By Balkan Devlen, March 30, 2023
It has been 13 months since Russia re-invaded Ukraine. In what follows I want to focus on what the war revealed in 2022 and what we can expect (or not) in 2023.
First five lessons from the first year of Russia’s war in Ukraine:
Do not underestimate your friends and overestimate your enemies. This is what Ukraine’s Ambassador to Canada, Yuliia Kovaliv, said in a recent speech. Indeed, the West overestimated Russian capabilities and underestimated Ukrainians’ willingness to fight back for their home and hearth. Russia’s attacks against civilian infrastructure and targeting residential areas to terrorize the population and force them to submit produced the exact opposite.
True leadership is revealed in trial by fire. Ukrainian President Zelensky’s courage and perseverance when faced with mortal danger and deep uncertainty galvanized not only Ukrainians but also the West in the crucial first weeks of the invasion. His response to evacuation offers – “I need ammunition, not a ride” – became the war cry around which the defenders and allies of Ukraine have rallied, setting the tone for the rest of the year.
The unexpected unity within the West enabled Ukraine to fight back. The speed with which the West, led by the United States, came together and started providing military and financial support while imposing unprecedented sanctions against Russia surprised many. While allies like Poland and the Baltic countries have been vocal in their warnings about a revanchist Russia, others in Europe, like France and Germany, had been dismissive of their concerns. Russian re-invasion in February 2022 was a wake-up call for those Western Europeans as encapsulated by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s phrase, Zeitenwende, a turning point, a watershed moment. Despite disagreements, the West remains united in its support for Ukraine.
It is essential to produce things. We have been too focused on concepts such as hybrid warfare, ignoring how much ammunition, tanks, missiles, and artillery are needed in modern warfare. The war in Ukraine showed that it is vital to have robust defence production and ample stocks. Fundamentally, war is about pitting two defence industries against each other. Those who sustain the production of needed war materials longer than the adversary wins. There are critical lessons for Canada in this, as our inability to provide much to Ukraine regarding material support demonstrated. For example, sending just four Leopard tanks (and four more announced later on) or our limited ability to provide artillery pieces or ammunition suggests that we need to rethink defence production in Canada and also broadly within the West.
Depending on authoritarian regimes for critical resources is a bad idea. Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas gave Vladimir Putin political and economic leverage for years. Putin tried to use that dependency to blackmail Europe and divide the West. European countries scrambled to find alternative sources of natural gas and fill up their reserves as the Russian invasion began. Natural gas prices spiked, forcing European governments to take steps in easing the burden on the population. The radical restructuring of European energy policies in less than a year at a significant cost will not be forgotten by policy-makers anytime soon. Unfortunately, Canada failed to step up to the plate when our allies are in dire need since Canada does not have LNG export infrastructure on the East Coast that would have allowed Canadian LNG to be shipped to Europe.
You probably read several op-eds about what we can expect to happen in the war in Ukraine in 2023. But to paraphrase Roy Amara, a Stanford computer scientist, we overestimate change in the short-term and underestimate it in the long-term. So in that spirit let me try something different.
Here are the five things that will not happen in Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2023:
The war will not be over by the end of the year. Vladimir Putin is all in in his criminal war and is willing to send hundreds of thousands more Russians to die. Ukrainians, on the other hand, will not give up, as a popular saying in Ukraine puts it: if Russia gives up there will be no war, if Ukraine gives up there will be no Ukraine. Furthermore, wars tend to last either very short – think days or weeks – or years. That this war is already over a year suggests that we should be ready for a drawn-out conflict with a revanchist and hostile Russia for years to come. It is going to be a generational struggle that would only end when Russia has a regime change, accept responsibility for the war, pay war reparations to Ukraine, foreswears revisionism, and start rebuilding credibility in the international arena.
Putin will not be removed from office. There is no meaningful opposition to Putin in Russia. The last vestiges of the political opposition were brutally suppressed in the past couple of years and those who were not killed or imprisoned left the country. The Russian population has been disillusioned with politics and is largely cynical. They are either supportive of the war or indifferent primarily to it. Furthermore, personalized dictatorships are notoriously challenging to overthrow. Coup-proofing is an essential element of Putin’s regime that encourages competition between different elements of security services and have them spy on each other. In a system where just being suspected of plotting against the leader means prison or worse, it is very hard for the disgruntled elites to coordinate and remove the leader. Unless he suddenly dies, Vladimir Putin will remain the war criminal president of Russia in 2023.
Russia will not use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Despite Putin’s rhetoric, there is no evidence that Russia plans to use a so-called tactical or battlefield nuclear weapon in Ukraine. There is no sustained battlefield advantage from using a single nuclear weapon against a determined defender unless the attacker is willing to escalate further. There is no reason to believe that Putin is a suicidal leader that is ready to start climbing the nuclear escalation ladder. On the contrary, he is very concerned about his personal survival, as it is a key trait that is selected in a ruthless political environment like Russia’s. Furthermore, breaking the nuclear taboo will be very costly for Putin as this might lead his closest allies such as China’s Xi Jinping to abandon him.
Western support for Ukraine will not cease. The generational nature of the struggle against Russia is dawning on the western publics and policy-makers. It is also increasingly becoming apparent to the same policy-makers that if the West wants this war to end quickly, it must ramp up its support to Ukraine and give what it needs to finish the job. Even then it is unlikely that the war will be over this year. There might be trouble down the road – think US elections in 2024 – but for this year, the West will not waver in its military and economic support to Ukraine.
Russia will not make significant territorial gains. After their initial territorial gains in the East and South of Ukraine, the Russians failed to make further advances. Ukraine recaptured significant territory around Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall of 2022. Russian mobilization in the fall 2022 and the renewed offensive that started in February 2023 failed to produce any territorial gains for them. The carnage in Bakhmut, a small city that Russians have been trying to capture for months now and where the Russians suffered more than 30,000 casualties, is emblematic of Russia’s failure on the battlefield.
There are other lessons to learn from and predictions to make about the war in Ukraine but perhaps the most important lesson is this: Ukrainians are paying the ultimate price in showing how to defend democracy, freedom, and human dignity against its enemies even when the odds are not in your favour. For that, Slava Ukraini!
Balkan Devlen is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.