People Forgot How War Actually Works

Armed conflict is never straightforward. Weapons are not power. National identity matters.

A photo showing three soldiers silhouetted against a sunset
Maksim Levin / Reuters

Although the consequences of Russia’s terrible war in Ukraine will unfold over decades, three lessons from the conflict are already clear—and, in retrospect, should have been apparent all along. When the invasion began, a year ago today, much of the outside commentary focused on Russia’s advantages. President Vladimir Putin’s military was widely said to have overwhelming airpower and firepower, a fast-moving ground force, and extensive cyberwarfare capacity—all of which supposedly meant that Russia would rapidly conquer its neighbor. Its purported strengths seemed so great that when Russian forces were only just crossing the border, some analysts were musing about which pro-Moscow Ukrainian politician might lead a puppet regime in Kyiv.

Yet the first lesson of the past 12 months is that war is rarely easy or straightforward—which is why starting one is almost always the wrong decision for any nation. The United States has made war look simple at times, most obviously in 1991, when Operation Desert Storm dislodged Iraqi forces from Kuwait in a month and a half. Yet that victory was possible only after a decade-long U.S.-military buildup and with the deployment of the world’s most advanced military technologies. Even then, a defining feature of the Gulf War was that the U.S. did not try to occupy another society. When the opportunity to march on Baghdad presented itself, President George H. W. Bush’s administration held back.

In the three decades since, the United States, despite having the world’s largest economy and most powerful armed forces, has generally proved unable to translate its dominance into quick victories, ending up instead in protracted conflicts with, at best, mixed results. Wars start quickly but end messily. No one really knows how armies, technologies, and economic resources will behave when thrown into kinetic competition. Plans fail, confusion takes hold, and military advances give way to periods of stalemate.

The past year in Ukraine is far more typical of war than Desert Storm was. Russia’s overwhelming power was anything but; instead of unleashing modern war on the Ukrainians, Russia relied on antiquated weaponry and command structures. Instead of taking Kyiv within weeks, Russian forces experienced major system breakdowns. Since then, Russia’s problems seem to have gotten worse. Putin has changed commanders like socks, equipment quality has degraded, and the number of casualties has skyrocketed. Now Russian and Ukrainian forces are facing each other in long lines of blood-soaked trenches, and Putin has little prospect of ending the war on his terms.

And though one side in a conflict almost never simply overpowers the other, the risk of failure is especially high for a deeply flawed power such as Russia. The second lesson of the current war is that military power is not the foundation of national power but rather the product of the economic, technological, political, and social factors that shape a nation’s armed forces. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is sometimes portrayed as pitting a great power against a small power. In Western policy circles, the dominance of Russia experts—many of whom have spent their career viewing Russia as a regional hegemon and its neighbors primarily as post-Soviet states—contributed to this framing of events.

Russia is indisputably a nuclear power, but by virtually all other measures, it lags considerably behind its reputation. Russia’s economy is seriously flawed. Its GDP ranks about tenth in the world and is less than one-tenth the size of America’s. Creating much of its wealth through resource extraction, Russia makes few high-technology products and indeed little else of any real value. Socially, Russia—where the population is shrinking and life expectancy is relatively low—exhibits signs of great distress. Politically, it has ossified under a dictator who has consolidated his hold on his country by tolerating corruption among those close to the throne.

In other words, today’s Russian military is the product of a declining kleptocracy, not of a great power. Yet even observers who perceive the factors sapping Russian power underestimate their importance relative to the squadrons of military equipment that the country’s decaying social structure has managed to create.

By overlooking Russia’s systemic weaknesses, Western analysts helped create the mess that democratic nations find themselves in today. The presumption, based on weaponry counts, that Ukraine was far too weak to resist Russia in open combat delayed the provision of significant military aid to the beleaguered nation. This was a perverse circular argument: Because Russia is strong and Ukraine is weak, we should withhold assistance from Ukraine.

Fortunately, that argument has proved impossible to sustain. A third lesson of this war—and many others since 1945—is that underestimating the importance of national identity leads to military disaster. By conventional criteria, Ukraine is far stronger relative to today’s Russia than Afghanistan was relative to the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s—and than North Vietnam was to the U.S. in the 1960s. Both Cold War superpowers were humbled by their attempts to suppress local resistance by force, and both had to withdraw.

Nevertheless, in the prelude to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and for much of last year, many in the West failed to appreciate how much Ukrainians value their independence and their democracy. Some Russia-focused scholars seemed to have accepted Moscow’s view of Ukraine as a weak, artificial entity with shallow popular support. Skeptics of NATO support for Kyiv focused on Ukrainian corruption (while conveniently ignoring the impact of corruption on Russian power). In the most extreme cases, some analysts even doubted that the Ukrainians would care enough to sustain an insurgency against Russian military occupiers.

Such judgments and doubts now look foolish. Ukrainian identity was strong and resolute from the start. Many analysts overlooked the military advantages that democracies—even imperfect democracies—have over dictatorships. Although the former frequently appear messy and divided when they are under threat, they can react more forcefully, flexibly, and intelligently in part because their citizens feel empowered to improvise and show initiative as combat circumstances change. That pattern has held true in Ukraine. Despite initially having fewer advanced weapons, Ukraine fought back hard, inflicting deep consequences on Russia, which has lost an estimated half of the main battle tanks it possessed at the start of the war.

The results are so stark that certain commentators who previously downplayed Ukraine’s chances seem to have changed their mind. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who has argued that the nation should remain neutral between the West and Russia, was insisting last year that Kyiv make territorial concessions. Earlier this year, he expressed support for Ukrainian membership in NATO.

The three lessons of the past year—war is never straightforward; power is not based on weapons; national identity has military value—should come as a relief to supporters of democracy. The great tragedy is that they had to be relearned in the first place.