Home / Opinion / Columns /  The Ukraine conflict’s surprises offer valuable lessons

The ins and outs of the war in Ukraine have been very widely reported. The main points and timelines are well known, and yet there are some surprising lessons still to be gleaned.

Russian military underperformance: Russia’s assumption of a swift overrun of Ukraine and regime change in Kyiv has proved grossly incorrect. Despite superior firepower and an array of modern weapon systems, the Russian army’s poor logistic supply chain, inadaptable weapon systems and inadequate training and command structures have resulted in a war of attrition with no clear winners. It’s a reminder that people, training and structures/incentives matter greatly in every field of human endeavour.

Use of real or imagined history: Russia’s military crossed the border on a bad assumption and armed with Vladimir Putin’s mistaken view of history that Nato had reneged on a promise not to expand “even one inch eastward" and that Ukraine does not deserve to exist as a sovereign nation. Unless a real or imagined view of history can motivate troops to fight, it generally counts as an assumption for all practical purposes. Putin’s axiom that Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops turned out to be dead wrong. To mix metaphors, the political use of history can be a ‘double-edged sword’.

Weaponization of everything: This is a strange war. While there are some red lines, like ‘no fly zones’, no supply of Western aircraft to Ukraine and care taken not to cross the Polish border, Russia and the West have weaponized almost everything in sight. Russia has weaponized oil and gas supplies, grain and fertilizer chains, and routes from the Sea of Azov. The West has weaponized central bank reserves, access to the Swift transfer system and international sporting events, and imposed sanctions on individuals and institutions. Moscow has shown disregard for the United Nations charter, even as the West abandoned its obligation to go by a ‘rules-based system’. Both sides have lost the plot. In a major crisis, ‘principles’ are often abandoned. Once dumped, they take a long time to be credibly restored.

Nuclear détente means a long grind: With so many nuclear weapons held on either side of a conflict, wars in the 21st century are likely to evolve into long grinds. Short conventional wars are unlikely anywhere, other than those involving very small countries. Of course, irrational actors could mean that the détente does not hold. Territorial wars are unlikely to yield results.

Nato alliance rejuvenation: Paradoxically for Russia, this conflict has rejuvenated what was an ailing Nato. It is not only more unified, it will be expanding to Russia’s shores with Finland and Sweden joining. Turkey will likely have to play ball on expanded membership in a quid pro quo to resuscitate its sinking, hyperinflationary economy, jolted as it further was recently by a disastrous earthquake. Even if Putin ‘succeeds’ in the odd battle, he may have lost the war. Unintended consequences can render the original project meaningless.

Control of intelligence and the narrative: Throughout this conflict, the quality of American intelligence has been remarkable. Even more than with money and ammunition, the US have helped Ukrainians with intelligence. From the very beginning, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former TV comedy star, has shaped and controlled the narrative. The story matters.

German policy: As a direct consequence of the war, German military and foreign policy have undergone a sea change under new Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It has made a surprisingly large €100 billion commitment to its military, shifted from decades of dependence on Russian gas and has slowly begun to offer materiel and tanks to Ukraine in a sharp reversal of its post-World War II policy not to ship lethal weapons to conflict zones. Germany and Japan (so inspired) will likely join the global arms race after an eight-decade hiatus.

Russia’s influence with its neighbours and friends: For Russia’s ‘near abroad’ and its other friends, it is one thing to have supported a short war, but it is quite another to be on one side of a long grind which is being recast as a ‘them against us’ conflict. Belarus may have elected to be associated with Russia, and the Baltic states have already left the fold, but the ‘stans’, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and other former Soviet republics will need to work through strategic alternatives. All countries, including India and Turkey, will need to make scenario-based strategic moves.

Nuclear rhetoric heightened: For the first time in many decades, the rhetoric on nuclear war has become louder. Although the Zaporizhian nuclear-power plant in southeast Ukraine is in cold shut-down now, and risks have reduced, it was one missile away from a major accident. And Russia has not ruled out the use of nuclear weapons. Détente works until it doesn’t, and what comes after is unimaginable. One reason to stop this war is to reduce that binary risk.

Leadership matters: At the beginning of the war, Zelensky famously said, “I need ammunition, not a ride." He has galvanized his country by consistently leading from the front. He has surprised many with a combination of courage, empathy, forceful advocacy and overall competence. Historians generally say that the ‘hour’ matters more than the ‘man’, but leadership matters greatly and may in fact shape outcomes.

P.S: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will fought with sticks and stones," said Albert Einstein.

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