Reflections On The First Year Of War In Ukraine
It’s been a year since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Texas A&M Today spoke to Associate Professor of International Affairs John Schuessler on the war’s impacts. Schuessler is a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service and co-director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy.
What are your observations on the war now that it’s been a year since it began?
“First is that for many people, even the notion that a war like this could be fought in Europe again was rather unthinkable. Certainly after the end of the Cold War, there was this expectation that we had found a better way of conducting international relations revolving around trade and cooperation. I think too many people considered power politics (politics based on the threat of force) a thing of the past. This is a reminder that power politics is hard to extinguish.
Another observation is how important miscalculation is in events like this. This war never would’ve happened if the Russian regime had appreciated the full scope of the invasion. The initial expectation was that Kyiv would fall quickly, that the Zelenskyy government would be replaced by a more pliant one, and that Ukraine would be firmly in the Russian orbit going forward. Instead it was a botched invasion and the Ukrainians held firm; now they’re in a grinding war of attrition. It resembles World War I in terms of trench warfare on a long front with artillery, each side pounding the other. This is not something we expect in this day and age.
And the third point is that wars are easier to start than to end. The Russians’ initial plan was foiled, but rarely do countries that start wars say, ‘Oops, my plan didn’t work, I’m going to stop fighting.’ No, the stakes are too high, so if they’re able they double down and keep pouring resources in, which Russia is certainly doing now. There’s no sign of any give. The Ukrainians are not interested in negotiating; if anything, their aims have escalated. They want to retake territory that Russian-backed separatists (and Russia itself) have held for several years. There’s really no end in sight.”
What is the current state of the Russian military?
“The losses have been staggering; the estimates are around 100,000 or more casualties. To put it in context, the United States suffered 58,000 deaths throughout the duration of the Vietnam War. These were the Russians’ best units, the heart of the Russian army. They sent their professional forces forward and were decimated. Now the soldiers who are replacing them are less experienced and less capable. Clearly the Russian military was less formidable than many people thought before the war, including a number of American officials who were concerned that if the Russians were to launch a surprise attack on one of the Baltic states of Estonia or Latvia – slice off a piece of territory – that there wasn’t a lot NATO could do. But now you have to wonder if the Russian army is facing this amount of trouble right next door in Ukraine, how potent of an offensive weapon were they to begin with?”
How did Vladimir Putin so overestimate his military capabilities?
“These are the kinds of problems dictatorships have. First of all, dictators don’t welcome bad news, so they tend to be poorly informed. Their militaries can develop problems that are hard to see from the outside. Oftentimes capable generals are dismissed and lackeys are put in their place, training is short-changed and corruption sets in. It’s hard to see these things until the fighting begins. Dictators fiddle around with their militaries because they don’t want them to have too much independent power, which might lead to a coup.
I will say this is a bit of conceit on our part because a lot of militaries suffer from versions of these problems. American presidents are often poorly informed before they start wars. The American military has its own share of problems in terms of competence, but I think they’re much more exaggerated here in the Russian case, and it probably does have something to do with the nature of the Russian regime.”
Although it’s impossible to know for sure what’s going to happen, based on the history of Russian conflicts and the current state of the war, what might we expect to see in coming months?
“Yes, it is very difficult to make concrete predictions. But the fact that the Ukrainians held off the Russians in the first year and, if anything, made gains with these counteroffensives in the fall, retaking some territory, is quite remarkable. That said, now the Russians have mobilized more forces, partly to disrupt the ability of the Ukrainians to launch any more offensives. You have to expect that this will turn into a frozen conflict. I read a good piece comparing what we’re seeing to the Korean War, which was never ultimately resolved in terms of a peace agreement. What happened is the North gave up its attempt to conquer the South, a ceasefire was called and then the South develops successfully behind the shield of that peace. But the war remains unresolved to this day.
So whatever happens with Ukraine — is it going to be satisfying for everyone? Most likely, no. But the alternatives might either be infeasible or too costly. For example, if the Ukrainians try to retake Crimea, the Russians could escalate in horrible ways, like nuclear weapons. But that’s international politics — these are the hard realities on the ground. So bottom line: the Ukrainians have done much better than we expected, but I am not convinced ‘victory’ is in the cards.”