As Russia’s war on Ukraine passes the 100-day mark, the brutal invasion brings lessons — and warnings
Over the weekend, the war between Russia and Ukraine passed the 100-day mark.
For the people of Ukraine, the period since Russia launched its invasion has been torturous, cruel and uncertain. More than 10 per cent of Ukrainians have fled the country. Few of those who remain do not have a relative or close friend who isn’t fighting the Russians in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Thousands of Ukrainians have been killed or wounded in this invasion. Many others have been murdered in cold blood at close quarters by the Russian Army. We have also witnessed Russian advances on Kyiv and Kharkiv being thrown back by courageous battlefield tactics and strategic leadership.
The world has watched on as the Ukrainians have demonstrated national unity, resilience and bravery as they have been led by their young yet fearless president.
And despite the barbarity of the Russians and the suffering of the Ukrainian people, this has also been a tragic opportunity for many governments and military institutions to learn.
For national governments, the invasion holds an important lesson about investing in the right defence capabilities for modern wars, rather than those of yesterday. Balancing older capabilities with new systems — such as those to counter autonomous systems and long-range strikes — will be necessary deterrents against aggression and to ensure appropriate responses if aggression can’t be prevented.
Nailing your strategy is critical
Perhaps the most important lesson of the last 100 days has been that strategy matters. As the Russians have rediscovered in Ukraine, getting strategy right is critical to effective military and information operations. Russian assumptions about a rapid Ukrainian collapse underpinned their initial military strategy for the invasion. Putin’s desired political end state — a compliant Ukraine — relied on a decisive and quick military victory. The Ukrainians missed this memo.
For this reason, strategic effectiveness — getting the political outcomes and supporting strategy right — is of profound importance to 21st-century nations and their military institutions. And for democracies, publishing national security strategies is a great way to test their effectiveness and appreciate the degree to which citizens are willing to bear the costs of their implementation.
Second, as the Ukrainians have demonstrated, war is a national undertaking. Success in war requires a commitment of all national resources. War is not a military undertaking but one that demands the commitment of every citizen and resource available.
As the Russians have discovered (again), fighting large scale wars with a peace time military force is extraordinarily difficult.
Big wars — and the conquest of Ukraine is big indeed — requires some form of mobilisation of people and resources. Not doing so limits the resources available and means the full force of national power is not brought to bear. There is an important lesson here for governments in democratic nations: if forced to fight, bring the country along.
Uncertainty is central to conflict
A third and related observation is the need for strategic patience. The desire for short wars, with commitment of limited forces, almost always results in them being longer and more expensive because the enemy always, always gets a vote.
Wars that begin with the expectation that they will be over quickly, cleanly and gloriously almost never do. There are multiple examples from the 20th century. For belligerents and their supporters, strategic patience is required for fighting, supporting and prevailing in wars. And it will be required to compete with, and probably confront, authoritarian regimes in the 21st century.
A fourth observation that can be taken from the Russo-Ukraine War is that uncertainty remains central to conflict. The last 100 days have shown (again) that ambiguity and uncertainty are central to warfare, regardless of how good intelligence services are, and how many tweets, newspaper columns and TV reports the public is exposed to.
The old phrase “fog of war” has new meaning when people in the information age can access all the information they desire and still be none the wiser about what is occurring. Successful 21st century nations will prepare their leaders, citizens and institutions to thrive in this environment.
The myth of ‘the decline of war’ must be challenged
Finally, many are relearning that war is a human, not technological, endeavour. The decisions to go to war are made by humans.
In doing so, these humans demonstrate a range of emotions including hubris, intelligence, stupidity, arrogance, aggression and cowardice. No machine can inspire a nation or assemble an international coalition of supporters. And no AI can hold a soldier’s hand to comfort them while dying on the battlefield.
Many citizens in Western democracies have been shocked by the events of the past 100 days. The “decline of war” theories peddled by some academics have lulled populations into believing that the kind of war being waged in Ukraine is no longer feasible.
Because of that, many citizens have found it hard to conceptualise what they see of the war on their screens and in their newspapers. Ahistorical theories about the decline of war are not only factually dubious but are ethically flawed because of the false comfort they provide.
The reality is that war has been, and remains, a core part of human interactions. It is the most destructive and brutal activity yet devised by humans. The last 100 days have demonstrated this yet again.
If there is one good that might be gained from this heartbreaking bloodshed it is that the right side must win — and we owe the Ukrainians as much support as possible to ensure that happens.
Mick Ryan is a strategist and recently retired Australian Army major general. He served in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, and as a strategist on the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. His first book, War Transformed, is about 21st century warfare.