Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Top Five Lessons From Year One of Ukraine's War

| Feb. 09, 2023

Europe's brutal conflict has been a harsh but instructive teacher.

Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, 2022, the two combatants have each suffered more than 100,000 casualties, along with thousands of tanks and other armored vehicles lost. Ukraine's economy has shrunk by roughly 30 percent, and more than 30 percent of its population has been displaced. Its infrastructure is being wrecked, and some 40 percent of its electricity-generating capacity has been damaged. Neither side seems willing to compromise or even consider a cease-fire; if anything, Moscow, Kyiv, and Ukraine's Western supporters are doubling down.

War is an instructive if harsh teacher, and sometimes the most we can salvage from the sacrifices that others have made is greater knowledge and wisdom for the future. Here are five lessons that leaders and publics around the world might learn after a year of war in Ukraine.

Lesson No. 1: It is very easy for leaders to miscalculate.

As I wrote late last year: It is now obvious that Russian President Vladimir Putin erred when he assumed Ukraine could not mount a serious resistance and that it wouldn't matter if it tried. He badly miscalculated Russia's military prowess, Ukraine's tenacity, and Western Europe's ability to find alternative sources of energy. But Westerners made mistakes, too: They discounted the possibility of war for years, exaggerated the potency of economic sanctions, and underestimated the depth of Russian opposition to Western efforts to bring Ukraine into their orbit. In this case (as in many others), the fog of war obscured our vision long before the actual fighting started.

Lesson No. 2: States unite to counter aggression.

The Ukraine war also reminds us that states in the international system typically unite to oppose overt acts of aggression. This is another lesson that Putin overlooked: In addition to believing that Ukraine would fall quickly, he appears to have assumed that NATO would not respond as vigorously as it has. Instead of going one on one against a weaker opponent, Russia is waging a war against a country backed by a coalition whose combined GDP is almost 20 times larger than Russia's. That coalition produces the world's most sophisticated weaponry and has begun to wean itself from Russian energy supplies. As discussed below, outside support does not ensure a Ukrainian victory. But it has turned what Putin assumed would be a cakewalk into a protracted and uncertain slog. Russia will be far weaker in the future no matter how the war ultimately ends....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Top Five Lessons From Year One of Ukraine's War.” Foreign Policy, February 9, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt