It is perilous indeed to try and draw lessons from a war that is still underway and may, indeed, have just started.

Too many of those who rushed to deliver what Americans call ‘hot takes’ on the current war in Ukraine have been left wiping egg off their faces.


This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


There was, for example, the individual who, immediately after the war broke out, tweeted a comment ridiculing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pre-war statement that the era of big tank battles was over.

Although things might have changed by the time you read this, at time of writing, three-and-a-half weeks into the conflict, there appear to have been no tank battles of any size at all, and it is not Johnson who looks foolish. But certain points can be made, certain hypotheses floated.

The first point is already widely accepted and understood, but is restated here for completeness. War, as Clausewitz pointed out, is a continuation of politics (or policy, depending on how you translate the German) by other means. War must have political objectives and victory can only be achieved when those political objectives are secured. (To digress briefly: this means the claim that ‘X won militarily but lost politically’ is an absurdity; there is no such thing as winning militarily but not politically; winning tactical victories is meaningless if those actions are irrelevant to the outcome of the war.)

But it is already clear that, by attacking Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has achieved the complete opposite of every conceivably rational political objective he could have had. He has considerably strengthened Nato, and he has galvanised Ukrainian patriotism and, under the hammer blows of indiscriminate bombardments of civilians, forged a keen unity between Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers: all are Ukrainians, fervent in the defence of their land. 

Consequently, Russia has lost the war. Moscow’s political objectives cannot be achieved. No matter how much of Ukraine Russian troops overrun, they will never be able to hold it down. In the end, Ukraine will re-emerge, or (if East is split from West by force) re-unite, with a stronger national identity and a significant streak of hostility towards Russia (with the Russian-speaking Ukrainians probably the most hostile of all).

But Russia could still win this campaign. That is, Russia could still win this ‘first campaign’, a campaign of territorial conquest, now under way. It seems pretty certain that Putin’s original objective of seizing the whole of Ukraine is now unachievable, but the Russians might occupy a large section of the country, in the east and south. But that will not end the war. And occupying is not the same as securing. The war would continue, in a different form: the ‘second campaign’, a partisan war. 

However, it is now possible that Russia might actually be defeated in the current, ‘first’, campaign. True, Russian forces continue to slowly grind forward into Ukraine on several fronts. But their progress is very slow. Our big problem, as outsiders, is that we don’t know what the Ukrainian defence strategy is. Are these Russian advances being achieved by wearing down Ukrainian resistance, or are the Ukrainians purposely allowing the Russians to move deeper into Ukraine, offering just enough resistance to force the Russians to expend fuel and ammunition, while their supply lines become ever more stretched, vulnerable and disrupted by Ukrainian ambushes, until a point is reached, at which the Ukrainians fiercely counterattack and drive the fuel-, food- and ammunition-starved Russians back in disarray and defeat? Time will tell.

Of course, even in the latter scenario, the Russians might very well be able to hold on to the territory in southeast Ukraine that they have seized, because of its proximity to the Crimea and to Russia. That could allow Putin to claim that his ‘special operation’ had succeeded. But make no mistake: such an outcome, although frustrating for Ukraine, would still be a defeat for Russia.

This brings us to the second major point. Last July, I wrote an analysis piece for UK Defence Journal on Russia (How strong is Russia? (ukdefencejournal.org.uk)). In it, I stated:

When considering how strong modern Russia is, the first thing to remember that it is Russia, not the Soviet Union, and not even the Tsarist Empire. The resources available to Moscow today are far less than those that the Soviet Union commanded, and it controls much less territory than the Tsarist Empire. However President Vladimir Putin’s regime has stabilised the country politically and economically. Viewed against the backdrop of Russian history over the past 700-odd years, during which the government of Russia has taken the form of autocracy interrupted by periods of chaotic anarchy, Putin has provided the average Russian with a significant degree of personal freedom within a framework of a significant degree of stability.

Putin’s Russia does not meet Western democratic standards, but it remains, for the average Russian, an improvement over the disorganisation of the immediate post-Soviet years and a great improvement over the Soviet period. This has been a source of strength for Putin that seems rarely to get the attention it deserves in Western analyses. (This is not to deny increasing dissatisfaction with his regime, which is not surprising given that he has ruled Russia for some 22 years now, as Prime Minister or President, but it is not clear if this dissatisfaction is strong enough yet to force him out of office.)”

Hit by massive sanctions from Western (including East Asian democratic) countries, Russia’s economy has been destabilised again. And, confronted by economic and financial crisis and battlefield failures, Putin has moved to re-establish autocracy and end that “significant degree of personal freedom”. He is, in fact, undermining the very pillars on which he built his regime. He will fall. But whether his fall will be fast or agonisingly slow is impossible to predict. As is normal with Russia, we have no idea what is really happening behind the walls of the Kremlin.

A palace coup is possible. But ruling elite solidarity (on the basis that it is better to hang together than to hang separately) is also possible. And then there is the factor of the Russian people: because of his track record, most Russians are currently inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the Russian people of today are not the largely illiterate peasants of the 19th century, nor the semi-educated urban proletariat of the first half of the 20th century. When they start to learn, for example from returning conscripts, what really is happening in Ukraine, it will further shake the foundations of Putin’s regime.

In addition to undermining his own power, Putin has undermined the power of Russia itself. Seeking to exalt Russia’s status, and reaffirm its (apparent) position as a superpower, he might rather have irretrievably shattered its claim to such status. Now, some may object that Russia has suffered similar and worse reverses and humiliations in the past (not least, in the Russo-Japanese War, which triggered the ultimately abortive 1905 revolution, a precedent that Putin will be keenly aware of), and successfully reformed and rebuilt itself and emerged even more powerful than before. (The Imperial Russian Army may have suffered major defeats at the hand of the Imperial German Army in 1914, but that same year it achieved major victories over the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army.) But, to reiterate what I have said above, modern Russia does not have the resources of either the Tsarist Empire or the Soviet Union. Not the economic resources, not the financial resources, not the natural resources, not the population. Indeed, modern Russia has a demographic crisis. Its population is declining. It can’t just throw young men at an enemy, until that foe is overwhelmed, like the Imperial and Soviet regimes could.

Hence the Kremlin’s desperate attempts to scrape up non-ethnic-Russian manpower (such as Chechens and Syrians) to fight in Ukraine; using conscripts is politically dangerous, and mobilising reservists is impossible. And to be a leading world power, a country needs to have high-tech armed forces, not merely large armed forces. But the harsh light of war has exposed Russia’s high-tech military capabilities as largely being a thin veneer. The bulk of the army still seems to function (when it functions) like a mid-20th century force, and while the air force is pretty high-tech, it can manage only low sortie rates. Russia’s missiles do work, but there don’t seem to be very many of them and their impact has largely (but not always) been limited. And to confront Ukraine’s tiny navy, the Russian Navy drew ships in from its Northern, Baltic and Pacific Fleets, to augment its Black Sea Fleet which, on paper, was, on its own, massively superior to Ukraine’s little fleet.

Western sanctions are going to make it incredibly difficult for Russia to rebuild its high-tech weapons stockpiles, both by reducing the economic and financial resources available to the Kremlin and by halting access to various Western technologies. Likewise, the further modernisation of the Russian armed forces will also be very difficult. China will not be able, on its own, to fill the gap. True, Russia retains a huge nuclear arsenal, but, with a shattered economy, how long can Moscow maintain it? How long before the Kremlin has to bite the bullet and downsize its nuclear forces? (They might try and disguise such a move by seeking to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction treaty with the US.)

Putin has, with good reason, been called a fascist. It looks as if he has turned Russia into 21st century analogue of the 20th century’s Fascist Italy: a state that successfully bluffed the world into accepting it as a giant (and yes, I was one of the ones largely taken in by Putin’s bluffing), only to be exposed as a giant with feet of clay, which crumbled under the stresses of war. Or, to use a more Russian concept, Putin has exposed his country as a Potemkin (village) superpower. 

However, although no longer a superpower, Russia would remain a nuclear power, although trending over time to a status much closer to France and the UK and ever further away from the US. And Russia’s future military reach, outside Eurasia, will probably be inferior to that of either the UK or France. And Russia could remain a potential threat to many of its direct neighbours. But this last point depends on how long Putin’s regime lasts, and what replaces it. 

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Callum
Callum
1 month ago

An excellent summary of the situation. While in the near future Russia will remain our primary security threat, as time goes on it will be largely unable to threaten NATO beyond cyber attacks or nuclear escalation.

That poses a number of questions; when do we begin to seriously reposition ourselves for a conflict further abroad, what equipment and structures will need to be discarded or rethought, and at what point does NATO potentially consider dissolution, among others

David Steeper
David Steeper
1 month ago

Can’t disagree with a single word. Thank you.

Chris
Chris
1 month ago

A great read, thank you, Rebecca.

Nathan
Nathan
1 month ago

Does this not assume business as usual? Surely Russia will learn from this and along with other “allies” create a new economic alliance independent of the dollar? This is already happening and the move by Saudi to propose selling in Renminbi could be the beginning of its gradual demise as the global reserve currency. In fact, nations around the world will have looked very carefully at how dollar hegemony has allowed the US to cripple Russia – and they will adapt. It will take time for Russia to re-build and in that period significant monetary developments can and almost certainly… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
28 days ago
Reply to  Nathan

There is no other reserve currency…. The US Dollar is it..

John Hartley
John Hartley
1 month ago

Hmm, not sure. Siberia is vast. It has huge amounts of gas, oil, timber, gold, etc. That will always, given enough time, restock Russia’s wealth. Russia can trade those commodities with China in return for the chips & other electronics, Russia’s new weapons will need. I do not think Russia’s military will stand still. Once this war is over, they will redesign their weapons, command & logistics, to be more effective in future.

Jacko
Jacko
1 month ago
Reply to  John Hartley

Hopefully by that time they will not have a bloody lunatic in charge!

Frank62
Frank62
1 month ago
Reply to  John Hartley

If Russia(& China) learns from the lessons thus far from the Ukraine war & adjusts accordingly, we could be in for more invasions & wars. We too need to not become complacent assuming our apparent superiority will continue. Failures usually result in positive changes.

David John Bevan
David John Bevan
27 days ago
Reply to  John Hartley

Except the world is never going to return to the way it was. The world is moving away from hydrocarbons. Russia just blew up its main market for it principle exports and its never coming back. If Russia becomes dependent on China China will extract the best deal. Less revenue from a declining market when all its other exports are being effected by sanctions. This isn’t just difficult for Moscow its cataclysmic.

John Hartley
John Hartley
25 days ago

Russia may be having its Suez 1956 moment, but the resources of Siberia will be a huge asset for many decades to come.

Tom Keane
Tom Keane
1 month ago

I do not believe Russia has lost the war at all. Putin’s initial arrogant goals and aims have not turned out as he wanted, however he will still have his buffer state between Russia and NATO, if only in part.

Russia will choke off everything east of the Dnieper River, effectively cutting Ukraine in half, creating East and West Ukraine.

Callum
Callum
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Keane

Russia will choke off everything east of the Dnieper River, effectively cutting Ukraine in half, creating East and West Ukraine

Wow, you should write for the Russian media. The Russians aren’t even close to holding that much of Ukraine, and they’re not exactly making good progress.

Based off the current situation, worst case is looking like Luhansk, Donetsk, and the continued occupation of Crimea.

Tom Keane
Tom Keane
1 month ago
Reply to  Callum

Erm… so I “should write for the Russian media.” Why the hell would that be then? Either you have NO grasp of reality, or simply no strategic nouse. Please… go bother someone else. 🙄

Є Ть
Є Ть
27 days ago
Reply to  Tom Keane

Looks like this troll already does.
Olgino hires many English speaking bots

Yury Sukhomlin
Yury Sukhomlin
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Keane

No and no! Russia can’t manage that and will be defeated!

David John Bevan
David John Bevan
27 days ago
Reply to  Tom Keane

The same Dneipr that runs through Kyiv? The same Dneipr the Russians ran away from last week? Not sure Plan A is going quite as effectively as Mr P hoped it would.

Paul H
Paul H
1 month ago

It’s a brave leap to assume that as Putin’s financial resources decline, his military capabilities will follow. The people are suffering now but that suffering will only increase as he won’t divert money away from defence for them.

Callum
Callum
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul H

Its hardly a leap. The Russians still depend on a functioning economy to pay for equipment and manpower. The most likely outcomes are either the collapse of the state or a drawdown in capability.

Paul
Paul
1 month ago
Reply to  Callum

But VP has continued to spend heavy on defence, even during economic troughs. At this moment in time there’s no evidence to suggest that he’ll do anything differently.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole
1 month ago

Excellent discussion. All we have to do is wait until the power politics plays out in the Kremlin. But how much faith should we have for the Russians not to install another Putin/Stalin clone? Their attitude to the wider world appears to be based on paranoid fears that everyone is intent on doing Russia down, which of course as with any autocratic system is how they galvanise their population. Quite possibly the best thing we can do is ensure the population find out what is actually happening or happened contrary to their propaganda. It is also telling that they have… Read more »

John Hartley
John Hartley
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

One US news item, I saw online, stated that Putin is a victim of his own propaganda. i.e. he got the ultra patriots in Russia into a frenzy with claims that Ukraine is Nazi led & going to commit genocide against Russian separatists. It is now hard for him to row back from that & do a deal with Zelensky.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
29 days ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

Has Russia blocked the internet to its citizens?

John Hartley
John Hartley
28 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Young Russians using VPNs are rumored to get round the block.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
26 days ago
Reply to  John Hartley

I guess thats not enough of the population to make a difference.

Andrew
Andrew
1 month ago

There are three things that should be of concern to all interested parties. 1) What will Putin do now that he has lost the initiative, and some would say the war? Is he so out of touch that he might consider using a tactical nuke, on the basis if Russia can’t have Ukraine, nobody can? By withdrawing troops from around Kyiv he’s leaving room for just such action. 2) Everything the Russian’s have thrown at Mariupol and the surrounding region came from The Crimea, and that could only have been supplied by sea. One would hope supplies of shells, missiles… Read more »

JohnH
JohnH
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew

Andrew, you seem to be forgetting the Kerch Strait Bridge.

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
1 month ago
Reply to  JohnH

Is that going to become a target if it is used as a route of resupply?

Quentin D63
Quentin D63
1 month ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

Let’s hope so. Should have been taken out already IMHO… so long as any debris then doesn’t block or inhibit access Asov Sea.

Barry Larking
Barry Larking
1 month ago

One of the very best analyses of the root causes and conduct of this present crisis I have read.

Klonkie
Klonkie
1 month ago

Want an excellent read ,thanks so much Rebecca. Looking at your bio, I guess I should say “baie dankie”

Ian
Ian
1 month ago

In practice Russia’s military reach outside Eurasia has been inferior to the UK or France for a long time- something particularly well illustrated by the lacklustre efforts to demonstrate a credible carrier strike capability with the Kuznetsov. With respect to Russia’s alleged ‘Superpower’ pretensions, Putin seems to favour the term ‘Great Power’, which in common geopolitical parlance is a different thing (there are several countries that meet the criteria). A lot of attention has been given to the surprising weakness of Russia’s power projection capability, but those limitations are probably applicable to China as well- and indeed every country apart… Read more »

Peter tattersll
Peter tattersll
1 month ago

The big battle tanks well and truly finished . Two men on horses or mountain bike with javelin are .far to good for battles tanks .

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
1 month ago

That will raise the next tech leap of how to reliably defeat missiles aimed at armed vehicles repeatedly. And so the cycle will continue

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
29 days ago

Russia has so far not used its tanks well. When the ground dries out and they achieve concentration of force in east Ukraine, we may see a different story.

Jacko
Jacko
28 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

They are still going to have the same logistic problems if not worse! The further and faster they go the more the supply units have to keep up they have not shown any ability for this to happen. If they couldn’t supply their armour a few miles over the border on the way to Kiev what chance in open terrain with everything spread miles apart?

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
26 days ago
Reply to  Jacko

Except if they have learned that lesson of course.

Yury Sukhomlin
Yury Sukhomlin
1 month ago

Awesome and deep analysis! Thank you!

David John Bevan
David John Bevan
27 days ago

The Russian armed forces at every level do seem to be spectacularly inept. Such universal ineptitude speaks of fundamental institutional problems with the the Russian military organisation. Strategic blindness, operational incompetence or tactical naivety each on an individual basis could lose you a war but when all occur at the same time it looks very much like what we are seeing happen in Ukraine. The Russian armed forces are not well. This degree of sickness is not going to sort itself out quickly. This will get worse for them before it gets better.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
26 days ago

I have just heard that the Russians have not thus far had a single supreme commander for their ‘Special Operation’. Beggars belief.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
25 days ago

David, Your last line is optimistic. The Russians have now made their campaign targets more limited, more relatable to their numbers and more achievable. They will now operate in an area with a lot of armed sympathisers, will have shorter supply lines and with a firm base mid-way along the southern coast in Crimea, the ground will be drying, they have now finally appointed a single overall commander and they will have refuelled, reprovisioned and repaired men and equiment. They must have learned lessons from ‘Phase 1’ and should be less likely to repeat them. In the south and south… Read more »

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
26 days ago

Is anyone still speculating which country Russia will invade next?

bill masen
bill masen
20 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Moldova I reckon, then perhaps Finland

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
19 days ago
Reply to  bill masen

Which probably explains why Finland has decided to vote on NATO membership in the ‘next few weeks’.

If they do vote to join NATO then I would hope that NATO would fast track their application given the already close relations between Finland and NATO.

If Sweden follows suit, Putin will have effectively opened a new ‘front’ on his northern flank something he was trying to prevent. This, I would suggest, would add to Russia’s ‘loss’.

Cheers CR

T - Rex
T - Rex
25 days ago

Russia has a way of handling counter insurgency that has worked in places like chechnya and syria. It’s also disgusting but that is in the eye of our society (that we have the privilege to live in)

How long will the Ukrainian fighting spirit last ?

bill masen
bill masen
21 days ago

Putin goes to Latvia. Border guard says “Name?” “Vladimir Putin.” “Occupation?” “No, just a holiday.”

ChariotRider
ChariotRider
19 days ago
Reply to  bill masen

Made me smile away… 🙂

CR