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The Ukraine War one year on, Part 3: Lessons the West needs to learn – quickly


This is the last of three articles looking at the war in Ukraine as it reaches the end of its first year, when I consider what lessons can be identified and learned. You can read the first part, in which I discussed the mainstream view that Russia is on the back foot, here, and yesterday’s second part, on what happens next, here

IN THIS final article in the trilogy, I will examine some possible lessons from the war so far. To begin with the Russian military: it clearly has some major issues to address around its doctrine, training, logistics, the integration of all arms and the co-operation of ground forces with air – the Russian Air Force has been far from the overwhelmingly dominant force that might have been expected. Bombardment, as we have already noticed, has papered over the cracks to date, but that would not suffice in a major conflict in which the US Air Force owned the skies. Solving these issues must, therefore, be a major implication for the Russian armed forces. We must expect that they will already be carrying out a ‘lessons-learned’ process, the outcome of which we will not see for a while since lessons are learned only when they result in changes to doctrine, practice or equipment; until then they are merely identified.

What are the implications then for Nato as an organisation? Nato was founded by a treaty in 1949 designed to resist a possible massive Soviet invasion of Europe, an invasion that we now know would have been preceded by the use of tactical nuclear and chemical weapons. It brooked no caveats, no discussion of what forces would be committed, nor how much money it would cost. The overwhelming threat was what mattered in this coalition of necessity. In this context, decisions could be taken on the basis of unanimity. However, since the disappearance of the Soviet threat, nations have had a choice about whether or not they got involved in Alliance operations and, if they did, on what basis. But unanimity is still required for every decision, whether those empowered to make decisions have a dog in the fight or not.

This, along with the expansion of Nato, has led to real difficulties in decision-making: unanimity is needed not just for North Atlantic Council (NAC) decisions, but at every stage of preparation and implementation of those decisions. There are some 300 committees and working groups supporting the NAC, often concerned with the application of peace-time procedures designed for fixed site infrastructure rather than the demands of a rapidly evolving situation on Nato’s own border. Every Nato member can vote, and Luxembourg’s vote counts as much as that of the US. As one Secretary General remarked: ‘This in effect undermines the role of the NAC, enabling even one nation to limit the options presented to it or hold up implementation’. (1) Unanimity is therefore the bedrock of Alliance unity, the unity that Putin would so love to fracture, by blackmail, bribery or naked threats. If such threats began to shake Alliance cohesion, the issue of qualified majority voting, avoided for so long, would have to be addressed. Either that, or matters would proceed on the basis of a coalition of the willing, founded on the Alliance, but acting in parallel with it.

Of course, Nato as a whole does not frighten the Russians – they simply despise the Germans, French, the UK and the smaller eastern nations, although the nuclear capabilities of Britain and France must be taken into account. The Poles are a slightly different matter and are among the most forward-leaning of Nato nations because of their historical experience of what living under Russian rule means – a memory still alive. (See for example here.) 

It is the US that does matter, even with Sleepy Joe in charge. Article 5 is binding and if the Russians did directly attack any Nato country this would inevitably bring on the American response which the Russians must avoid. I outlined what this might be in my second article, but Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, left things deliberately vague by saying only that Russia would face ‘catastrophic consequences’ and that the US would ‘respond decisively’.  

In the short term, we should expect a Russian winter offensive using newly mobilised resources which will be designed to push Zelensky into a place where a negotiated settlement, on terms favourable to Russia, could be possible. The subset of this is to embarrass and fracture the cohesion of Nato to the extent that there will be no further new membership applications and even the possibility of detaching Turkey. Non-military means will continue to be employed, along with just enough nuclear blackmail to frighten our civilian populations. Anything more is a gamble rather than a calculated risk.

In the face of a Russian winter offensive, Nato will continue to fight a proxy war by supporting Ukraine materially, but its shot locker looks increasingly empty. All the former Soviet equipment stockpiles in the new Nato countries are pretty much exhausted and so, too, importantly, are the ammunition stocks that support the tanks and artillery. Of course, modern Nato equipment could be supplied, but at huge cost and with an enormous training burden especially for aircraft and helicopters. The US has promised the HIMARS multiple rocket systems – but these have yet to be manufactured. 

 Western defence industry shows no sign of re-tooling, expanding, or being given government orders. Nato nations should also, if they believe their own rhetoric, be increasing the size and capability of their forces. So far there has been talk from Germany and France but no more. Britain has proposed an increase in spending (unlikely now under Hunt’s austerity programme) but the increase is not tied to the sort of capabilities need – aircraft, ships, tanks, artillery. The talk is all of cyber and EW (electronic warfare). And yet our front-line tank strength is no more than 200, the IFV (infantry fighting vehicle) capability is about to disappear – on paper for a decade but in reality for ever – our artillery is antiquated and small in numbers, our air defence capability is almost zero. Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, recently described the British Army as funded enough only to ‘stay at home and do a bit of tootling around’. The Ukrainians have done as well as they have because they had a big army, well equipped by Nato and well trained. If the West means to stand up to Russia, then that is what it needs. And to that, add big air forces, and big navies – both surface and sub-surface. Cyber and EW matter, but they will not on their own hold territory or protect populations.

Simply throwing borrowed money around will not do, therefore – there must be a serious look at front-line capabilities on land, at sea and in the air – and there is also much need to modernise and expand nuclear weapon stocks before the West is outgunned by a coalition of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. In the meantime, Nato will confine the war to Ukrainian territory and not intervene directly unless WMD are used. The subset of this is that Nato leaders must dust off that old, but tried and tested, doctrine and practice of deterrence. Deterrence is based on capability – nuclear and conventional – but also on credibility; it is the latter that is the biggest challenge for Nato.

The paper tiger of EU defence, which serves only to weaken the commitment to Nato, has no benefits for the West and attracts only derision from Russia.

The growth of defence in Western countries, especially Britain, may be problematic from other angles than that of hardware. There is no now ethos of military service among the young; the rewards are not sufficient, and Capita, the civilian organisation to whom the service chiefs handed over recruiting, appear to believe that their mission is to ensure that no recruit gets through the enlistment process. Underpinning the want of ethos is the infiltration of education by the far left, whose agenda is to inculcate into the young a sense of shame at being British and a denial of all the good that Britain has done as a nation over the centuries: the fight for civil liberties; equality before the law for all; the institution of parliamentary democracy; standing up to despots; ending the slave trade in 1807 and combating it and slavery in East and West Africa for another century; introducing a welfare state – among other things. A population that holds such beliefs has nothing to fight for and arguably is not itself worth fighting for. The contrast with the pride that people in Russia – and indeed the USA, France, Greece and others – feel about their country is profound.

The loss of fighting spirit in the West has been a long process and may, in Europe but not in the USA, be irreversible. There are other losses too. Internationally, the greatest loss in the war so far has arguably been the loss of trust. Russia does not trust the West, seeing it as a threat to its very existence and in that context, will make the establishment of true security in the Baltic region and in the western Balkans, highly challenging. Some in Europe once talked of a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia, but Putin will never listen to this kind of talk again; nor will the West ever trust him. This matters, because there are other geostrategic threats and opportunities hanging on that sort of trust – reaching a solution to the problem of Syria; containing Iran; protecting Israel and, of course, the elephant in the room, the threat of China against Taiwan. Without any likelihood of partnership or trust to solve these issues, confrontation will be the inevitable alternative. In such a case, establishing credible deterrence therefore looms as the biggest challenge for the West: for as Sun Tzu rightly said, ‘To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill’ (2).


(1) Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, 3 October 2008.

(2)Sun Tzu [ed James Clavell], The Art of War (New York, 1983), p. 15.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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