Opinion: 6 lessons the West learned in the 6 months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Editor’s note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of « Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century. » The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.
Six months after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine, it is still unclear how this war will end. Ukraine, which has signaled its intention to launch a new counter-offensive, could retake the Russian-occupied city of Kherson and other parts of the south. But it’s also possible that a reinvigorated Russian force will burst into Odessa, closing Ukraine off from the sea. Or the front line could stabilize pretty much where it is.
Whatever happens, we can already learn some lessons from the war so far. Its many surprises should force us to question our old assumptions.
A powerful insight into the last half of the year concerns the importance of individual leaders. The “great man” theory of history is out of fashion these days given the tendency to see human events as the result of deep underlying forces. These obviously matter. But if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled – as Putin apparently expected or failed to communicate effectively – Ukrainian resistance might well have been much weaker. Few expected that Zelensky, whose ratings had plummeted before the Russian invasion, would prove such an inspirational hero.
Likewise, if the Russian president had been, say, Boris Yeltsin, thousands of war victims would almost certainly still be alive. Without Putin, there would be no war. Of course, there are a lot of angry nationalists in Russia. But outside the president’s inner circle, only a small minority wanted to absorb Ukraine, according to the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling research organization. Judging by the shocked faces at the February Kremlin Security Council meeting before Putin’s attack, even many of his close aides were baffled by their boss’s decision.
Ukraine’s prowess on the battlefield also illustrates a second lesson: the underrated power of the underdog. Time and time again, we assume that the militarily strongest party will quickly prevail. But this view overlooks the importance of external support and morale.
When the invasion began, almost everyone thought Kyiv would fall within days. And yet, as we have seen in Israel’s wars in Vietnam and now in Ukraine, the underdogs have often fared much better than expected.
Curiously, Russia also enjoys a version of the underdog advantage. Since February, the West has unleashed an unprecedented barrage of sanctions that some say would crush the Russian economy. Its medium-term outlook looks bleak. But for now, the ruble has stabilised, the banking system has survived, unemployment remains low and oil revenues are above last year. It helps that other countries that also resent Western domination — from China and India to Turkey and Indonesia — have refused to isolate Putin.
Putin’s actions also remind us of another key point: Unconstrained autocrats make horrible mistakes. Very often, they start revisionist wars to repair “historical injustices”. These tend to go wrong – from Argentine President Leopoldo Galtieri’s attempt to seize the Falkland Islands from the UK in 1982 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the coup attempt Greek generals in Cyprus in 1974. But past failures have not stopped strongmen from repeating such blunders. If there is anything we can learn from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is that we cannot plan only to defend ourselves against attacks that seem rational.
In Russia, a notable surprise is the apparent success of Kremlin propaganda, even in peddling conspiracy theories about Nazis in Kyiv. From the outside, these seemed too extreme to work, especially given the many personal ties that united people on both sides of the border. Of course, it is difficult to gauge public opinion in a police state at war. But the reports that Russians believe television is lying rather than their own relatives in Ukraine are striking.
The Kremlin’s disinformation success reflects years of repetition, leading viewers to believe terrible things about their neighbors. That and the natural desire to avoid admitting that they may be ruled by war criminals.
In fact, polls suggest a growing urge to end the war altogether. In July, 32% of Russian respondents said the « special military operation » was the most memorable event of the previous four weeks, up from 75% in March, according to the Levada Center.
Support for war is certainly not universal. Despite increased repression, a remarkable 18% of respondents still say they oppose their country’s military actions. A big question for the next six months is whether discontent will become a threat to the Kremlin. The danger is less likely to come from anti-war sentiment per se than from potential protests over economic hardship if sanctions bite.
A final lesson is one that the West can no longer avoid. Putin’s Ukrainian aggression has removed any last doubt that we are in a new cold war. It will take skill to keep this one from heating up. This time, the West’s adversary is not just Russia, but an increasingly close partnership between the Kremlin and China. The idea that the United States could “pivot” from one to the other now seems antiquated.
As long as Putin remains in power, he will work to weaken the West. While cooperation with China remains possible in certain areas, Xi Jinping also seems determined to challenge the power of the United States.
A painful toll awaits the West over the next six months. We saw in February that democracies, although slow to react, can wake up as soon as a threat becomes evident. Western unity behind Ukraine in the spring was impressive. The challenge now will be to maintain this cohesion through a winter of dwindling gas supplies as Putin’s Western friends — from German companies, keen to relaunch the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, to countless French and Italian politicians — attempt to divide us.
The impending energy crisis is only the beginning. The West has yet to come to terms with the cost of its defense against China, Russia and a host of other emerging threats. Since the late 1980s, Western leaders – like populist politicians on the go – have pretended that they could simultaneously expand NATO and cut military spending as part of the budget. Hungry for a big “peace dividend,” they left the alliance’s new borders – and the borderlands beyond – lightly defended at best. This needs to change, and it won’t come cheap.
Putin’s last six months could hardly have been a bigger failure. But according to well-informed analysts, as reported by Bloomberg News, he firmly believes that time is on his side – that the West will fracture in the face of economic pressures. The next six months will show if he is right.