Opinion: Lessons from the War in Ukraine

Russia occupied Afghanistan for ten years despite absorbing increasingly greater losses. Given the ferocious defense Ukraine has mounted thus far, it will probably be forced to withdraw much faster than it withdrew from Afghanistan.

Russia occupied Afghanistan for ten years despite absorbing increasingly greater losses. Given the ferocious defense Ukraine has mounted thus far, it will probably be forced to withdraw much faster than it withdrew from Afghanistan.

Edit: This article represents the views and opinions of the author, and not necessarily of TMV and its editors. 

I typically write about the underlying causes of the Muslim world’s military weakness and how to end it. But, for obvious reasons, violence in Ukraine has captured my attention recently. As someone who has spent his entire life watching people suffer in war zones in Palestine, Kashmir, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other places it has been painful watching similar scenes unfold in Ukraine.

The vivid images of destruction visited upon the Ukrainian people who wanted nothing more than to live freely under leaders of their own choosing have brought back horrible memories of images of children playing on the beach in Gaza who were murdered by Israeli shells. Or images of American bombs destroying entire neighborhoods in the infamous Sunni triangle in Iraq. War brings nothing but death and despair. Those who unleash it carelessly are evil people indeed.

As such, I shall endeavor to advise Mr. Putin and Ukraine’s leadership as to the most prudent course of action just as I often advise the rulers of the Muslim world in a desperate attempt to get them to enact policies that can end the violence that has consumed so much of it. Inexplicably, they have yet to follow my very sensible advice.

For example, I have long counseled the leaders of Palestine to lay down their arms and for all Palestinians to adopt widespread acts of peaceful civil disobedience while performing symbolic acts of surrender in recognition of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority and willingness to slaughter women and children the same way Russian forces have been slaughtering innocent Ukrainians.

Given the barbaric violence Israel has inflicted upon the Palestinians and their continuing inability to protect themselves from its exceptionally powerful military, their best option has long been peaceful civil disobedience. I always strive to give the best advice I can by making sure it is based on a realistic assessment of the available evidence and common sense (as a lawyer, that’s what I’m trained to do).

Putin’s Best Option is to Retreat Immediately

In a nutshell, I advise Mr. Putin to retreat and sue for peace immediately. He can no longer prevent Ukraine from joining the EU since his actions have made that inevitable, but he can still threaten enough violence to prevent it from joining NATO.

Every day he delays his withdrawal he puts that limited goal in jeopardy. I have already explained the most logical solution to end this conflict here. I stand by the suggestions contained therein but since I offered this advice before the invasion, I would like to elaborate due to recent events. Russia’s invasion has created a range of plausible scenarios that will all lead to the same end – its defeat. The only real question is how long it will take and how many will die before Putin comes to his senses.

The ideal scenario for Russia is that its forces eventually subdue Ukraine’s government and military, conquer significant portions of its territory, and establish a government that takes the Kremlin’s orders. To achieve these goals, it will need to inflict heavy damage that will kill thousands of civilians and lead to significant casualties for its fighting forces. As I explained in a comment to a recent Foreign Policy article here, Putin will unleash the sort of barbaric violence he unleashed against the people of Chechnya and Syria, but it is unclear if he can achieve similar results. Even if it uses similarly brutal tactics, there is a reasonable probability that Russia only captures pockets of Ukrainian territory and fails to establish full military control.

The best-case scenario is still horrible for Russia because its forces will face a well-organized and supplied insurgency. Failed counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq show what happens when insurgents have access to bases and supplies from areas outside the conflict zone while successful ones in Palestine and Malaysia show that COIN operations can only succeed if these are cut off.

Ukraine’s geography and proximity to friends willing to supply it with arms places it in the former category. These dynamics mean that Russia’s defeat is inevitable even if it conquers the entire country. The more devastation Russia’s military inflicts and the longer it stays in Ukraine, the greater the likelihood that it will fully integrate with the West once its forces eventually leave. And that eventuality is a certainty. Again, it is only a question of when.

Admittedly, it is hard to predict an accurate timeline. Russia occupied Afghanistan for ten years despite absorbing increasingly greater losses. Given the ferocious defense Ukraine has mounted thus far, it will probably be forced to withdraw much faster than it withdrew from Afghanistan (my guess – Russian forces will get kicked out of most of Ukraine within 6 months – two years but will try to annex portions along its periphery permanently).

Its campaign is going so poorly that it is already ratcheting up the nuclear rhetoric. This is a bluff and a foreshadow of the brinkmanship Putin is likely to employ in the coming months as he tries to save face. But the end is obvious. Putin has lost. A smart chess player would retreat and regroup immediately. If Putin retreats quickly, he will survive. The longer he waits and the more he digs in, the worse it will be.

Some might think it is too early to make such predictions, but we have seen similar misadventures unfold so many times that the results seem inevitable. Hopefully, instead of going through the motions of this predictable and unnecessary drama, we can just move to the part where Putin’s forces go home, and we learn some valuable lessons.

Lessons and Advice for Ukraine

For Ukraine, the lesson is simple. The West cannot protect you. It can help you, but that’s it. I know the US, UK, and Russia all made promises but relying on their word was not very smart, and that is not hindsight. The advice contained in the article linked above still makes sense. Turn yourself into a porcupine that not even a bear would touch and channel your inner Switzerland/Israel.

I know this does not make up for the loss of life, but you will be given all the Western aid you need to rebuild. Please use it wisely. You have shown your bravery but as you rebuild, I truly hope you create institutional mechanisms to ensure the money is used to develop local industry in the same way Germany and Japan used American aid to rebuild after WWII.

Please do not use it to make Western NGOs and defense contractors rich while allowing your elites and warlords (there will be warlords if Russia goes all in and sticks it out for years) to siphon off the rest. Do not compound tragedy with short-sighted greed like the leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq did. Make sure this aid is designed to give you the means to protect yourselves without outside help and with the idea that it will eventually end.

Dictators like Putin come and go but Russia will have thousands of nuclear weapons and conventional military advantages that Ukraine will not be able to match for the foreseeable future and beyond. The causes of conflict between Russia and Ukraine as a gateway for invaders and source of food supplies will always drive conflict with your large neighbor. As such, once Russia withdraws, you must begin the task of dissuading the next Russian despot who will try to control you.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

What is happening in Ukraine provides important lessons for all students of international relations and war that are often ignored out of short-sighted political self-interest. To expect that the West would stand with Ukraine against Russia’s nuclear arsenal was a lapse in judgement. One that will take a long time to rebuild from and shows a nation must be self-reliant in matters of national security and that having friends really helps too. That might seem contradictory but it’s not. History has shown that powerful nations have an easier time developing close alliances. One naturally leads to the other.

It would take a true ally indeed to fight against a nuclear-armed bear. That kind of alliance takes years to develop and requires a high degree of commonality and overlapping interests sufficient to compel nations to come to each other’s aid against such violent foes. NATO constitutes such an alliance. For those nations like Ukraine that do not have powerful friends willing to take up the fight, self-reliance is the key. As such, let’s take a step back and think about what it takes to build real military power.

As America’s military dominance shows, democratic and inclusive political and social systems that adhere to the rule of law and allow for freedom of expression are key to supporting the technological and economic growth required to create powerful militaries. If Ukraine (or any other nation) is to ensure its freedom it must aspire to make itself independently powerful by learning from these basic principles.

The easiest way to explain how democratic political systems lead to military power is by using a mathematical equation (sort of). Democracy equals wealth which equals power. Power equals victory and all these factors added together equals impunity. The reasons America and Russia face such different reactions to their imperial wars of conquest are simple.

One, racism and bigotry are real. And two, America is too powerful and violent to be held to the same standards it holds others to. It had no legitimate reasons to invade Vietnam or Iraq. But few were willing to challenge its barbaric rampages of killing and destruction even though they destroyed millions of lives. No one will ever call America out because it has the power of an 800-pound gorilla. Even with all its nuclear weapons, Russia’s power pales in comparison to America’s.

When it comes to modern warfare, the nation or coalition of nations with the best resources and the ability to work as a team on multiple levels to use those resources effectively will usually win. The top-level being the political, legal, and economic institutions of the state and the bottom being an infantry platoon and the soldiers in it. There is a direct, though complicated, and layered correlation between the effectiveness of the levels at the bottom and those at the top.

America may have lost its wars over the long run but that was due to self-inflicted wounds from the corrupting influences its hyper-militarization (which, believe it or not, can be counter-productive to sustaining military power) has had on its political and economic systems and how this rendered it unable to develop an effective set of military, political, and economic policies that could consolidate its victories.

America may not have been able to devise an effective COIN strategy, but it was able to assert military control over both Iraq and Afghanistan with lightning speed and then maintain that control simultaneously for many years.

Both invasions showed once again how its vast wealth and advanced technological base have allowed it to arm its soldiers with large quantities of advanced weapons. Putting these in the hands of soldiers with the education and social/unit cohesion to use them with such devastating effect allowed it to assert control over much of the Islamic world starting from the first Gulf War until its withdrawal from Afghanistan roughly thirty years later.

Its strength and wealth also shielded it from the wrath of the rest of the world and has allowed it to maintain much of its military presence in the region even after its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan. The foundation for its power and the impunity with which it is used is its democratic and inclusive political and social systems.

I’m not suggesting Ukraine should aspire to similar strength but offering an example of the big picture dynamics required to build a powerful military. It starts with creating inclusive social, cultural, and political systems and institutions that give as many citizens as possible a fair shot at pursuing their dreams. Nations that create political and social systems that allow for that type of freedom tend to prosper and nations that prosper have the resources to build powerful militaries. America has not always been perfect in this regard, but it has been better than most and has been working hard to improve for many decades.

Inclusive social and political systems go hand in hand. For example, before Pakistan built its nuclear weapons it decided to make the job infinitely harder by chasing a brilliant scientist away due to his religious beliefs. But part of the reason it did so was that its political and legal systems reinforced the authoritarian tendencies of its social and cultural systems. America, on the other hand, used to wholeheartedly welcome scientists from all over the world, regardless of their religious beliefs. Its willingness to do so greatly contributed to its power and wealth.

Welcoming minorities with differing beliefs and putting them to work based on their talents and passions is just one part of building powerful nations and militaries. The most important part is building genuinely democratic political institutions that give people a say in who rules them and the laws that govern them, but inclusive political and social systems are mutually dependent.

They work together to allow people to use the political process to negotiate peacefully to manage and share resources, create fair and neutral mechanisms to settle disputes, and make sure no one feels so marginalized that they take up arms to pursue their political goals. Inclusive and well-run governments based on the rule of law lead to stability, social cohesion, economic and technological growth, and these factors lead to military power.

To build a scientific and industrial base that would allow Ukraine to generate the sort of military power that can protect it against more violence it will need to ensure its political and social systems/institutions are designed to support the necessary economic and technological development. It has already proven it has the social cohesion and critical thinking soldiers to defend itself, now it must create the conditions that can give them the resources to do so independently in the future.

Russia’s military blunders in Ukraine support these arguments. It is weak for the same reasons as many of the Arab states, though to a considerably lesser degree. Its autocratic and repressive political system has stifled both economic and technological development in a way that has prevented it from building the sort of military America used to conquer Iraq so quickly. This has made it’s military weak in many ways. Russia will always be a second-tier power while it is governed by dictators.

Tying it Back to the Muslim World and Wrapping It Up

I have been giving the rulers of the Muslim world similar advice for a long time. I am certain Putin will ignore me too but, anyone who has practiced law for any length of time is used to seeing their good advice gets ignored. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to continue my futile attempt to insert common sense into matters of politics and war despite the refusal of so many to listen.

The logic of my arguments is not only intuitively self-evident but supported by the ideas of the smarter people than myself whose opinions are summarized and synthesized here who have discussed these matters in more detailed and scholarly settings. Anyone who has read Ibn Khaldun’s Muqqadeema, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson should agree with my analysis.

A lot of Muslims have been complaining about the double standards this conflict has brought to the forefront. These complaints are justified but will fall on deaf ears in the West. Instead of raging against the unfairness of the world, Muslims must learn some important lessons as well. To summarize, Muslim societies must undergo serious and deep-rooted reforms to their political, economic, social, and cultural systems and institutions if they ever wish to end the cycle of violence that has consumed so many of their nations.

Over the past several CENTURIES Muslim communities have repeatedly been subject to the exact type of violence destroying Ukraine right now. Just as Ukrainians deserve to live free, so do Muslims. It is time to end the cycle by taking substantive measures to make sure this kind of violence can never touch the Muslim world again. The alternative is more death and destruction. If not from America than from one of the other great powers.

Ukraine is not the first country Russia has violently attacked in recent memory. It’s just the first white one. The pattern will continue until Muslims take the necessary measures to protect themselves by listening to the advice offered above. For example, the West clearly has no plans to help Chechnya free itself from Putin. That will only happen once Muslims learn the right lessons from conflicts like the one consuming Ukraine and the many that have consumed the Muslim world. Thankfully those lessons are relatively simple: self-reliance is the key to freedom but having good friends really helps.

This article was originally published here, and re-posted on TMV by the author.