Some early lessons from the war in Ukraine

"We will not give up, and we will not lose. We will fight till the end — at sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets."

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On February 24th when Russian forces crossed into Ukraine, the world was shocked and it felt for some that we’d entered a darker period in history soon after seeming to turn the page on the still ongoing pandemic. This was certainly how Western media reacted to the invasion, as if an illegal war of aggression by a major power under dubious pretenses was something shockingly new.

Many commentators clearly believe that the invasion is worse than those that preceded it in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen to name just a few of the battlefields in this already blood soaked century. While there is certainly more footage of the violence due to social media and accusations of massacres in places like Bucha outside of Kyiv, we haven’t seen the aerial bombardments and destruction of basic infrastructure like electrical grids we saw in the Greater Middle East.

Perhaps these commentators are more scandalized because the intervention is taking place in Europe. With the exception of the Balkans it seems, Europeans and the settler societies they colonized like the United States and Canada are able to invade other nations, especially in the global south, without any consequences beyond the harms done to their own soldiers, a jealously guarded privilege only extended to close allies like Saudi Arabia who buy their weapons and rely on their expertise to use them.

There were some murmurs of war crimes being committed in Syria as Russia changed the course of the war for its dictatorial ally Bashar Al Assad, but it seemed hypocritical to complain about the brutality inflicted in Aleppo when Mosul, Fallujah and other ancient cities were reduced to rubble by American and allied bombs in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

In terms of the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, many commentators and, judging by Twitter, regular people, have been impressed by the bravery shown by that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and actor who looks at times as if he was born for the role of wartime president. Some like comedian Bill Maher, obsessed with ‘wokeness’ to the exclusion of all other things, seem to think that Zelensky’s performance, hardly ‘macho’ in the traditional sense, is proof that socially constructed hyper-masculinity isn’t all bad.

The performance of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been better at proving that the opposite is the case but Maher has never been known to look for, let alone understand, subtle shades of meaning when seated upon his high horse berating those without his massive platform.

Those in media acting as if a leader remaining in place during a war is unusual obviously have no interest in history and should probably look for other work. While the Taliban leadership regrouped in neighboring Pakistan during the war with NATO, other leaders like Saddam Hussein, Bashar Al-Assad and Muammar Qaddaffi remained in their countries in hopes of rallying their citizens despite the risks and were not seen as especially brave for doing so. The main difference here seems to be that Zelensky was offered a way out by Western powers.

Further, while most of us are used to seeing the leaders of countries facing the wrath of the United States and its allies portrayed as comparable to ‘Hitler’ (and Putin got in on this by saying his war of aggression was part of a project to ‘de-nazify’ his neighbor) and those opposed to their wars as modern ‘Neville Chamberlains’, with Zelensky we are seeing something relatively new, if of similar vintage. The Ukrainian leader is described as ‘Chirchillian’ in his defiance of his country’s larger, more powerful neighbor.

Zelensky, who is obviously very savvy in terms of both mass and social media, has done his best to invite these comparisons, saying in a speech streamed to the UK Parliament clearly echoing one made by Churchill in June, 1940, “We will not give up, and we will not lose. We will fight till the end — at sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.” 

In truth, what Zelensky and his fellow citizens face, with enemy troops deployed within their borders, is arguably worse than the aerial bombardment of the UK during the Second World War and while Churchill may have made some impressive speeches for the time, that his name rings out through history as especially heroic ignores his relative safety during both world wars and his many crimes against the Irish and Bangledeshi people to name just two.

Perhaps more than their enemies, it’s the Russian leadership, especially its military, who are being taught bitter lessons about the reality of modern war against an opponent with at least some equipment that isn’t hopelessly outdated and the supply lines to ensure much more is on the way.

Columns of Russian armor looked impressive when pictured from above but proved less than useless against cheaper defenses including Turkish drones and disposable anti-tank weapons like British NLAWs (Light anti-tank weapons) that have proven as decisive as shoulder fired Stinger missiles did against Soviet helicopters and cargo planes in Afghanistan a couple of generations before.

As explained in a recent piece on Salon.com, “Russian tanks have met their match because of two Western-made rockets, the U.S. Javelin and the British Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW). Both are lightweight, easily portable, deadly accurate, relatively inexpensive and designed to get around every attempt of modern armor design to defeat them.” 

What’s clearest from this is that the way that wars were fought in the last century, with large engagements on clearly delineated battlefields is no longer possible even between countries with large standing armies, something that was already becoming clear after the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, if less so in the wars against lightly armed insurgents that had already become the norm in the 21st century.

There is also a clear lack of discipline on the part of many of the invading Russians, at least a third of whom are conscripts and may not have been told they were headed into battle before they crossed the Ukrainian border, with multiple reports of widespread alcohol abuse and plenty of evidence in the form of empty bottles in areas they’ve retreated from.

Alongside these stories have been credible accusations of war crimes, with even the U.S. president making the claim that his Russian counterpart is a war criminal. This is not only true, but has been since the the turn of the century in Chechnya. This reality creates a political problem of its own: what incentive does the leadership of the Russian Federation have to negotiate a peaceful resolution to this terrible war if they stand accused of such crimes?

Having said this, an interesting essay in two parts by Scott Ritter, who was the United Nations’ lead weapons inspector in Iraq in the lead up to the 2003 war there, makes it clear how difficult it would be to prosecute these crimes. While Russian forces are clearly bombing civilian areas, Ukrainian forces also have an obligation under international law to remove all military equipment from these areas to protect their own citizens. 

Along similar lines, William Schabas who teaches international law at Middlesex University in the UK told the Washington Post, “I am very reluctant to suggest that Ukraine is responsible for civilian casualties, because Ukraine is fighting to defend its country from an aggressor. But to the extent that Ukraine brings the battlefield to the civilian neighborhoods, it increases the danger to civilians.” 

My greatest fear about this war is that it will be extended because it suits the political interests of hawkish politicians in the West and Russia alike, while enriching the defense contractors that are so generous in their donations to them and the think tanks that issue calls for war at all times and all places in the name of ‘security’.

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