As of the day this article was published, we are about one hundred hours into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Throughout the US military and among our partners and allies around the world, countless teams are forming to study the tactical and operational lessons from this recent act of Russian aggression. Those teams will focus on how Russia fights a conventional war, its new tactics, its operational approaches, and how it integrates its equipment. These lessons will take time to develop. In the meantime, there are seven lessons the US military can learn from the lead-up to the Russian invasion and the first day of the war. Regardless of the eventual outcome these lessons will remain relevant.
Lesson 1: The logic of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction has not changed.
Throughout the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war kept the nuclear powers from engaging directly. Indeed, a clear show of sufficiently armed resolve was generally enough to prevent escalation by the other power. It is hard to conceive of any limited objective worth nuclear war. This led to careful deployments. US forces did not protect Hungary in 1956, nor did Soviet forces press their advantage around Berlin. Both sides generally accompanied their troop movements and forward deployments with significant escalation-control measures.
The US deployment in Eastern Europe over the last several months continues to reflect this logic. As Russia became more bellicose toward Ukraine, the United States was careful to deploy to NATO countries. The countries were not areas likely to see aggression by Russian conventional forces, at least in this round of conflict. This unchanged prevailing logic also means that a great power adversary is unlikely to engage any robust US deployment through large-scale conventional means. At the same time, it does not make wars less likely because of what became known among deterrence scholars during the Cold War as the stability-instability paradox. The logic of this paradox did not go away when the Soviet Union collapsed. At its essence this paradox suggests that because of mutually assured destruction, nuclear-armed great powers will engage in proxy conflicts (such as in Syria) or limited operations against their rivals, while at the same time feeling more comfortable in engaging in conflicts against minor non-nuclear-armed powers because they believe that once war starts a rival great power will not intervene through conventional military means. This tendency is clearly evident in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Lesson 2: US nuclear deterrence extends no further than the most forward US soldier.
This lesson follows from the first. Nuclear deterrence is determined by the perception of commitment. This explains in no small part why large numbers of US forces spent the Cold War forward deployed in Europe. Presence and commitment go hand in hand. At the heart of the matter is the question of which county has to make the decision to risk a potential nuclear confrontation. In this regard the limitations of nuclear deterrence reflect the theory of first-mover advantage. If there are significant numbers of US military personnel in area, then to launch a large conventional attack on that place is to choose to risk the possibility of escalation. Attacking a country that has no significant US presence forces the United States to choose to risk escalation over a conflict of comparatively limited national interest.
Rotational forces provide deterrence when they are present but no deterrence when they are not. Only a permanent presence serves to create the deterrent effect. If the United States has not backed up its commitment on the ground, then that commitment, in effect, does not exist. The recent requests from NATO countries near Ukraine for an enhanced US military presence reflect this principle. The military presence does not have to be sufficiently robust to repel a large-scale offensive by a rival great power but it does have to be sufficient to demonstrate that any invasion will cause escalation and a great power war. The deployment of the 82nd Airborne Division to Poland matches this logic exactly.
At its most fundamental this lesson should teach us to think of US presence as signaling not only our resolve to defend one country, but also our lack of resolve to defend those countries in which we do not commit permanent forces. By deploying to the NATO countries of Eastern Europe and not to Ukraine we signaled Russia that we were not committed to the defense of Ukraine and our deterrent umbrella did not cover the country. This was a critical step in the development of the Russia campaign. As a result, Russia gained the first-mover advantage, which will make any attempt to affect Russian forces’ removal far more difficult. This lesson has direct relevance to any place, such as Taiwan, to which the United States has made a commitment but does not have an enduring presence.
Lesson 3: LSCO may be back—but not for us (at least against another great power).
The types of war fought by different types of powers vary significantly. One lesson from the first few days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that conventional large-scale combat operations (LSCO) against a great power is not an artifact of a bygone era but a part of our contemporary reality—if you are a country like Ukraine. For the United States, perhaps not so much. In the case of Ukraine, the United States had the option of placing its forces forward and did not. Even as the Russians invade and we verbally commit ourselves to the protection of Ukrainian sovereignty, and even as we have forces in the region, the previously noted logic of nuclear escalation precludes a significant conventional force response in support of Ukraine. Not only will we not employ strike aviation, we will not deploy fighter squadrons or air defense units to even the playing field because the logic of nuclear escalation precludes it. While we may wish to return to concentrating on LSCO against a rival great power, the recent events in Ukraine have demonstrated how unlikely a possibility that may be.
For our partners the story is rather different. For a country like Ukraine, LSCO against a great power is the nightmare future against which they must prepare. Even if victorious, the effects of engaging in such a fight on home soil will prove devastating. Ukraine’s only choice is to prevail quickly and effectively. This leads to the fact that the US military and our partners must develop and become proficient at two modes of thinking and fighting. Our partners must develop one mode centered on prevailing in LSCO, while the United States must develop a different mode based on supporting our partners, deterring our adversaries, and prevailing in great power competition. The United States must ground such a method in the realities and limitations made all too clear by our actions in support of Ukraine in order to develop an approach that will provide real assistance to our partner nations.
Lesson 4: We (our allies and partners) must prevail in the defense.
The first day of fighting in Ukraine, like the experience of 2014, demonstrates that for our partners and even our allies who are threatened by a great power, the critical mode of operation is the defense. For them, there is no choice but to prevail in the defense. This fundamental truth should change their force structures and operational approaches; it should also change how the United States provides military aid and training to them. The idea of Ukraine launching a preemptive offensive against the Donbas or Crimea several weeks ago borders on nonsensical in the current strategic environment. Even if they were to have contemplated it, the results of Georgia’s attempted preemptive offensive against South Ossetia and the loss of international support that accompanied it would eliminate this idea from the rational calculus of a non–great power facing a great power threat. This means the opening phase of any war between one of our partners and a great power will see our partner on the defensive.
The character of the defense in this case is also different from typical US military assumptions. Once a great power takes territory, its military forces tend to leave only under their own volition as shown by the results of the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. This means any land that is traded for time may be traded on a semipermanent basis. Additionally, with the speed of modern mechanized warfare, trading land can create a rapid cascade effect. Following a major conventional offensive operation by a great power, the forces of any non–great power will have all but culminated and the possibility of a rapid transition to anything more than a limited and local counteroffensive is highly unlikely.
Moreover, a maneuver-based defense requires significant command-and-control abilities and, as the first few days of the Ukraine conflict have shown, a great power aggressor is likely to target the assets that enable effective command and control As a result, for our partner nations the focus must be preparing for a forward defense of an indefinite duration. Stopping a great power enemy at or near its initial point of attack is the only way to guarantee the territorial integrity of the country. This requires a different approach to defense from that usually thought of by the US military, wherein the basis of defense is maneuver, not fortification, and the purpose of defense is to rapidly transition to the offense. This in turn means when aiding partner nations we should think about helping them prepare the infrastructure necessary for defense, including leveraging urban and subterranean spaces. For US forces that are deployed forward to deter Russian, Chinese, or Iranian aggression this lesson also conveys an important truth. Should our adversaries wish to test our resolve it will be while US forces are forward positioned for the purpose of deterrence or reassuring a partner. Falling back from that position would hurt the US in the information space while preempting such as a test of resolve through offensive reaction would risk unpalatable escalation. This means that US training and education has to focus more on thinking about the requirements of maintaining and successfully holding a static and prepared defense—not just for our partners but for our forces as well.
Lesson 5: It’s time to get comfortable in the gray zone.
So far, these lessons have painted a somewhat bleak picture of the efficacy of the US military in supporting our partners should a rival great power invade them with conventional military forces. There is a lot that the United States can do to support our partners when such an emergency occurs but to do so we need to move out of a paradigm driven by a bifurcated concept between LSCO and normal operations. Instead, the US military needs to fully embrace the fact that great power competition is often a long fight and when that competition is against another nuclear state it rarely, if ever, devolves into anything but the most limited of direct conventional engagements. As a result the US military and policymakers need to get comfortable operating in the gray zone. While we should not expect to engage our rivals through large-scale conventional means, there is much that can be done in the cyber domain and the electronic spectrum that can have a direct effect on the ability of our adversaries to conduct operations. The current war in Ukraine has exposed the easy identifiability—and some of the weaknesses—of the Russian signals architecture. Additionally, many of the Russian long-range missile strikes have been enabled by satellite navigation and other similar capabilities. These are all vulnerabilities that the United States is well positioned to exploit without risking conventional force engagement.
Our adversaries have already done similar things to our partners and allies, and it is time for us to learn to return the favor. The same is true within the realm of cyber and space operations. These are the domains in which the United States can provide direct military support to our partners such as Ukraine once hostilities commence. As has been seen through multiple historical examples such as the Russian and Chinese cyber interference with American forces and the tit-for-tat cyber actions of Israel and Iran, in these domains we can provide meaningful and possibly decisive effects without the risks nuclear escalation that accompany intervention by conventional forces. The key problems currently are those of mindset, permissions, and authorities—not capabilities. The US military must learn that while there is much we can do before hostilities begin, once the conventional fight commences, we can best support our partners in the gray zone. By becoming comfortable operating below the threshold of LSCO but above simple deterrence the US military can learn to better support our partners and frustrate the designs of our adversaries.
Lesson 6: The revolution (and any other war) will be televised.
From Google Maps tracking the movement of Russian forces on its traffic function and traffic cameras on highways to the multiplicity of cell phone images, TikTok videos, and a myriad of other means of video, signal, and photo recording and transmission it is clear that troop movements and engagements will be available to the media. One clear lesson of this conflict is the web of connectivity that used to be limited principally to urban areas has now metastasized. Movements in towns and even rural areas are equally likely to be caught on camera and appear on the news. Operating in the information space is therefore part and parcel of the responsibility of all units regardless of their level of authorities. It also means that tactical forces need to be trained on interacting with this environment and how to conduct their operations in manners that support the information operations effort. It also places a renewed emphasis on military deception. If troop movements cannot be hidden, they can be buried. If the US military cannot silence the signal created by its movements, it can increase the noise to mask them. The case of the amphibious landing in Odessa that did not happen is a great example of this. While the United States cannot hide its major movements, it can disguise them by increasing the noise and therefore obscuring its main efforts or key intents.
Lesson 7: Great power competition is a global fight.
If the US military’s goal is to prevail over our great power adversaries in strategic competition, then it must acknowledge that this is a global fight. There is a temptation to focus on the borders of an adversary and assume that the decisive points of competition lie there. While there is some truth to this assumption, the global competition space is no less critical. Knowing that Russia held an advantage in missile systems as well as in both rotary- and fixed-wing combat aviation, Ukraine requested that Israel and the United States sell it the Iron Dome system. The system would have provided a significant challenge to Russia’s initial phase of operations, which relied on long-range missile strikes coupled with air assault landings. Israel declined because of the strength of Russia’s position in Syria. Additionally, Israel believes it needs at least Russian neutrality as Israel tries to degrade Iranian capabilities. The more the US military can work with partners to bolster their sense of strategic security the more we can employ partner resources to support other allies and partners such as Ukraine. At the same time working with partners and through the gray zone to degrade an adversary’s global position degrades the adversary’s ability to engage in offensive operations.
Finally, as sanctions remain one of the key tools the United States employs to compel our rivals without engaging in LSCO, the ability to enforce those sanctions and even limited blockades is critical. Doing so requires the ability to leverage a sufficient degree of control of the global commons and to deny the enemy global positions from which it can project power, operate with impunity, or exert influence to bypass sanctions. In the Cold War the realistic way to liberate Eastern Europe from Soviet domination lay in supporting Israel in 1973, Afghanistan in the 1980s, and in a myriad of fights the world over—not in sending troops to Budapest in 1956. Similarly, key paths to helping Ukraine, or any other threatened country, lie in Syria and elsewhere. Embracing this lesson will require a change in mindset for the US military and means that US Central, Southern, and Africa Commands are nearly as important in confronting Russia and China as US Europe and Indo-Pacific Commands. In his study of great power LSCO, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Day noted that this aspect does not change even if conventional hostilities commence between great powers. He described it well by differentiating between the “global close fight”—in this case in Ukraine—and the fight for access to “the global maneuver space.” Ultimately, great power competition is a marathon and not a sprint, and as such the side that has the ability to employ global resources and deny them to competitors has an enduring position of advantage.
As the war continues, there will be plenty to learn from the tactical and operational events that occur but in and among them the strategic lessons from the outbreak of the war may very well get lost. Paradoxically the strategic lessons such as the seven presented here are arguably some of the most critical for the United States military to learn. While some of the lessons simply reify old, half-forgotten concepts from ages past, others are about adjusting to the new strategic environment. Whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, US partners will continue to face aggression from our great power rivals. If we learn the right lessons now we can act to prevent invasions and better help our partners prevail should they occur. If we do not, Ukraine and others will have to continue to fight for their lives with the deck stacked against them.
Dr. Jacob Stoil is a military historian and adjunct scholar of the Modern War Institute at West Point, as well as associate professor of military history at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He has published on a wide range of topics including Israeli military history, urban and subterranean warfare, and the Second World War. He is also an assistant director of the Second World War Research Group, North America. Dr. Stoil holds a DPhil from Oxford and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He can be reached on twitter at @JacobStoil.
The views, facts, opinions, and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the US government, Department of Defense, US Army, US Army Command and General Staff College, School of Advanced Military Studies, or any other government agency. (References to this presentation should include the foregoing statement.)
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru