Let’s hold our horses on drawing lessons from war in Ukraine
19 May 2022|

Russian forces commenced their invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. As plenty of analysts have pointed out, this is more fruitfully seen as an escalation of Russian aggression against Ukraine since 2014, rather than understood in isolation. Nonetheless, from the beginning of this major escalation by way of a ‘conventional’ invasion until the time of writing, 84 days have elapsed.

Major US-led combat operations commenced against Taliban-governed Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. Northern alliance forces entered Kabul on 13 November. Osama bin Laden is thought to have left for Pakistan on horseback on 16 December. If we take 9 December, when the Taliban abandoned Kandahar, as the end of the regime, 70 days elapsed between the commencement of major combat and the fall of the Taliban. Operation Anaconda didn’t occur until March 2002, an early milestone in a sorry 20-year timeline that was yet to unravel.

The US invasion of Iraq commenced on the 20 March 2003. Just three weeks later, coalition soldiers were pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, in a remarkable testament to the failings of the Iraqi army. President George W. Bush declared ‘Mission accomplished’ from the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003. The 84-day mark fell on 14 June 2003. Saddam had not yet been captured, the US was still searching for ‘weapons of mass destruction’, American contractors had not yet been strung up from a bridge in Fallujah, and Iraq had not yet descended into horrific sectarian bloodshed.

On 25 June 1950, North Korean troops streamed across the 38th parallel, marking the start of the Korean War. Seoul fell on the 28th. X Corps landed at Inchon on 15 September—the 82-day mark of the campaign—dislocating the North Korean disposition and initiating a rapid UN advance north. UN forces approached the Yalu River on 25 October and then Chinese troops joined the fight. Seoul was yet to change hands twice more, General Douglas MacArthur was yet to be relieved of command by President Harry Truman, and truce talks were still a long way off.

Eighty-four days into the Afghanistan war, improvised explosive devices were yet to emerge as a threat, and coalition soldiers—in the small numbers they were committed—were still moving at great liberty in soft-skinned vehicles. The evolution of this threat to a much higher level of technical sophistication was even further off, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions seemed to validate the supremacy of American airpower over almost all else. The sense of the politically possible in both countries felt, relatively, expansive.

Fifty years earlier in Korea, a war of movement had not yet given way to trenches and relatively static lines. By the 84-day mark, the apparent defeat of North Korea was more than a month away, and the catastrophe of Chinese intervention for UN forces was yet to play out.

The examples could go on, but I’ll get to the point: things change drastically in war. And the salient lessons from a given campaign change accordingly. There has been an understandable glut of commentary on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the West, including much from this organisation, and a good deal of it is concerned with apparent lessons. We should tread carefully.

There are, briefly, at least three reasons that recommend this caution. The first is the historical record sketched above. We know that much can change. This is true of both the political dimensions and the tactical and technical lessons of any conflict.

The second is the nature of the information we are receiving from Ukrainian sources. Ukraine is winning the propaganda war, at least in the West. For those of us in democracies, wishing for Ukrainian wins on the battlefield, this is a good thing. I am glad that Russian disinformation has not been a wild success. But it means we need to be careful using the available information to form far-reaching conclusions. Even high-quality open-source work, such as the Institute for the Study of War’s ongoing campaign assessments, relies heavily on Ukrainian official sources. There is little focus and little reliable information available on Ukrainian losses and failings, which—even if things are going exceedingly well for the Ukrainian military—must be significant.

Third, very few of the commentators party to this discussion have much value to add. In particular, few have experience on the ground against which to evaluate the flow of information out of the theatre or to contextualise the origins of particular military capabilities or decisions. Jack Watling, of the Royal United Services Institute in London, is one of the few exceptions, which is on show when he’s able to question and nuance hasty explanations of Ukrainian army success. This was also true of the 2014–15 period in this conflict; Phillip Karber’s fieldwork-informed research was an exception at that time.

Unsurprisingly, Twitter commentary has been particularly egregious for half-formed ‘hot takes’. The cottage industry focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin himself is especially fraught. It’s understandable that analysts are trying to grapple with Putin’s thinking. But genuine expertise on Russia, let alone Putin, is rare (especially in Australia), and ongoing speculation about Putin’s health is particularly unhelpful. Historically grounded guidance, such as that suggesting that a coup is rather unlikely, is much more reliable fare for the time being.

We might reach for another comparison point, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. There was extensive and understandable focus on the air and missile dimensions of that war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But analysis published more recently has painted a more nuanced picture than that present in early coverage of the drone war, suggesting that ‘the hype was exaggerated. The Azeri drones were essential for their victory, but did not win the war alone, severe ground fighting was necessary’.

This war in Ukraine is going very badly for Russia, and the tragic sacrifices being made by the Ukrainian people and military appear to be paying off on the battlefield. Nonetheless, we should be wary. We need to learn the lessons of this latest war, but it might be a little while before we’re able to do so with much rigour.