When it was first launched in the wee hours of February 24, the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was supposed to last just a few days and end with the quick capture of Kyiv.
Fast-forward six months: Those plans collapsed in spectacular fashion as Ukraine beat back Russian troops through a combination of sheer determination and plentiful Western arms. But despite Ukraine’s success, the conflict is far from over. On the contrary, it appears to be settling into a long, attritional battle that will test Ukrainian and Western resolve.
The conflict, moreover, has already transformed much of what the world thought it knew about not only military operations and strategy, but also diplomacy, intelligence, national security, energy security, economic statecraft, and much more. So as the war hits its half-year mark, we asked experts across our vast network to share the biggest lessons they’ve learned from the crisis. The results, an illuminating and wide-ranging primer for policymakers and the public alike, are below.
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Lesson for Western diplomacy: Don’t second-guess Ukrainians
Since day one, there’s been too much reluctance in the Biden administration: to share real-time intelligence with Ukraine for fear that not everyone in the Ukrainian government is trustworthy; to send heavy weapons for fear that Ukrainians don’t know how to use them (and that it would take too long to train Ukrainians); to send large enough assistance packages for fear of corruption. There’s also been an enormous reluctance to use the right language to describe the United States’ actual goal; when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talked about defeating Moscow so badly that it cannot attack Ukraine again, US President Joe Biden dressed him down.
Yet time and again, Ukrainians have proven themselves worthy of America’s trust (and then some). With Western intelligence, they were able to withstand the invasion of Kyiv’s Hostomel Airport, which could have been decisive, and eradicate scads of Russian generals in addition to the Russian Navy’s flagship, the Moskva. With US weapons, Ukrainian soldiers pushed the Russians out of Kyiv and forced them to retreat to the Donbas. Now, with American long-range rockets, they’ve hit dozens of high-value targets. The bottom line is obvious: When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his team say they need something, the request is legitimate, and the United States should honor it immediately.
—Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center.
Lesson for global diplomacy: Putin’s regime can’t be trusted—and needs to be defeated
Six months of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine, as well as years of the Kremlin’s invasions of neighboring states and more recent hybrid warfare against the West, have made it clear that any agreements with Putin’s regime are simply not viable and often counterproductive. Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 after having committed to be a guarantor of its sovereignty and territorial integrity under the Budapest Memorandum; in its most recent assault, the Kremlin seized one-fifth of Ukraine’s territories following years of negotiations over the conflict in Ukraine within the Normandy format and the Minsk agreements.
Moscow has been vocal about its disrespect for international law, liberal institutions, and all kinds of international treaties with partners and rivals alike. By committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, violating the basic principle of freedom of navigation, weaponizing food supplies and refugees, and engaging in energy and nuclear blackmail, Putin’s regime has posed existential threats not only to the future of the Ukrainian nation, but also to a rules-based world order. Appeasement, dialogue, and compromises with an aggressor have never worked. Russia escalates when it senses weakness and withdraws when it senses strength. If the world wants a sustainable peace in the region—rather than a tactical pause in Russian assaults—the West must learn the language of power, which is the only language Putin understands.
—Yevgeniya Gaber is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY.
Lesson for US foreign policy: The United States can no longer rely on strategic ambiguity
When a state possesses substantially more power than its adversaries, a policy of strategic ambiguity can spark reluctance among those adversaries to take actions that might provoke retaliation—especially if the more powerful nation has a reputation for responding unpredictably or disproportionately. But when a state’s relative power is perceived to be in decline, then a policy of strategic ambiguity can, conversely, inspire adventurism in an adversary—especially if the declining power is seen to be withdrawing, or otherwise appears weak or distracted.
The long era of strong American relative power allowed US policymakers the luxury of adopting policies that featured strategic ambiguity. But those days have unfortunately passed, as was demonstrated when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, undeterred by the intentionally ambiguous signals that the United States had sent during the preceding decades about the nature of its commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. He was also encouraged by the perception of US weakness in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and dysfunction in its domestic politics. There is an important lesson here for US policymakers who might prefer to cling to strategic ambiguity when seeking to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for instance, or Iranian aggression in the Gulf. Today, more explicit statements about US red lines are in order. In the current environment, such statements are likely to help prevent rather than provoke an escalation.
—William F. Wechsler is senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
Lesson for US national security: Washington must contend with Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran at the same time
The Biden administration came to office believing it could park relations with Russia, putting it on a “stable and predictable” footing while prioritizing competition with China as part of its national-security policy. But Moscow had other ideas: By launching the largest land war in Europe since World War II, Putin reminded Washington how much its security and prosperity is tied to peace and stability in Europe. The Biden administration was forced to return to the drawing board and rewrite its national-security strategy (which has still not been published more than one-and-a-half years into Biden’s term) because the first version gave short shrift to Russia.
China should be a priority, but the United States remains a global power with global interests; its national-security strategy must reflect that reality. An effective approach must address the serious threats posed by China and North Korea in the Indo-Pacific, Iran in the Middle East, and Russia in Europe. Moreover, these threats are interconnected—with Russia, China, and Iran increasingly working together. Success in one of these theaters will strengthen, not sap, US power to deal with the others.
—Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Lesson for military operations: Equipment doesn’t win wars. People do.
Russia spent around $65 billion on defense in 2021, or more than ten times what Ukraine did that year. If equipment was the deciding factor, Russia would have achieved the overwhelming, lightning-fast victory it sought months ago. But in this war, Ukraine has shown that good leadership and training—of which it has plenty, but Russia has very little—make all the difference.
Since both countries share a long military tradition dating back to Imperial Russia, the difference in their respective performances on the battlefield (and the reasons why) are instructive. Since 1993, Ukraine has been part of the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program, in which its armed forces have been trained according to the US model of giving mission-type orders to junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), explaining the commander’s intent, and empowering them to make on-the-spot decisions based on the changing facts on the ground. No one becomes an expert combat decision-maker overnight, so realistic exercises are held and a culture is fostered that encourages individual initiative and demands rigorous assessment. This open and transparent way of operating has resulted in high morale and performance on the battlefield.
By contrast, Russia’s armed forces (which rely heavily on conscripts) lack professional NCOs and discourage initiative and feedback. Decision-making authority remains heavily centralized, with only senior officers permitted to act independently. This is why so many Russian generals have been killed in this war; nobody at a lower level had the leadership experience, big-picture understanding, or authority to act decisively when things didn’t go as planned. The Russian way of war has been predictable: battlefield failure and low morale.
—Colonel John “Buss” Barranco was the 2021-22 senior US Marine Corps fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Lesson for military planning: Nimble modern weapons can defeat larger, conventionally armed forces—especially when on the defensive
The United States has organized an effective “Arsenal of Democracy” to defend Ukraine. In the battle for Kyiv, Russian tanks, troop carriers, supply trucks, helicopters, and fighter aircraft were demolished by small and mobile Ukrainian defensive units armed with weapons such as Stingers, Javelins, NLAWs, and drones. A platform-heavy, twentieth-century Russian force was defeated handily by a light twenty-first-century one. In the battle for the Donbas, Russia’s twentieth-century artillery greatly outnumbered Ukraine’s artillery—until fairly small numbers of new American-made Highly Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) were introduced. Their precision-strike capability destroyed scores of Russian ammunition dumps and headquarters, among other units, thereby slowing the Russian advance. And in the Black Sea, Russian naval vessels vastly outnumbered the remnants of the Ukrainian Navy—until accurate Ukrainian-made Neptune and American-made Harpoon missiles were introduced, forcing the Russian Navy to retreat. These were all essentially defensive situations for Ukraine.
Now Ukraine will seek to regain as much of its occupied territory as possible, but it will not be easy. Ukrainian forces will use many of these same precision-strike systems to try to regain Kherson and the Donbas, but they will also be advancing against strong Russian defensive positions. This worked well initially for American forces two decades ago when taking offensive action against Iraqi insurgents and Afghan insurgents, but it remains to be seen whether Ukrainian forces can pull off the same feat. The outcome will determine whether Putin can claim some degree of success in his ruthless adventure.
—Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Lesson for deterrence: Troop deployments work better than threats of economic sanctions
As Russian troops assembled to invade Ukraine early this year, many defense analysts believed the threat of severe economic sanctions would be enough to deter a Russian attack. But for Putin, revanchist territorial aims outweighed any potential harm that might be done to the Russian economy through Western sanctions. While great damage has been done to the Russian consumer economy, the ruble has strengthened and foreign reserves have increased due to high oil prices and shifting Russian markets. Putin’s judgment appears to have been correct, at least in the short term.
NATO leaders had made it clear that they would not commit troops to defend Ukraine, which led Putin to miscalculate on two fronts—underestimating Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves and the West’s willingness to rapidly arm them. So Western defense officials have relearned a Cold War-era lesson: What deters Russian aggression is NATO troops on the Alliance’s eastern flank, not the threat of economic sanctions. It’s possible that if Alliance troops had deployed to Ukraine, it could have deterred the invasion; but they may have also started World War III. Deploying troops forward on NATO territory now will assure that Putin does not miscalculate again.
The cornerstone of the recent NATO summit was an effort to absorb and implement this lesson. NATO’s deterrent posture is shifting from “deterrence by punishment” to “deterrence by denial,” and allied forces are being positioned forward to deny Russia’s ability to occupy any bit of NATO territory. Battalion-sized NATO battle groups have now been deployed to eight frontline allies, and American forces in Europe have increased to one hundred thousand. Many believe that even more needs to be done to assure deterrence by denial—for example, by deploying brigade- or even division-level NATO forces to frontline allied countries.
—Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Lesson for the global economy: The new tools of conflict are economic—and they are powerful
When Russia invaded Ukraine, President Biden made clear that the United States would not directly intervene militarily. But that didn’t mean the United States and its allies were left without recourse; instead, the Group of Seven (G7) nations decided to freeze approximately $350 billion in Russian assets. To put that in perspective, it’s roughly the size of Austria’s entire economy. The move shocked Russian President Vladimir Putin and his central bank, putting enormous pressure on the Russian economy. It also turned heads around the world: Most countries hold some reserves in dollars and euros, and now they’re thinking hard about the risks to those assets in the event of a future crisis. But since the United States, Japan, the European Union, and the United Kingdom are aligned, countries don’t see many alternatives (for now). China’s renminbi is not yet a viable option as a true international currency. So what’s the takeaway going forward for the global economy? The United States—and the dollar—are stronger with allies.
—Josh Lipsky is the senior director of the GeoEconomics Center.
Lesson for economic statecraft: Don’t separate sanctions from longer-term foreign-policy objectives
In the run-up to invasion, great hope was placed on sanctions as the primary tool with which to deter Russian aggression. Putin, the widespread thinking held, could not possibly want to ruin his economy for the sake of murdering Ukrainians. But rationality is a concept that can be perilously difficult to nail down, and economic rationality was not a factor in Putin’s plans for Ukraine. Sanctions as a deterrent were worth the effort but were ultimately not going to stop the invasion.
This lesson needs to remain front-of-mind during what is likely to be a long war. The inability of the West to use sanctions to prevent war does not mean they are a useless gambit; instead, they should constitute a strategy for longer-term goals. Any tactical advantages that accrue from sanctions should be considered positive externalities, not an explicit end goal. Those policy goals should remain what Biden discussed in late February: that sanctions are meant to isolate Putin and his regime so long as Putinism remains the dominant form of rule in Russia. There is no going back to the pre-war period, in which many in the West clung to the idea that trade could integrate Putin’s Kremlin into a rules-based system. Only after Putinism—the primary driver of Russia’s external aggression—is gone should the West use the leverage of lifting sanctions to allow for Russia’s economic reintegration.
—Brian O’Toole is a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center and worked at the US Department of the Treasury as a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Lesson for economic statecraft: Sanctions work, but they are messy and take time
Policy tools are generally imprecise. When they work, which is not always, it is seldom in accord with the clean outcome or short timeline often promised in a US State Department or National Security Council policy paper. This is especially true with sanctions, which can be intended to weaken an adversary over time.
These are the purposes of the current sanctions against Russia, which resemble the clumsy, contentious, and inconsistent economic measures imposed against the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. While these measures did not cause the USSR to collapse, they made it harder for the Soviet leadership to escape the consequences of the unreformed Soviet economy’s weakness. They took away the Western investment, technology transfer, and loans and credits that had propped up the Soviet economy and masked the rot within. The resulting economic trouble became obvious even to regime supporters by the early 1980s.
Putin’s decision to wage war on Ukraine may bring similar results. Technology restrictions have hurt Russian industrial production. New financing and investment from the West is basically unavailable. And, one way or another, Russia’s income from exports will decline. Time is not on Ukraine’s side, which is why the country needs more military assistance (or the sharp edge of policy). But Putin has chosen to wage a dirty war and make the West an enemy; sanctions and other means of economic pressure may make his choice seem like folly, in addition to evil.
—Daniel Fried is a Weiser family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.
Lesson for wartime strategic communications: Influence operations are a day-in, day-out job
Despite the challenges it faces, the Ukrainian government successfully created and continues to implement a strategic-communications plan to galvanize international support, denigrate Russia, and inspire confidence in its ability to lead the country. Conducting this type of campaign isn’t sexy: It’s a grind—day in, day out—to share talking points with communicators, identify audiences to persuade, pull together data, and then connect with journalists, political figures, and influencers who can further spread the government’s message. But the beauty of what the Ukrainians have accomplished is that a vast network of people who follow the government’s messaging lead and further spread the campaign in ways that their individual networks can understand—thus building new advocates and reinforcing Ukraine’s base of support.
Although President Zelenskyy is the focal point of this campaign, he’s in no way the only person who has remained on-message. Everyday people around the world (not just Ukrainians) feel empowered to advocate for Ukraine and disparage Russia. Images that include the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, sunflowers, and children holding anti-war signs are so widely established that social-media posts that include these types of visuals no longer require any explanation. In large part, the Ukrainian government uses firsthand accounts and video clips as evidence, which further reinforces its message; and crucially, it has not resorted to large-scale mis- and disinformation as Russia has. Overall, the cohesion and duration of the Ukrainians’ campaign can, and should, be used as a template for what the United States and its allies can accomplish with an influence strategy, communications discipline, and a willingness to grind day-in, day-out to meet the end goal.
—Jennifer Counter is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense practice.
Lesson for hybrid warfare: Don’t ignore the fundamentals
By almost every measure, Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” has been a strategic failure. While still dangerous, Russia is arguably at its lowest point of soft influence in recent history, with pushback coming from neutral nations and even ones dependent on Russian energy. Russian war crimes have been laid bare for the world to see and repudiated by all but the Kremlin’s most stalwart allies. NATO resolve is stronger today than many could have ever imagined. Russia has lost its dominance of the narrative and is instead regularly trolled by Ukraine, which offers an alternate example of executive leadership in Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Every day that Ukraine continues to resist, albeit at horrific cost to its people, amounts to an incremental humiliation to Russia, squarely countering its ever-aspirational status as a “great power.”
Much of the current condition has resulted from the Kremlin ignoring the fundamentals of warfare, including lessons openly observable from recent US forays in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. First and foremost has been the poor utilization of intelligence, starting with Russia choosing the more kinetic end of the spectrum instead of focusing on its more adept gray-zone activities. In doing so, Russia’s intelligence apparatus miscalculated both the resolve and capability of Ukraine, as well as the level of support for Ukraine from the international community. This has contributed to staggering Russian losses on the battlefield and horrors against the Ukrainian people perpetrated by an unprofessional Russian military. There have also been similarly poor results in the function of sustainment (the military term for keeping operations going until objectives are achieved).
Hybrid warfare is akin to a scalpel, not a knife, in pursuing strategic effects—and that level of precision requires robust awareness provided by a competent intelligence community that must be trusted to deliver bad news. Russia’s authoritarian governance model is poorly suited to this. Similar shortcomings have resulted in poor control of the information domain: Russia’s “Z” and “anti-Nazi” campaigns have been easily countered by a competent Ukraine that clearly knows its adversary and is able to effectively respond to its messaging through social-media campaigns coupled with broader outreach to the global community. In looking at Russia’s experience, the United States and its allies should ensure that the fundamentals of waging (hybrid) warfare are not ignored.
—Arun Iyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and served in a variety of operational and operational leadership assignments in the US Department of Defense from 2005-2020.
Lesson for the energy sector: Decades of energy diplomacy can disappear with one brutal invasion
Efforts to draw Russia into the democratic fold of its Western neighbors through decades of economic integration and trillions of dollars of energy trade failed to prevent a brutal, senseless war in Ukraine, as well as the Kremlin’s weaponization of energy supplies across Europe. As a result, European energy systems are transforming in record time toward operating without Russian oil and gas. This unprecedented shift is neither cheap nor easy, and will take years to achieve in countries hooked on Russian energy and reliant on carbon-intensive economies.
In the meantime, skyrocketing energy costs, mandated curtailments, and general uncertainty around energy supplies this winter will fuel temptations to slide back into the yoke of Russian energy dependence. But the risks of returning to the status quo of energy diplomacy with Russia monumentally outweigh any short-term relief that the Kremlin could offer through its supply blackmail. That’s because Moscow’s nationalization of the Russian energy industry leaves little room for market-based decisions, while geopolitical priorities (often aggressive ones) take precedent. Supply shut-offs and curtailment across Europe have shattered Russia’s veneer of reliability, while the country has doubled down on the unabated fossil-fuel economy rather than investing in diversification.
Regardless of the war’s conclusion and potential leadership changes in Russia, the de-Russification of European energy sources is heading toward a point of no return. The short-term costs and challenges of this massive transformation cannot be underestimated. But forging reliable, resilient, low-carbon, and affordable energy systems—ones that can’t be threatened or manipulated by monopolistic suppliers—will benefit all of European society.
—Olga Khakova is the deputy director for European energy security at the Global Energy Center.
Lesson for global intelligence: Russia is not ten feet tall
Six months ago, there was a plethora of doom-and-gloom analysis: The notion that the Russian military believed it could take Kyiv in thirty-six hours was reportedly shared not only by Putin but also by Western academic and intelligence-community analysts. Almost everyone got this fantastically wrong. Except, of course, the one entity that mattered most: the Ukrainians, who fought bravely and nearly unanimously believe they’ll win. A quick Russian blitzkrieg turned into a morass that will go down in military history, with 80,000 Russian casualties and no end in sight to Putin’s “special operation.” Now we see that the Russian military is a Potemkin village—corrupt, unfit, and fundamentally lacking in basic principles of logistics.
Equally important, Russian hybrid-warfare efforts in Ukraine—particularly in the information-operations space—have also fallen short. Previous efforts around the world, such as Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, had spooked many (and perhaps for good reason). But Russia succeeded in the past mainly because it operated without pushback. No longer: Ukraine now appears one step ahead at every turn. Consider the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s expert trolling on Twitter after a presumed strike by Ukrainian forces on a Russian airfield deep in occupied Crimea: It showed Russian tourists fleeing the beach to the sound of the 1983 Bananarama track “Cruel Summer.” How times have changed: Ukraine trolling Russia, not vice versa. This is exactly what was needed in the information-operations sphere: an offensive strategy that was proactive instead of reactive.
—Marc Polymeropoulos is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense practice of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and worked for twenty-six years at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Lesson for would-be invaders: You can’t hide preparations for a full-scale invasion
In the four months leading up to the invasion, Kremlin-owned online outlets increasingly reported that Ukraine was preparing to attack the eastern Donbas region—or even Russia itself. The DFRLab monitored these open sources on a daily basis to measure the frequency of this messaging; in the pre-invasion period, Russian online coverage of the narrative about an impending Ukrainian attack rose dramatically, with a nearly 50 percent increase in January 2022 over the previous month. The narrative also became increasingly hostile—accusing Ukraine of planning a chemical attack in the Donbas, for example. Meanwhile, footage from social media, particularly Telegram and TikTok, documented ongoing Russian troop movements and deployment along Ukraine’s border.
The spread of hostile Kremlin narratives in those final months before the invasion were in sync with the spread of Russian troops on the ground, with Russia essentially preparing domestic and international audiences for the invasion alongside actual military preparations. Through the combined open-source intelligence analysis of Russia’s behavior both online and offline, it became clear that Putin’s intentions were hiding in plain sight.
—Eto Buziashvili is a Georgia-based research associate for the Caucasus at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
Lesson for cybersecurity: The private sector should play a critical military-operational role in cyberspace
The information revolution has long been credited with changing key aspects of warfare. Network-centric operations, cyber offense and defense, and online information operations are now established elements of military doctrine and operations. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated a new role for the private sector, which is engaging in direct cyber combat against Russian cyber attacks and in support of Ukraine’s military and governmental functions.
While Ukraine has its own capable cyber defenders—who, for example, stopped an attack against the Ukrainian electric grid—those efforts have been complemented by private-sector firms that have worked with Kyiv both by helping to identify and disable malware and by taking additional actions to create a much more defensible Ukrainian cyberspace. Both Microsoft and Cisco have published reports detailing defensive cyber efforts and European cybersecurity firms such as the Slovakian firm ESET have also been engaged. Ukraine’s cybersecurity defense has additionally been enhanced through the use of Starlink terminals and the transfer of Ukrainian governmental functions to cyber clouds outside Ukraine. The actions that these private companies have undertaken foreshadow the critical role such firms will play in future twenty-first-century conflicts.
Going forward, the United States, NATO, and the democratic nations of the Indo-Pacific need to organize appropriate planning and operational collaborative mechanisms with key elements of the private sector to assure effective operation of cyberspace in the event of armed conflict. The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Center and the more recent US Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative are a good start, but those are not currently suited to the challenges of full-scale combat. Maintaining the functioning of information technology in wartime—particularly for critical infrastructures such as energy, food, water, transportation, and finance—will be an indispensable requirement for nations as a whole, as well as for effective military operations. Working in advance to assure the coordination of the intelligence and operational capabilities of the private sector with those of the government will be critical to the effective defense of cyberspace.
—Franklin D. Kramer is a distinguished fellow and board director of the Atlantic Council, and has served as a senior political appointee in two administrations, including as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
Lesson for US homeland security: Ignoring the home front is a serious mistake
After an initial burst of activity culminating in late April and early May, efforts by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to counter Russia’s hybrid war in the United States appear to have faded—even amid a Russian “avalanche of disinformation,” as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has documented. The last update to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s “Shields Up” webpage was dated May 11, and the most recent entry in CISA’s “Russia Cyber Threat Overview” was dated April 20. The last Russia-specific public alert, “Russian State-Sponsored and Criminal Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure,” was revised May 9.
While DHS and the FBI are in frequent communication with agencies, companies, and individuals targeted by Russian cyberattacks, the public is often unaware of this quiet but vital activity. So more needs to be done by DHS and others to get the American people to understand and better resist the Russian hybrid-warfare campaigns that promote divisive propaganda and social-media manipulation. Russia’s hybrid-warfare strategy, which uses disinformation even more than cyberattacks, seems designed to wear down Western democracies’ opposition to Russia’s aggression. Senior DHS and administration officials should speak out more publicly on what Americans can do to counter Russian disinformation, cyber threats, and other Russian hybrid-warfare targeting of the civilian population. The home front—specifically, unity in the United States and NATO in opposing Russian aggression against Ukraine—is a vital source of national power. Ignoring it, or treating Ukraine as almost entirely a military and diplomatic crisis, could be a perilous mistake.
—Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice.
Lesson for US assistance policy: Invest deeply in key resilient partners
Even as Washington sends billions of dollars’ worth of arms to Ukraine amid the ongoing war, it should also be planning for long-term security assistance to the country. The goal must be to ensure Ukraine’s ability to deter future aggression (and repel it if it comes). This will be an enormous undertaking; but like insurance, the costs pale in comparison to those of another round of war.
President Zelenskyy sees his country developing into “a big Israel,” and the model of US assistance to Israel also applies here. US partners who are on the front lines of competition with Russia and China need capabilities—from missile defenses and anti-tank weapons to superior intelligence and counterintelligence—that enable them to absorb and survive strikes by adversaries. They also must have the ability to impose unacceptable costs on the aggressor.
In the post-war era, building a Ukrainian air force, missile corps, and special forces that can defensively strike behind Russian lines will be essential. Annual appropriations, excess defense articles, and prepositioned US stocks for emergency use are all tools that can be employed to this end. Supporting the growth of a domestic industry that develops and produces innovative Ukrainian solutions to Ukrainian vulnerabilities will also be key. This approach reinforces a requirement that must accompany such assistance: the willingness and ability of Ukraine to defend itself on its own, which is something its citizens have already demonstrated in spades. This also means that, in extremis, US interoperability with a key partner will be assured.
—Daniel B. Shapiro is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and a former US ambassador to Israel.
Lesson for NATO: The Alliance is a uniquely valuable institution that requires enduring political and financial investment
NATO is a sometimes-arcane institution where disagreement and drama are routine occurrences among a membership that will soon reach thirty-two members. Accordingly, the Alliance can be an easy target for politicians seeking to score points domestically, with the presidents of the United States and France having called into question NATO’s utility and purpose in the recent past. But these critiques inevitably overlook the outsize role NATO has played in enabling peace and prosperity in Europe (and beyond). It’s no coincidence that large-scale war is again raging in Europe within years of NATO’s most important members openly questioning whether it had outlived its usefulness; Putin read American and French disillusionment with NATO as a lack of commitment to the Alliance and an opportunity to permanently rupture transatlantic unity.
Fortunately, the habits of cooperation that the transatlantic community has developed over seven decades are not easily displaced—and NATO is once again showing its indispensability as a political and military actor. It’s a lesson that political leaders must absorb even after the resolution of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Had NATO not existed as the current crisis unfolded, the breathtaking levels of cooperation currently on display among allies in support of Ukraine and in strengthening deterrence in Europe would not be possible. Rather than using NATO as a punching bag, leaders must expend the political and economic capital to keep the Alliance healthy and adaptive.
—Christopher Skaluba is the director of the Scowcroft Center’s Transatlantic Security Initiative.
Lesson for Ukraine: There’s no way back for relations with Russia
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, bilateral ties between post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia have been colored by centuries of imperial baggage. While this complex relationship became particularly thorny after Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, a significant number of Ukrainians continued to harbor positive attitudes toward Russians, while political parties advocating a thaw in bilateral ties remained popular in traditionally Russophile regions of Ukraine. All this changed dramatically on February 24.
The unprecedented devastation caused by the invasion has completely transformed Ukrainian perceptions of Russia, particularly in formerly Moscow-friendly (and now heavily bombarded) parts of eastern Ukraine. The sheer scale of the violence, which has included widespread war crimes, has been a traumatic wake-up call for the many Ukrainians who still clung to notions of Russia as a brotherly nation. At the anecdotal level, it is now routine to encounter Ukrainians struggling to come to terms with Russia’s betrayal, or expressing pure hatred toward the Russian people as a whole. Many Ukrainians are no longer able to engage with Russian relatives, while growing numbers are ditching the Russian language and switching to Ukrainian. Recent opinion polls reflect the profound nature of these changes, with Ukrainian backing for Euro-Atlantic integration skyrocketing and support for closer ties with Russia collapsing to record lows. The war is far from over, but it’s already clear that the relationship between Russians and Ukrainians has been irrevocably damaged.
—Peter Dickinson is the editor of UkraineAlert.
Lesson for China: Today’s Ukraine is not tomorrow’s Taiwan
Chinese strategists believe the United States’ strategic ambiguity over Taiwan is dead in all but name, as demonstrated by Biden’s repeated gaffes about Washington’s willingness to defend the island through force and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit there. They believe that if a war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, Washington will “fight till the last Taiwanese”—just as it has been seen as doing in Ukraine against Russia—in a proxy war to contain Beijing, mobilizing its allies along the way to support the effort.
Yet even while the West has been able to inflict painful punishment on Russia’s economy, Putin’s war shows that sanctions are a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to China, the world’s second-largest economy. Beijing has been keeping a close eye on European citizens, who are shouldering record-high inflation and surging electricity prices ahead of a potentially very cold winter. Chinese officials’ relentless push for economic liberalization serves as more than just a means of gaining from globalization; it also acts as a signal to the West over China’s core interests, warning: “If I go down, you’re going with me.”
From Beijing’s perspective, political, diplomatic, and economic retaliation against pro-independence actions in Taiwan—when coupled with the threat of a total military blockade and China’s nuclear saber-rattling—can serve as a credible deterrent that puts the onus of escalation on the enemy (in this case, the United States). Therefore, Beijing will act under the assumption that, in the event of a war in the Taiwan Strait, time and momentum are on its side, meaning that the price the Chinese people are willing to pay for Taiwan is significantly higher than that of Western constituents.
—Tuvia Gering is a nonresident fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
Lesson for Middle East policymakers: America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all the alternatives
While this adage is often attributed to Winston Churchill, there’s actually no record of him ever saying it. Nevertheless, it has long resonated with Washington’s foreign partners and allies, who have been repeatedly frustrated by the inconsistencies and inactions that have too often characterized US policies over the decades. Most recently, leaders from the United Arab Emirates publicly expressed their disappointment that the Biden administration didn’t respond quickly enough when Houthi rebels attacked the Abu Dhabi airport in January; and similarly, Saudi leaders were aghast when the Trump administration didn’t respond after Iran attacked the country’s energy infrastructure in 2019.
But the Biden administration’s strong and unwavering response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has proven, once again, that the United State can indeed be relied upon—especially when confronted by a globally resonant crisis on a scale that necessitates American leadership. That lesson has not been lost on leaders in Taipei or Beijing. And leaders in the Middle East who are inclined to doubt American resolve should note that Washington has taken powerful and economically painful actions to support Ukrainian sovereignty, even though no treaty committed the United States to this in advance (just as there was no treaty that required the United States to come to Kuwait’s defense when Saddam Hussein invaded the country). Rather than demanding such commitments, American partners in the region would be better advised to work with the Biden administration to think through scenarios that might require a similar US response, and to work together to build interdependent capabilities to deter them.
—William F. Wechsler is senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
Lesson for Germany and its allies: Seize this moment for a strategic reversal
Putin’s war in Ukraine was a rude awakening for decision-makers in Berlin and for average Germans from Hamburg to Munich. Decades of divestment from both hard power and energy diversification, plus the strategic detachment with which Germany had pursued its global engagement, came home to roost. This left Europe’s largest economy exposed to energy blackmail by Moscow and with few options to shore up NATO as the cornerstone of its own defense or hold Putin at arm’s length by supporting Kyiv with weapons.
Lofty pronouncements by Chancellor Olaf Scholz about boosting his country’s defense capacity have, in reality, been tough to follow with actual action. This is especially true for arms deliveries to Ukraine or Bundeswehr boots on the ground to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank. On the energy front, the jury is still out on whether a mix of government intervention, conservation efforts, the rapid deployment of liquid natural gas terminals, and even a potential pause of Germany’s exit from nuclear power can help avert the worst for Europe’s economic engine. Berlin’s credibility as a reliable NATO and EU ally has taken a severe toll, especially in Eastern Europe.
Moving forward, the transatlantic partners will need a more strategic Germany—politically, economically, and militarily—as everyone prepares for a long-term confrontation and competition with Moscow and other autocrats. The indisputable failure of cornerstones in German foreign, defense, and energy policies extends beyond Berlin decision-makers, many of whom have long lamented in private their country’s lack of global leadership. The United States and European allies should seize on Germany’s existential crisis as an opportunity for a reset and engage German policymakers in concrete initiatives. They should demand and support new German leadership in key areas, such as NATO’s eastern defense, Europe’s energy transition away from Russia, and new efforts on both sides of the Atlantic to reduce economic and technology dependencies on any one actor. The experience of the last six months—and what is to come this winter—can help Germany develop a new leadership role that advances European and transatlantic objectives.
—Jörn Fleck is the acting director of the Europe Center, and Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Europe Center.