Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Six lessons learned after six months of war


Russian President Vladimir Putin’s momentous decision to invade Ukraine has taken turns that few predicted, from Moscow’s stunning military missteps in the early days of the conflict to the rapid expansion of NATO and the massive disruptions to global food and fuel supplies.

As Wednesday marks the grim six-month anniversary of a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the fighting is far from over and the war may be about to enter an entirely new phase. But foreign policy observers and military analysts say there are already a host of key takeaways from a war that has shattered assumptions and provided a real-world example of what 21st-century ground combat looks like.

Here are six key lessons learned in the six months since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of its neighbor Ukraine.

1. NATO is more unified and nimble than Putin expected

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military leaders seem to have made numerous high-stakes assumptions in their Ukraine battle plan. Arguably the most significant was the expectation that the U.S. and its NATO allies would fracture and find themselves unable to agree on how to punish Russia and support Ukraine. The combination of European dependence on Russian energy and the West’s fear of sparking a nuclear world war, Mr. Putin seems to have believed, would paralyze NATO.

Instead, the U.S., joined by its allies, has steadily ramped up its military aid to Ukraine, including regular shipments of crucial anti-tank weapons. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the Biden administration will soon announce another $3 billion for the long-term training of Ukrainian troops — a move that suggests Washington is prepared to staunchly support Ukraine even if the fighting in Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region drags on indefinitely. Germany announced a major defense spending boost and even EU states with stronger ties to Moscow have not broken ranks in significant ways.

Over the past six months, the U.S. and Europe also have remained mostly in lock-step in unleashing unprecedented economic sanctions against Moscow. Europe also has rolled out an ambitious plan to wean itself off of Russian oil and gas.

Perhaps most surprising to Mr. Putin, NATO has not only not fractured but is poised to welcome two new, long-nonaligned nations, Sweden and Finland, into its ranks, more than doubling the alliance’s land border with Russia.

Over time, Western unity could give Ukraine an edge at the negotiating table with Russia, specialists say.

“The Ukrainian armed forces continue to add additional capability, economic sanctions against Russia have had increasing impact, and support for Ukraine by the NATO alliance and other nations has remained remarkably steady. These and other factors could provide a more favorable basis for bringing the war to an end on terms acceptable to Kyiv before winter sets in,” said retired Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, a career Navy intelligence officer and now a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. 

2. The Russian military was overrated, but the ultimate winner in Ukraine is still undecided

As the war began, the Kremlin appeared confident that its war machine, widely considered one of the world’s most effective, would easily crush the Ukrainian military. 

But that expectation never materialized. A host of major logistical mistakes and poor battlefield decisions doomed Russia’s planned lightning blitz on Kyiv and other major cities, forcing Russian commanders to pull back and instead pursue much more limited territorial goals in the eastern Donbas region. For relatively trivial territorial gains, the Russian military has suffered staggering losses over the past six months, with some estimates putting Russian casualties at 80,000 or more.

One of the most enduring takeaways of the war, analysts believe, is a global reassessment of Russia’s military might and whether its army is a true power player that deserves to be mentioned alongside the U.S. and China.

“We made the Russians out to be 10 feet tall. We overestimated the Russians and we underestimated the Ukrainians,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. 

“We assumed … that they would roll right into Kyiv,” he told The Washington Times. “And they thought so too. But they made some big assumptions that were wrong.”

Still, Russia has made incremental gains in the Donbas, capturing key cities such as Mariupol. While Mr. Putin’s hope of toppling the government in Kyiv remains on hold, Russia is still intent on chopping off a huge chunk of Ukraine and putting it under firm Russian control — a goal that seems within reach. 

3. Drones, and the ability to counter them, are central to 21st-century warfare

One of the biggest factors dooming Russia’s attack on Kyiv was Ukraine’s effective use of small armed drones. The unmanned craft wreaked havoc on Russian armored columns that seemed woefully unprepared to deal with the newfound threat. 

The wild success of Ukraine’s drone fleet offered more evidence that swarms of the small, cheap, easy-to-operate aircraft are one of the biggest battlefield difference-makers in the 21st century, evening the odds for a smaller defender to ward off a bigger, better-armed force.

But after its initial missteps, the Russian military quickly recalibrated. Military analysts say Russian forces are now employing a complex array of anti-drone programs, including electronic warfare (EW) systems that have negated Ukraine’s early drone advantage. The success of those EW systems proves that while drones will be a crucial weapon of war for years to come, so too will the ability to counter them.

Moving forward, Ukrainian success could hinge on finding ways to blunt Russia’s EW systems, which can disable both armed and reconnaissance drones.

“Russian EW employment … is disrupting, limiting the accuracy of positioning, and slowing down vital kill chains and imposing significant limitations on Ukrainian reconnaissance in depth. Because long-range strike depends on precision systems, which are only available in limited numbers, Russian EW is a critical barrier to Ukrainian forces effectively employing the highly capable Western systems that could enable them to win the firefight and undermine Russia’s most important advantage,” Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, analysts with London’s Royal United Service Institute, wrote in a recent analysis. 

4. The Kremlin’s vaunted disinformation machine failed in Ukraine, but has succeeded elsewhere

Moscow’s ability to use disinformation and social media propaganda for political purposes rose to prominence during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and elections across Western Europe. It’s been on display in the years since as the Kremlin looked to disrupt domestic politics in the Baltic nations and elsewhere.

Mr. Putin seems to have expected that his disinformation machine could help mobilize pro-Russian sentiment inside Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas, and could undermine Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government. The Russian president even tried to push the narrative, popular in Russian ultranationalist circles, that his invasion was aimed at rooting out “Nazis” who controlled the Kyiv government and military.

While Russia has effectively controlled the wartime narrative at home, Moscow appears to have decisively lost the battle for global public opinion. Russian messaging, for example, seems to have made relatively little impact on the morale of the Ukrainian military.

But analysts say the Russian campaigns are making a mark elsewhere in the world. Pro-Russian and anti-Ukraine messages have been especially effective in Africa, specialists say. Among other things, Russian social media campaigns have blamed Western sanctions on Russia for the global economic turmoil seen over the past six months.

“Although the direct impact of such campaigns can be hard to ascertain, they do lend extra weight to narratives explaining why almost half of African nations abstained from the United Nations resolution condemning Russia,” reads a recent analysis by London’s Chatham House think tank, referencing a U.N. vote earlier this year that saw 17 African countries abstain rather than vote to condemn Russia’s invasion.

5. The Kremlin — and the world — badly underestimated Volodymyr Zelenskyy

The biggest factor behind Russia’s disinformation campaign failures in Ukraine, analysts say, is Ukraine’s leader, Mr. Zelenskyy. A comedian-turned-politician previously best known in Washington for being on the other end of the line during an impeachment-sparking phone call with President Donald Trump, Mr. Zelenskyy faced tough questions about whether he was truly up for the role of wartime leader ready to match the wily, ruthless Mr. Putin.

Many saw the Ukrainian state machinery as weak, its military sub-standard, and the loyalty of Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking minority to the state suspect. It was not clear Mr. Zelenskyy had wrested control of the government of Kyiv from the powerful oligarchs and factions that had dominated the government and the economy,

He quickly proved his skeptics wrong. Even as Russian troops moved toward Kyiv, Mr. Zelenskyy refused to flee the capital. Employing his impressive media skills, he delivered daily video addresses to the Ukrainian people, publicly cajoled the West into sending more arms and financial aid, and even addressed U.S. lawmakers in a dramatic speech that helped transform him into the global face of his country’s fight. 

As a near-constant presence on camera, Mr. Zelenskyy became a force in his own right on social media. Across Europe, that helped blunt any Russian disinformation efforts to cast him as corrupt, weak, or ineffective.

“Three weeks later, after the war had begun, he’s being compared to Winston Churchill,” said Mr. Townsend. “With Zelenskyy, I think we’re seeing an example of a case where a personality saying the right things at the right moment can triumph over and trump social media.”

6. Global economies, and fuel and food supplies, are deeply vulnerable to wartime disruptions

The war’s fallout has stretched far beyond Ukraine. From America to Europe and beyond, the conflict sparked immediate spikes in the cost of fuel and helped push inflation to near-record levels. With Russia and Ukraine among the world’s biggest agricultural exporters, the Black Sea blockade set up by Moscow held up exports of crucial commodities such as wheat and grain, leading to higher food costs in virtually all corners of the world.

The economic cost will be measured for years to come. Global economic growth in 2022 is expected to be just 3%, down from previous projections of about 4.5% before the war, according to recent estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Global economic growth is expected to shrink further to about 2.8% in 2023, the organization said.

Meanwhile, humanitarian groups say the war has already sparked sharp increases in food insecurity from Latin America to Africa.

More than 47 million people worldwide now face food insecurity as a direct “ripple effect” of the war in Ukraine, according to recent figures from the United Nations World Food Programme. Those 47 million people are in addition to the hundreds of millions already facing food insecurity before the war in Ukraine began.

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