Looking Ahead: Hard Lessons from Russia’s War in Ukraine 

We appear to be months short of a satisfactory peace settlement in Ukraine. And it is too early to be definite about everything. Yet it is worth mulling over what lessons to draw for the long term from this sorry episode in international relations.

           First, everyone without direct access to satellite intelligence and lengthy experience analysing it was clearly caught by surprise. How does one tell routine manoeuvres from mobilisation for war? The United States Government warned everyone well ahead of time that Russia would attack Ukraine evidently after identifying extensive logistical back-up – food supplies and medical support – that should otherwise not have been present merely for manoeuvres. But the Americans could not offer a precise date and the dates offered were guesses. Absent human intelligence sources, the Americans were left in the dark. Human intelligence is still vital to vigilance.

          Second, the American intelligence assessment left open the possibility that mobilisation was merely a dramatic preliminary to forcing negotiated concessions from Ukraine. This assumed a mindset on the part of Vladimir Putin that can be summed up as “westsplaining”. It would, in short, be the “rational” thing to do given our way of thinking.

          Third, it would appear that Putin made the final decision to go in without fully consultating his expert subordinates: at the Foreign Ministry, the SVR, the National Bank and Finance Ministry, to name the most important few. This guaranteed the element of final surprise, but it also meant that he was not adequately forewarned of the consequences of failure and the international blow-back even delayed success would produce.

        Fourth, the intended Blitzkrieg fulfilled former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s Russian curse: “we hoped for the best, but things turned out as they normally do.” The performance of Russia’s army was lamentable. Long distance artillery bombardment – Stalin’s favourite weapon of war – alone proved itself; yet that was insufficient to ensure victory. Thus what should have been war and the reactions to it gamed in advance of the invasion has had to be hurriedly prepped while fighting is in progress.

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       These are probably the few points that can easily win a consensus. But there are suggestions which can be made that should alter the way we think about and practise international relations. And here we will inevitably rub against the stubborn power of vested interests:

         First, at no future point should we assume that those we have to deal with are anything like ourselves. This applies to allies as well, but certainly to potential enemies. Never assume a commitment to the same set of values as your own. We need to be able to assess objectively and in advance how enemies and allies will react to new circumstances without wishing for the best of all possible worlds.

         Second, no state is so powerful that it can afford to alienate other states because that régime fails to observe our moral standards. Biden’s abuse of the ruling Prince of Saudi Arabia has cost the United States ready access to alternative sources of oil. This is in itself a spin-off from another piece of advice.

        And this applies most obviously to Germany – doubling its dependence on Russia for energy supplies during Merkel’s chancellorship – but also to Biden’s ill-considered knee-jerk rejection of Trump’s drive for self-sufficiency in oil and gas. The failure to secure autonomy in energy sources will cost you when you face war, particularly if you intend using economic sanctions against the adversary. This leads to another corollary.

        If the states you have to cope with value military power highly, and the Russians certainly made no secret of it over the past decade, follow sage Roman advice: in order to secure the peace you have to prepare for war; not cut defence budgets.

       Fifth, and this is related and looks back to the distant origins of Putin’s war and his motivations. Reversing Theodore Roosevelt’s dictum – to walk softly but carry a bit stick – by crowing loudly about democratising the rest of the world but not backing that up with overwhelming power will lead to wars like this one. The post Cold War doctrine of régime change to match American values is a red flag to a bull. So don’t enter the arena without preparation. The stampede out of Afghanistan certainly did not win international respect.

      Lastly, don’t elect into office naive but incompetent people.