sufficient to cause Beijing to conclude that any war to retake Taiwan would represent an unacceptable level of risk.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.