Ukraine – One year later

The initial launch of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Kremlin on February 24 was intended to be a short-lived affair, with the swift capture of Kyiv as the end goal. However, one year later, those plans failed, as Ukrainian forces successfully repelled Russian troops through a combination of determination and support from Western nations.

The conflict has had far-reaching impacts, reshaping our understanding of various fields, including military operations and strategy, diplomacy, intelligence, national security, energy security, economic statecraft, and much more. As the conflict marks its first anniversary, it is imperative to reflect on the key lessons learned from this ongoing war.

First and foremost – the Putin regime cannot be trusted

The past six months of Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine, along with the country’s repeated invasions of neighbouring states and its recent hybrid warfare against the West, have demonstrated that agreements with the Putin regime are unreliable and can be detrimental. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine despite having committed to upholding the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity under the Budapest Memorandum. More recently, despite years of negotiations in the Normandy format and the Minsk agreements, the Kremlin has seized a fifth of Ukraine’s territory. These actions make it clear that any agreements made with the Russian government should be approached with caution.

The Russian government has consistently demonstrated its disregard for international law, liberal institutions, and various international agreements, both with its partners and rivals. Through its involvement in crimes against humanity in Ukraine, its violation of the principle of freedom of navigation, its weaponisation of food, and its use of energy blackmail, the Putin regime poses significant threats to the future of the Ukrainian nation and the global rules-based order.

The approach of appeasement, dialogue, and compromise with an aggressor has proven to be ineffective in the past. To achieve peace in the region, it is necessary for the West to adopt a stance of strength and assertiveness, as this is the only language that the Putin regime responds to.

Victory in conflict hinges on people, not solely equipment

In 2021, Russia allocated approximately $65 billion towards defence spending, surpassing Ukraine’s allocation by a factor of ten. Despite the significant investment in equipment, the outcome of the conflict has not met Russia’s expectations. The contrast in military performance highlights the impact of leadership and training on battlefield success.

With a shared military heritage dating back to Imperial Russia, the divergent results of the conflict offer valuable insights. Ukraine has been a participant in the US National Guard’s State Partnership Program since 1993, undergoing training based on the US model. This approach emphasises empowering junior officers and non-commissioned officers with mission-type orders, clear explanations of the commander’s intent, and the ability to make real-time decisions based on situational developments. Through realistic exercises, Ukraine has cultivated a culture that fosters individual initiative and encourages rigorous evaluation. These practices have contributed to high morale and effective performance in combat.

In comparison, the Russian armed forces heavily rely on conscripts and lack a professional non-commissioned officer corps, which deters initiative and discouragement of feedback. Decision-making remains highly centralised, with independence limited to senior officers. The approach to warfare employed by Russia is characterised by an absence of adaptability and low morale in the face of adverse conditions on the battlefield.

Ukraine is a key lesson in the pitfalls of linear thinking

The initial assumption regarding a Russian attack on Ukraine was that it would result in a military victory for Moscow. However, following the defeat of Russia in the Battle of Kyiv, it took some time for experts to recognise that the initial failures were not just temporary and that Russia was actually losing the war.

Another persistent prediction was that the conflict would result in a stalemate, similar to the First World War, with both Ukrainian and Russian forces entrenched in their positions, unable to make significant progress. This prediction has been proven incorrect by several Ukrainian counteroffensives. It is unwise to assume that the success of these counteroffensives will persist in the future, and it’s possible that the war may bring about unexpected developments rather than continuing patterns.

The war has proven that cyberspace is a legitimate conflict domain

The recent events in Ukraine, including Russia’s invasion, have resulted in a newfound role for the private sector in cyber conflict, as private firms are actively participating in direct cyber operations. Of course, Ukraine has a competent team of cybersecurity defenders who have successfully prevented attacks, but the efforts of these defenders have been augmented by private sector companies that have collaborated with the Ukrainian government to improve the country’s overall cybersecurity posture.

Leading technology companies, such as Microsoft and Cisco, have published reports on their defensive efforts and European cybersecurity firms, such as ESET, have also been involved.

It is imperative that the United States, NATO, and democratic nations in the Indo-Pacific region establish effective collaboration with relevant elements of the private sector to ensure seamless operation of cyberspace in the event of armed conflict. The National Cyber Security Centre in the United Kingdom and the US Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative are commendable initiatives; however, they currently lack the capability to address the challenges posed by large-scale combat scenarios. This is an important lesson; it has taught the world that it is essential to implement appropriate planning and operational mechanisms that cater to this challenge.

Learning the lessons learned

The invasion of Ukraine has provided a unique opportunity to evaluate the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces and the impact of various military technologies and strategies on modern warfare. The purpose of this report is to shed light on the key lessons learned from the conflict, but it should be noted that this is an ongoing conflict, and we’ll be learning just what lessons can be learned for years to come. This time next year, there will undoubtedly be a greater understanding of what can be known from the conflict.