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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

Lessons Learned from Ukraine

Ukrainian Soldiers (WordPress)

There are many lessons to be learned from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. People will be reviewing these lessons for years to come. Some lessons are immediately evident, others will take time for them to play out, and some lessons, while enlightening, may not be applicable to future conflicts. I believe there are a few lessons that are immediately evident and useful to discuss.

The first is the success of intelligence. The U.S. intelligence community (IC) called this one right. They knew Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine, knew the approximate time frame for the invasion, discovered Russian efforts to create a justification for the invasion by conducting a false flag attack and were able to accurately follow the changing plans of Russia. I don’t have any particular insight into how this was done, whether HUMINT, SIGINT, Open Source, etc. But I suspect it was a combination, and in the end, the IC was correct in its assessment.

Furthermore, the aggressive, public use of intelligence was impressive to see. There will be debate over whether the U.S. Administration should have publicly revealed intelligence. It is understandable that some in the IC will be uncomfortable with the action. Intelligence professionals devote great effort to protecting sources and methods in order to protect lives and avoid having lines of intelligence shut down. Understandable. However, the point of collecting intelligence is for policymakers to use that intelligence to make sound decisions. I would argue that is exactly what they did in this case.

By publicly using the intelligence, we were able to strip Russia of any justification for the invasion, no matter how flimsy. Russia was clearly defined as the bad guy in this situation. Countries that sided with Russia lost whatever cover they could have had for supporting Russia. The public use of intelligence went a long way to solidifying support for Ukraine among NATO member nations and their populations. It was key to NATO's response to the invasion.

Given the success of using intelligence publicly, we can expect this to happen again and should be prepared for it.

Ukrainian Column (Euromaidan Press)

Another lesson to take to heart is the overestimation of the enemy. The world—and the Russians themselves—overestimated the abilities and capabilities of the Russian armed forces. To date, they have performed abysmally. Some will say it is not a bad thing to overestimate an enemy, much better than underestimating them as the Russians have done with Ukraine. That is true on a tactical and operational level, but on a strategic level overestimating an enemy can lead to serious mistakes. Throughout the Cold War we overestimated Soviet capabilities, it seems we never change. This led to throwing away money on weapons that were not necessary and wasting money that could have been better spent. It led to strategic decisions to confront the USSR and communism where there was no need, resulting in the loss of life and treasure.

It is not uncommon to overestimate a foe. Analysts and the like do not want to get it wrong. Underestimating an enemy's capabilities can lead to disaster on the battlefield. I saw that in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Line analysts predicted that the Iraqi regular would rapidly collapse and by the time U.S. forces reached Baghdad conventional units would have dissolved. As that analysis made its way up the chain, it was massaged and modified to cover every eventuality. By the time it reached the White House, the analysis claimed there was a possibility of a Stalingrad-like siege. No one bought it.

We need to be more realistic in assessments. A realistic appraisal of Russian forces, for example, might lead to spending large amounts of money on an ever-smaller number of tanks, and smaller amounts of money on ever-larger anti-tank weapons. Before everyone jumps down my throat, I am not advocating the end of the tank. This is just an example of how overestimating an enemy leads to poor strategic decisions. The lessons learned from Russian and Ukrainian combat operations remain to be learned and digested.

I suspect that the overestimation of enemy capabilities has more to do with money than the actual threat. Overestimating the enemy threat leads to a larger defense budget, more money for weapons contracts, higher stock prices, more jobs, etc. The Military-Industrial Complex has its own logic. It is possible that the overestimation was intentional. Look at our estimates of Soviet military capabilities compared with actual capabilities. There was plenty of information available indicating that the Soviet behemoth had many problems that made it less a behemoth.

A final lesson I would like to postulate is morale. As Napoleon said, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” That is proving true in Ukraine. Having a just cause, having right on your side can inspire an army and a people to be greater, to successfully take on a larger and better-equipped foe. This is an intangible quality, but also very real and necessary. Ukraine is blessed with excellent leadership and an understanding of how to use media and information to not only bolster a nation's morale but to focus the world on the need to support its cause. Russia has failed at this while Ukraine has won that battle.

We should be mindful of this in the future when we are faced with possible conflict. We always tell ourselves that we are the good guys, we are in a just fight. We need to not only be sure that we are indeed in a just fight but that others in the world see it as well. I confess that I have always been a fairly ruthless believer in “the ends justifies the means” and that all is fair when it comes to U.S. national security. However, in this day and age, the idea of fighting a Just War has become more and more important. And not just that we believe it is just, but that other nations also believe our effort is just. No more military operations just because we can kick the crap out of everyone. There needs to be a real and honest justification.

Finally, and obviously, this is not over. I am not referring to the actual war. Of course, that war is not over and much will play out over the coming weeks and months. What I refer to here is the united stand against Russia. We should not delude ourselves the way Putin has deluded himself. The world is not united. India, China, large swaths of Africa, and the Middle East, among others, have not followed the crippling actions taken against Russia, and these nations represent the majority of the world population. Having observed or been the victim of the West's numerous invasions, interventions, coups, etc. they look upon the West as hypocritical. The difference in the treatment of white refugees versus the treatment of non-white refugees from their regions also makes them skeptical of Western actions. We do not have the world behind us, no matter what we tell ourselves. We are viewed as a greater threat in those regions than Russia given Russia's distance from them and their inability to project power. As the real estate industry says, location, location, location.

Finally, I am not sure how long Western unity itself will last. The situation between Russia and Ukraine will be temporarily resolved, and the threat will fade in people's minds, though not in reality. The expense of a large military will begin to drag on European economies, the lure of Russian energy will remain, and new threats and problems will emerge. Putin will continue his assault on the West, using social media and active measures to manipulate Western attitudes, causing divisions and fractures in the alliance. Money from Russia will flow to politicians and political parties with the aim of weakening their stance against Russia and sanctions will bite hard on Western economies, including the U.S.

I fear that the current resolve and unity of the West will weaken without continued work and leadership, especially from the U.S. Attention must be paid to NATO and the EU. They must be treated as full partners, not as a ball and chain tied to the U.S. Effort must also be placed on those countries that are currently sitting on the sidelines. We need to forge a working relationship with all these countries to face future threats. I purposely do not use the word alliance because we have poisoned the well too many times for many of these countries to join a U.S. alliance. However, we can and should devote considerable national effort to have these countries view us as a logical partner. From this, we can build on the effort to come focusing on China.

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