Lessons from Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Lessons from Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Top experts, writing from a range of perspectives, share their insights in an effort to inform and improve US policy. MIT Security Studies Program Professors Barry Posen and Stephen Van Evera are highlighted below. Read the full article and analysis from other experts here.

February 13, 2023 | Defense Priorities | Barry Posen and Stephen Van Evera
Barry Posen and Stephen Van Evera
February 13, 2023
Defense Priorities

Barry Posen: "When we take actions that seem highly inimical to the security positions of rival nation states, we should also be alert to the possibility that we may product the opposite of desired outcomes"

Preventive war is an enduring feature of international politics but is ill understood. States sometimes initiate wars because they perceive a potential opponent is on track to achieve a significant military advantage in the future, and they attack to forestall it. Discussions of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine regularly feature the observation that Russia faced no threat of attack. This is true. Had it faced a threat of imminent attack, it would, in international law, have been licensed to wage a preemptive attack on Ukraine. That may not have been wise, but it would have been legal.

The focus on the absence of conditions that would justify preemption excludes an equally pernicious, and highly plausible, cause of this war from consideration—preventive motives that fed a decision for preventive war. Theorists of the realist school of international relations observe that when states perceive that their competitors are racing ahead of them in material power, they become concerned about future clashes of interest. In such a clash, the rising power will be able to use its advantage to either coerce a better bargain or win a contest of arms. Depending on the concerned state’s own assessment of the adversary’s intentions and the pace of change, war to “prevent” the power shift may become attractive.

Sometimes such wars literally aim to “prevent” a very specific power shift—they are about the control of material or geographical resources that would produce an advantage for the opponent. Sometimes they are simply about the rising power itself; war now with that power is necessary to forestall its progress. Notable preventive wars since World War II include the Chinese intervention in Korea in 1950 to prevent the United States from unifying the Koreas and settling its own forces on the Chinese border, Israel’s attack on Egypt in 1956 to forestall its absorption of a huge new supply of tanks and fighter aircraft from the Eastern Bloc, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to forestall Iraq’s possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction.

It will be many years, if ever, before we have sufficient evidence about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision-making to know what his true motives were for launching this war and the relative importance they enjoyed. It is comfortable for Ukraine and its Western allies to settle entirely on inside-out explanations for President Putin’s aggression. These stress his nostalgia for the Soviet or Russian empires, nationalism, and contempt for Ukrainian culture and history. But there is at least as much evidence for the proposition that President Putin invaded Ukraine out of fear that it was on track to become a member of NATO, bringing the most powerful military alliance in history led by the United States—the most potent global military power in history—to his front, side, and back yards. It is rare for any great power to view such an event without concern.

To suggest that President Putin’s motive was preventive is not to shift all the ”blame” for the war from Russia to Ukraine or to the West. Preventive wars are indeed illegal in international law, and astute practitioners of realpolitik often counsel against them. Otto von Bismarck called preventive war, “suicide for fear of death.” Exchanging the pleasures and predictability of peace for the costs and uncertainty of war is almost always a big gamble. Powers in decline have many ways to alter a perceived poor trajectory. They can invest more in defense, find allies, and the rising power may yet encounter hiccups. But the wisdom of “restraint” is nevertheless often overlooked by the states on the losing end of a power shift.

Those who pushed hard for NATO enlargement may not wish to think about their possible share of the political responsibility for President Putin’s decision to go to war. To do so inherently undercuts some of the righteousness of the West’s passionate and principled mobilization of support for Ukraine. But we should try to learn something from this tragic war that might be of use later. When we take actions that seem highly inimical to the power and security positions of rival nation states, however attractive those actions may be on ideological, ethical, or even strategic grounds, we should also be alert to the possibility that we are pushing too hard and may produce the opposite of the desired outcomes.

Stephen Van Evera: "The United States and Ukraine should avoid making large sacrifices for aims that are secondary or unattainable and move to negotiate an imperfect peace that consolidates Ukraine's post-invasion success"

Ukraine has already achieved its most important objectives in its war with Russia. Continuing to fight will provide Ukraine with only minor additional gains, if any, while imposing high costs on Ukraine and the United States. More fighting will also raise the risk of nuclear escalation. Instead, it is time for Ukraine to consolidate its successes and resolve the war on imperfect terms.

Ukraine faced a battle for national survival when Russia invaded on February 24, 2022, but this is no longer the case. The danger that Ukraine might be conquered, vassalized, or landlocked by losing its Black Sea port at Odessa has been averted. Ukraine’s military is far stronger than it was on February 24, thanks to great efforts by Ukraine and generous military aid and training from NATO states. Ukraine’s military buildup and successes on the battlefield have secured the prime Ukrainian national interests at stake in the war: that Ukraine be a free society, secure from conquest, with a viable economic base. It seems very unlikely that Russia will regain its lost momentum and threaten these core Ukrainian interests again. And if Russia somehow regains its momentum, the United States could halt a renewed Russian advance by increasing military aid to Ukraine.

Yet Ukraine’s prospects for making further military gains are also dim. Ukraine has now recovered nearly half the land it lost after Russia’s invasion. However, regaining the rest will be far harder for two reasons. First, both sides have had time to entrench and fortify their forces. This bolsters both sides’ defensive power. Therefore, expelling Russian forces from the territory they still control will be costly and could prove impossible.

Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin may escalate to nuclear use if it appears that Russian forces will be completely expelled from Ukraine, absent compensating NATO concessions. Complete and uncompensated expulsion from Ukraine would be universally seen as a major defeat for Russia. President Putin knows that things often go badly for dictators who suffer major defeats; his power and perhaps even his life would be in danger. President Putin also has a record of doubling down when faced with a setback. If cornered, he may do so again.

To move toward a settlement, the United States and Ukraine should signal to Russia that they are willing to offer concessions on four issues they refused to negotiate on before the war: a promise that Ukraine will not join NATO, a mutual pullback of NATO and Russian forces from NATO’s eastern boundaries, mutual implementation of the 2015 Minsk II accords, and U.S. and Ukrainian acceptance of Russian control over Crimea. NATO and Ukraine blundered before the war by not offering to make concessions on these issues in return for Russian guarantees of Ukrainian independence and security. It is possible that Russia would agree to a tolerable settlement of some kind, including ceding occupied Ukrainian territory, if offered these concessions now.

In a just world, Russia would gain nothing from its war against Ukraine. Instead, Russian troops would be forced from Ukraine, and Russian leaders would be tried and punished for their aggression and barbaric war crimes against the Ukrainian people. Unfortunately, Russia has the power to veto such an outcome. At the same time, Ukraine has already secured its most important war aims. The United States and Ukraine should avoid making large sacrifices for aims that are secondary or unattainable and move to negotiate an imperfect peace that consolidates Ukraine’s post-invasion success.

Read the full article here.