March 2023

Russia’s War in Ukraine: Top Ten Lessons

March 09, 2023

German Marshall Fund (GMF) President Heather Conley and Estonian Ambassador Kristjan Prikk brought together on January 24 Kusti Salm, Permanent Secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defense, and more than forty diplomats, US government officials, and think-tank representatives for a discussion on the defense ministry’s report, “Russia's War in Ukraine: Myths and Lessons”. A comprehensive review of the events of the last 12 months by participants yielded a wide range of perspectives. As the one-year mark of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, the GMF Geostrategy North team offers the following 10 lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine that emerged from the discussion:

  1. While the West has responded to Russia’s aggression with striking unity, there are different views on whether Russia represents a long-term threat. In the medium term, voices on both sides of the Atlantic agree that the outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine will define the state of transatlantic security. Failing to achieve victory in this war likely means a similar, future conflict for the transatlantic community.

  2. While Russia has failed to achieve its objectives to date, it retains significant stocks of materiel and possesses a distinct numerical advantage in personnel. Moreover, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to absorb losses on the battlefield and through sanctions. While the West has succeeded with its various tactical responses, a strategic alliance response to Russia’s war is nevertheless required.

  3. Russia was emboldened by a lack of European defense investment and a Western failure to respond to its previous aggression. While allies have made progress in certain areas, only nine NATO members currently meet their 2014 Wales summit commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. The West’s failure to exact a higher price for Russian aggression in Georgia and earlier in Ukraine also encouraged Russia to believe that the West would accept its most recent invasion.

  4. There is inconsistency between NATO members’ response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the question of future membership for Ukraine. While allies praise Ukraine for fighting for Western values, such as the right of its people to choose their own government, NATO has not given the country a clear signal on future membership.

  5. It is a broadly shared view across the transatlantic community that Russia’s assault on Ukraine is the most serious threat since World War II to a rules-based international order and that Russia remains willing to use force and to commit war crimes even as its military underperforms.

  6. While the war’s outcome remains undetermined, a strategic defeat for Russia does not exclude a possible strategic defeat for Ukraine or for the West. Given Russia’s willingness to absorb casualties, and the disparity in the size of its and Ukraine’s forces, the current conflict has become a war of attrition, requiring expenditures of ammunition that are difficult to sustain. This has implications for NATO’s rearmament.

  7. The current conflict makes plain the vital nature of the US role within NATO as lead integrator and enabler of military forces. Most European militaries could not have sustained the past year’s intense operations. The war has made clear just how far Europe is from any ability to exercise “strategic autonomy”. The war also provides unsettling lessons about nonproliferation. The conflict makes clear the value of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to large-scale aggression.

  8. Russian President Vladimir Putin has no incentive to end the war, especially since a result that resembles defeat weakens his hold on power. In addition, Russian support for war extends well beyond the Kremlin.

  9. The United States and Europe have reacted differently to a new global security paradigm. The former seeks to reduce its dependence on aggressive powers through actions such as the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, while the latter is in danger of replacing its energy dependence on Russia with technology and mineral resource dependence on China.

  10. Setting aside Russia to focus on China is a false choice. There is a risk in underestimating future Russian strength. It is possible that the war in Ukraine ends without a clear winner or loser and devolves into a continuing low intensity struggle or frozen conflict. This would be to Russia’s advantage. The conflict in Ukraine also has relevance for tensions in East Asia, where China is closely watching the allied response to Russia’s assault on the rules-based international order.