Lessons of the Russian-Ukrainian war for Ukraine and the world on the threshold of 2023

4 January, 04:03 PM

What Putin did not understand

The year 2022 is coming to an end, the war in Ukraine has reached the 10-month mark, and its end is not yet visible. The world has entered a dangerous new era that includes superpower rivalry, the return of war to Europe, ongoing terrorist attacks, and rapidly changing cyberattacks. New technologies have created unprecedented opportunities as well as unforeseen challenges and threats. At the same time, great powers, as in previous centuries, are guided by selfish interests, seeking to increase their influence and hegemony.

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Russia's brutal attack on Ukraine in February 2022 was a turning point for Europe and the world in many respects. An authoritarian leader in Moscow ordered a full-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine, which became a direct threat to all of Europe. Democracies looked fragile. China's rise seemed less and less peaceful. However, despite frequent statements about the decline of the West and the destruction of the liberal world order, the ten months since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war have shown the opposite: the circumstances that made the United States of America a determining factor in world affairs a century ago still remain. Putin cannot achieve his goals in Ukraine because of its breathtaking national resilience and its comprehensive support from the collective West. This, in turn, gives reason to hope that in the near future another autocrat, Xi Jinping of China, will not dare to directly and militarily challenge the liberal order. However, if certain lessons from this war remain unheeded, U.S. conflict with China may become more likely.

 The U.S. is a superpower, and Russia is not

In the ongoing competition between the great powers, another conclusion is obvious: despite acts of aggression against its neighbors and a significant nuclear arsenal, Russia is in no way an equal competitor to the United States or China. The U.S. is a superpower, and Russia is not. Putin's overly-ambitious goals in Ukraine indicate that he has not understood this important point.

On the other hand, Russia's full-scale attack on Ukraine showed that great powers do not always behave as political realists describe, that is, being guided by rational judgments about maximizing security. As the American political scientist Robert Kagan emphasizes, "like the great powers of the past, they act out of convictions and passions, anger and resentment."

Putin's invasion of a neighboring state was not driven by a desire to maximize Russia's security. Moscow has never had the same level of security on its western borders as it has in the three decades since the end of the Cold War. The Russian dictator knew very well that NATO was not a threat to him and that no Western state was going to attack Russia. Putin invaded Ukraine not for reasons of security, economics, or any material gain, but to overcome the humiliation of lost greatness, to satisfy his own sense of his place in Russian history, to maintain control over the states of Eastern Europe, and perhaps to defend a certain set of beliefs — the paranoia of an autocracy trying to maintain power in an era of liberalism.

So, one of the most important lessons of Russian aggression against Ukraine is that a major conventional war is possible in the modern world — even under the shadow of economic interdependence on the one hand and balance of power and nuclear deterrence on the other — and that it is just as brutal, as always. One of the scariest things this war has shown is how fragile peace is, how easily people can break it, and how quickly we can find ourselves in the middle of a real disaster. Hence, the conclusion that despite all the efforts of international theorists, in reality, we do not understand much about how our world is organized.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed many people's views, not only on the world and the behavior of great powers, but also on Ukraine. Until February 24, 2022, the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine. Many countries in Europe, as the Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas recently successfully emphasized, exchanged principles for cash, and truth for gas. And Russia's confidence only grew. However, a lot has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine's fate has proven important enough to the collective West to justify spending billions of dollars on arms supplies to Ukraine, to endure rising gas prices, and expand security commitments in Europe, including the entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO, the granting Ukraine, along with Moldova, of candidacy for EU membership, and making Western states actual allies of Ukraine in this genocidal war.

This is because the defense of Ukraine is the defense of the liberal world order. It will be in danger if Ukraine falls. The United States and its allies are using their power and influence to prevent this from happening.

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At the same time, many countries outside the collective West feel uncertain about where the world is going and are rationally trying not to take sides in the confrontation between Russia and the West. They are trying to survive the war.

This tragic year also proved the fallacy of linear thinking, particularly the assumption that Russia's attack on Ukraine would lead to a military victory for Moscow as the stronger side. The Ukrainian army has turned into a juggernaut (a huge, powerful, and over-whelming force), partly thanks to the experience, professionalism, and victory of Ukrainian soldiers and commanders, and partly thanks to a close partnership with the United States and Western allies. The role of national leadership, morale, initiative, discipline — all those intangibles that cannot be easily quantified — are crucial on the battlefields of Ukraine. There is no substitute for positive, encouraging leadership and well-trained, disciplined soldiers. Perhaps it is just the "will to fight" that trumps almost everything else in combat. On the other hand, this war has shown how ineffective a dictatorship can be on the battlefield.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have already given and continue to give the occupiers a bitter lesson in modern warfare, and at the same time have provided a demonstrative example of combat capability and resilience for the whole world. However, the price that Ukraine is paying for the opportunity to simply exist is huge. If Ukraine’s Western partners had provided the weapons and ammunition they are sending now instead in January-February 2022, many lives would have been saved and fewer cities would have been destroyed. Lessons must be learned from this, and Ukraine must receive all the military aid necessary to win this war. After all, among other things, the war remains a test of material, technical and industrial potential.

This is an obvious lesson for Ukraine as well – the motto "Never alone again" should be the guarantee of security in the future. You cannot be without friends and allies. Integration into the EU and NATO should become an imperative. Full post-war integration with the Western community is fundamental for the future of Ukraine and necessary for European peace and security.

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