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[Analysis] Some lessons from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict ten years later

(B2) At the start of the third year of the massive Russian intervention in Ukraine, what lesson should we learn? What threat to take into account? What to do ? Some tracks

(photo: European Parliament)

First track: keep your head, name the facts

Stop the ambient pessimism

First of all, we must be wary of successive waves that come as much from feeling as from reality. We thus went from total pessimism in mid-February 2022 (“the Ukrainians are screwed”) to blissful optimism during the first phase of reconquest of the Ukrainians (“what resilience these Ukrainians”) in the fall of 2022, or even to total optimism the day after the rise of Wagner's troops, who had become rebels, on Moscow in June 2023 (“Putin will fall”). Then to the spleen of autumn 2023 after the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive and even to a certain defeatism today with the withdrawal of Avdiivka. Partly fueled both by kyiv (to increase European and American support) and by Moscow (very happy to have a victory to eat).

Naming the reality: a continuous attempt to subjugate Ukraine for 10 years

Seeing this conflict through the last year is a mistake. The war in Ukraine did not start in February 2022. It began between the end of February 2014, with the annexation of Crimea (read: Russian troops can (officially) intervene in Crimea) and spring 2014, with the destabilization of Donbass then its de facto annexation. That’s ten years! Ultimately arousing only a very weak Western reaction (read: Crimea, Ukraine. NATO “extremely concerned”. But that's all).

The 2022 military intervention has the same objective as the first: to destabilize the kyiv government to make it dependent on Moscow. It is more massive, more radical, more intensive, aiming not only to destabilize but to eradicate Ukrainian independence, to annex all the territories. The first intervention did not have the desired effect and the Kremlin has, in the meantime, hardened its position.

Constant Russian military pressure since 2008

The recent aggressive Russian attitude started much earlier, aiming to repel European and Western influence. It manifested itself in 2008 through the military intervention in Georgia, very quickly interrupted by the securing of the two “ republics » separatists from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Without really worrying in Europe. It continued in 2015 with the successful military intervention in Syria, leading to the elimination of all American, French and British influence on the conflict.

In 2016, Russian forces in Libya became more actively involved in supporting General Haftar with more mixed success against the Turks supporting Tripoli. But the strategic objective is achieved, the two opponents succeed in ousting European influence; NATO's intervention in 2011 ultimately served Russia (quite a revenge. The Russian advance continues in Africa, under the cover of private Wagner-type groups first in 2017-2018 in the Central African Republic; in 2022 in Mali , according to the same modus operandi coupled with official Russian military cooperation. With a patent failure in Mozambique in 2019 (read: Russian soldiers soon in Mozambique? The Russian Wagners in ambush). So many warning signs that are often overlooked.

A weakened Russia?

The human gap is catastrophic: between 200.000 Ukrainians and more than 300.000 Russians dead or out of action, including wounded. It weighs more heavily on the Ukrainians today who are struggling to replenish and renew their troops – more complicated to do in a democracy than in an authoritarian regime – and to obtain clearer support from the Allies. The ball is in the Europeans’ court indeed. But we should not overestimate the solidity of Putin's power. It could also, at some point, be called into question... We must therefore not give in to his blackmail and chin-bumping.

Second track: react and change your way of thinking

Above all, we must change the way of thinking, but also of acting and speaking. Europeans and Americans did not anticipate the harshness of the Russian offensive and often had difficulty in launching the appropriate reaction.

Pay attention to political gestures

We must remember the first gesture of the United States. Yet well informed and having analyzed the potential offensive, Washington's first decision is at the beginning of 2022 to repatriate all their diplomats, to avoid any possible attack (prisoners, deaths, injured) and therefore any political confrontation. A crucial admission in times of war which amounts to a mark of weakness, a tacit green light for the Russians to go… A gesture in total contradiction with public speech.

Anticipate more

With a few exceptions (British, Poles, Balts), Europeans were often one step behind the war. Reluctant to offer the full range of an army in battle (land, air, sea), either for practical reasons because they do not have enough resources available (drones, ammunition, anti-aircraft defense), or for reasons policies (airplanes, medium-long range missiles). It was a question of testing the Russian reaction as well as convincing national opinions. There was very little anticipation of the next battle zone. Or if there was anticipation (in military terms), it was not always followed through.

Keep your commitments, be realistic about your promises

In times of war, there is no question of making empty promises. This will be perceived by the opponent as a weakness to be used. So when we promise in black and white a million munitions in addition to what has already been delivered, we must do everything in technical and practical terms to keep this commitment... or else not promise. The EU munitions plan designed in 2023 was squeezed into impossible deadlines. European diplomats and soldiers entrusted it to B2 at the time. The objective was “ firstly political ”, to encourage States to do more. But if we reached half of the real objective, that would already be good... Which happened. The proof: the two billion euros put on the table to reimburse the States were only half spent (read: [Analysis] The semi-failure of the European plan to deliver heavy munitions to Ukraine).

Be more responsive and imaginative

Responsiveness takes precedence in times of war. Even if the military support for kyiv is real in numbers, in equipment, in financing, the rise in power remains slow: the objectives set are being achieved one year late (read: [Verbatim] two million shells produced… by 2025 (Thierry Breton)).

The war economy is humming along. The Europeans are therefore reluctant to order their industry to prioritize deliveries to Ukraine over other exports. The European Commission had proposed it in 2023; the Member States have carefully crossed out all the lines of the draft regulation (read: [Analysis] ASAP, munitions plan. Schizophrenia pushed to its peak).

Governments are hesitant to place orders in the medium term. This makes the industry hesitant to launch new production lines. Finally, despite what they say, they are still wary of the European framework. Only seven Member States have used the 60 framework contracts negotiated by the European Defense Agency. However, margins exist at the financial level, in particular with the income from frozen Russian assets (read: [Exclusive] Create a special fund dedicated to European defense? An idea to explore). To do this, we must not hesitate to innovate in legal, political and financial terms. And, above all, do it quickly and act like Europeans.

Stop internal competition

Finally, the little game of blame and shame : I give more than you must stop. The significant effort of the Balts and Poles is real. He should serve as an example. But on the one hand there is a geopolitical and military logic on a technical level. The stocks were more numerous and immediately usable because they corresponded to the standards of Soviet equipment in number in the Ukrainian army. On the other hand, what Tallinn and Vilnius generally forget to say, they were largely financed by contributions from other countries (Germany and France, etc.). That was the initial deal: you give, we finance. The situation changed when Western equipment began to be donated, notably the German Leopards. Berlin then points the finger at Paris, Madrid and Rome for their low contribution. A pretty stupid and harmful game.

Third track: clearly analyze the threat, Russian threats

A threat on NATO territory?

Today, not a day goes by without a politician saying something about the threat of total war from Russia. This is undoubtedly necessary in the spirit of preparing the population. But you have to be careful: it can also have the opposite effect, to paralyze, to scare. Moreover, it was the will of the Russians and Putin who first raised the nuclear threat (a fairly classic message in deterrence), then caused the conflict to escalate. Russian pressure is regular on NATO, via planes, submarines, missiles, which brush against the border, play hide and seek, sometimes fire in its direction. But these are warnings that must be taken as such.

What threats?

The immediate Russian threat is first of all hybrid. You have to be aware of it. This comes through pressure via immigrants on the Finnish or Polish border. It is all-out espionage, the infiltration of political forces or “peaceful” demonstrations or discontent. This is misinformation. It is also this insidious fear left by a regularly agitated Russian military threat. We must keep our cool: react to existing (hybrid) threats, fully support Ukraine, anticipate as much as possible, but also not over-react. With a risk: exhaustion. The Russian strategy vis-à-vis the Allies seems to be the same as the American strategy of the 1980s on the anti-missile shield: achieving victory without fighting through the exhaustion of the adversary.

Russian action on the Baltics?

In the Baltic countries, the nature of the threat is different. We must not hide our faces (1). Fragments of the USSR which (re)took their independence in 1991, the three Baltic countries are primarily threatened by the Kremlin's desire to regain lost grandeur. The strong Russian minority in certain countries (Latvia especially), the shallow territorial depth, the Kaliningrad enclave, the proximity of St. Petersburg... are all Russian means of pressure, for a hybrid penetration first, or even more frank in case of no reaction. The post-1989 preconceptions no longer apply today. We can therefore think of permanent NATO military bases (they are already there), or even a nuclear presence as a deterrent. We have to change gear.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

Land intervention?

The land option is currently excluded for Europeans. On the other hand, it is not forbidden to think about localized interventions. The Russian enclave of Transnistria in Moldova is a key point for this reflection. Made up of Russian forces, not automatically the most efficient, it could be a threat of being caught in pincers if Russia ventured towards Odessa. A Moldovan-Ukrainian operation supported by the Americans and Europeans cannot be completely ruled out. The risk is notable. But it is measurable. And the message sent to the Russians would be clear: tooth for tooth. History of reversing the balance of force.

  1. Two years ago, we could consider this scenario as pure fiction, an illusory fear of the Baltic leaders. Today, both the language of the Kremlin and the preparations (concentration of forces) force us to think differently.

Updated with photo change

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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