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News | March 4, 2024

Lessons and Legacies of the War in Ukraine: Conference Report

By Jeffrey Mankoff Strategic Perspectives 43

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Executive Summary

Strategic Perspectives 43

The international conference titled “Lessons and Legacies of the War in Ukraine” took place on November 17, 2023, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. Hosted by the University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, the conference brought together perspectives from practitioners in the U.S. Government and uniformed military, along with experts from academia and the think tank community in the United States, United Kingdom, Ukraine, and Taiwan, to discuss the lessons that the United States and its allies should take from the first year and a half of the effort to repel Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Across two plenary sessions and three smaller breakout groups, the conference facilitated discussion on lessons at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war. All discussions took place under the Chatham House Rule.

Following introductory remarks, the first plenary session, titled “Russia and Ukraine on the Eve of War,” focused on lessons from the run-up to the February 2022 Russian invasion. The three panelists addressed what we were witnessing before Russia invaded Ukraine; how we interpreted what we were seeing; and what lessons we can draw from the experience of attempting to foresee and prepare for the Russian invasion. The panelists agreed that deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from his choice to carry out a large-scale invasion of Ukraine would have been exceedingly difficult and posed high risks to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its member states. Panelists shared a view that concepts of deterrence, when applied to Putin’s Russia, need to be reconsidered given Putin’s expectations that Russia could weather Western post-invasion economic and political sanctions. Panelists disagreed, however, about Russia’s propensity for escalation to use of nuclear weapons.

Further discussion focused on the difficulties of interpreting and communicating indicators of Russia’s impending invasion to skeptical publics (especially in Europe) and the need for the U.S. military to engage in advance preparation for confronting a hostile Russia rather than the series of improvisations adopted in the aftermath of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas.

The second plenary was titled “Innovation and Adaptation on the Battlefield.” The three session panelists—all experts on military innovation and strategy across multiple domains— focused on identifying:

  • surprising or impactful innovations and developments
  • reasons for surprise or under-preparation
  • different actors’ capacities for innovation and learning
  • the effect of these innovation and adaptations on the course of the war in Ukraine
  • the implications for the future of conflict more broadly.

Attempting to look at the war in Ukraine from the perspective of Beijing, the first panelist suggested that while lessons from the Ukraine conflict are specific to the region, many others are fungible to contexts beyond Europe—including those related to the use of joint fires, suppression of air defense, naval/coastal defense, and land operations. The other speakers provided more granular analyses of the lessons that other actors could draw not only from the struggle to establish air superiority in Ukraine but also the struggle to dominate the cyber domain, where the contours of a conflict with China would be different in many ways from those observed in the Ukraine war.

The conference reconvened in the afternoon for simultaneous breakout sessions devoted, respectively, to:

  • Russia After the War
  • Seeing Kyiv, Thinking Taipei
  • Training and Equipping Allies and Partners.

The first breakout session addressed the effect of the Ukraine war on Russia’s society and political system, with an emphasis on being prepared for dealing with a much different Russia that emerges out of the war. Speakers discussed the likelihood of different postwar scenarios for Russia, the vulnerabilities that the war has exposed in Russia’s social and political fabric, the lessons that Putin and his circle are likely to take from the war, and the implications for postwar engagement with Russia—whether or not it remains under Putin’s rule.

Speakers expressed a range of views on potential Russian vulnerabilities—both in relation to the regime’s international influence and domestic stability. Given the Putin regime’s long endurance and grip on power, however, speakers found it most likely that Russia would remain authoritarian with Putin at the helm, that neither elites nor the state would fracture, and that bottom-up regime overthrow would not occur. While less likely, speakers did allow for possibilities involving a change in the tenor or nature of the regime and public attitudes, particularly in the case of a catastrophic defeat in the war. On the other hand, something short of a Russian defeat, such as an armistice or ceasefire, which could be spun by the regime as a victory, might do more to solidify its hold on power and encourage continued expansionist thinking into the next generation.

The second breakout session was devoted to the lessons that the war in Ukraine holds fora potential conflict with China over Taiwan. Speakers addressed the question of whether the Ukraine war makes a conflict over Taiwan more or less likely, the presumptive lessons that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken from the Ukraine war, and the lessons that Taiwan should take from it. The speakers generally agreed that the Russia-Ukraine conflict had made an imminent clash between China and Taiwan less likely, whether because of the difficulties Russia’s invasion has encountered or because the war in Ukraine has been a wake-up call for Taiwan, which is working to make itself a harder target for the PLA. Beijing has likely concluded that a war over Taiwan would be more protracted than previously assumed and would require a much larger effort on the part of the Chinese state and society. Nevertheless, Beijing is likely to conclude that Moscow’s threats of nuclear escalation have been effective at limiting outside involvement. For Taiwan, the war in Ukraine has made clear that the possibility of conflict with China is a real possibility and that preparations must be made now—especially because such a war is likely to be protracted and will require the participation of the whole of society.

The final breakout session attempted to draw lessons from the U.S.-led campaign to train and equip Ukraine’s military. Panelists representing the perspective of providers, recipients, and observers of foreign efforts to train, equip, and reform the Armed Forces of Ukraine addressed the effect of foreign training, equipment, and advice on Ukraine’s defense posture, strategy, doctrine, and combat performance from 2014 to 2022; what the foreign providers of this assistance could have done differently; and the factors that allowed the United States, its allies, and partners to quickly ramp up material assistance to Ukraine in 2022—including the challenges they had to overcome in the process.

Panelists acknowledged the progress the Ukrainian military and defense institutions had made since 2014 but underscored both provider and recipient limitations that inhibited the effectiveness of foreign initiatives to train, equip, and reform the military and defense ministry prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion. While the U.S. security cooperation enterprise was able to rapidly respond to the materiel and tactical training requirements by invoking in extremis authorities in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, doing so required ad hoc adaptations and the adoption of processes and procedures that will be sustainable. The Ukraine conflict has also  exposed shortcomings in U.S. stockpiles and the consequences of poor “pre-crisis” coordination with allies and partners on readiness gaps. Although platform-specific training has been adequately quick and responsive to Ukrainian needs, more advanced and collective training has at times been divorced from the frontline realities of Ukrainian forces.

While several speakers cautioned that it is not possible to draw definitive lessons from a conflict that is still ongoing, the first 2 years of war in Ukraine have already provided much new information about the future of warfare—and about the future contours of U.S. relationships with Russia, China, and other revisionist powers. While still preliminary, this information can help the United States be better prepared for the current era of strategic competition. The challenge now lies in ensuring that it is absorbed across the national security enterprise and properly integrated into future diplomatic and military planning.

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