Image credit: Justin Yau / Sipa USA
February 16, 2023
CNAS Responds: One Year of War in Ukraine
Next Friday, February 24, will mark one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ahead of this solemn anniversary, CNAS experts analyze the many ways in which the war in Ukraine has impacted global security.
All quotes may be used with attribution. To arrange an interview, email Cameron Edinburgh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Fontaine, Chief Executive Officer:
In invading Ukraine, Russia provoked the greatest geopolitical earthquake since the Cold War. A year later dozens of countries are rearming, new alliances are forming, and America has assumed the leading role in helping Ukraine and punishing Russia. Last February, few thought we’d be here today.
Appeals to the virtues of international order are often vague, and rarely do abstract calls stir even those most active in its defense. Moscow’s war of conquest, however, violated that order’s cardinal rule. As a result, and perhaps to their own surprise, key democracies came roaring back. A year after the invasion began, Kyiv stands and Moscow falters.
The two sides are not simply fighting each other. Theirs is a struggle over the shape of tomorrow’s world.
That’s why this war’s stakes remain so great. The United States must continue to support Ukraine’s efforts to resist aggression, even at significant cost, for as long as it takes. That requires military and economic assistance. It means accepting a degree of escalatory risk to help Ukraine reconquer territory. It requires understanding that the war in Europe is not a distraction from the contests in Asia, but instead is intimately connected to them.
The geopolitical outlines of tomorrow’s world remain up for grabs, even a year into the fight. As political leaders deliberate over the scope and scale of America’s effort, and as the months grind on, all should remember: it’s our world too.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program:
The first year of Russia’s war on Ukraine has in many ways defied expectations. Russia’s military revealed itself to be far less competent than most assessed, and Moscow has fallen far short of its objectives. Russia is dramatically worse off today than it was a year ago because of Putin’s maleficence. Ukraine and the West, in contrast, have outperformed. Ukrainians are resilient and resolved and the West’s response has been stronger and more united than imagined. And yet, we still find ourselves in an uncertain time. One year into the war, it is difficult to gauge how it will progress. The critical—and unknowable—question is whether Russia or Ukraine has the capacity to go on the offensive. There are good reasons to be skeptical that Russia’s degraded and dysfunctional military can mount a major offensive. But as we arrive at the one-year mark of this brutal war, we would do well to reflect that it has only been a year. Wars like these can last a long time and much can still change.
The one thing that is clear is that neither side has any interest in negotiations. There is no compromise to be had. Ukraine wants to restore its sovereignty and its borders. Putin seeks to subjugate it and take its land. Putin’s objectives have not changed, and he remains confident that he can achieve them. Moreover, he has no incentive to stop fighting. So long as Putin continues to execute the war, he is unlikely to face serious threats to his rule. Any outcome that smacks of defeat, however, would raise the risk of his ouster. And so, Putin will sustain the conflict to avoid any such reckoning. Kyiv and its backers now face the prospect of a protracted conflict and all the risks that come with it. The longer the war continues, the greater the chance that Western support will wane. That is Putin’s bet. And that is why Ukraine must defeat Russia on the battlefield. The United States and the West must do more to make it happen.
Jim Townsend, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program:
The West needs to look back beyond 2022 to examine why deterrence failed to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine not once but twice. Why did Putin not fear the West’s reaction in 2022 and why were his assumptions so wrong about how the West and Ukraine would respond?
The response by the West to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 was weak and eventually overtaken by the Obama administration’s Russia reset policy. During the years between the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, while relations with Russia deteriorated, there was still hope in some quarters that Russia could be brought around to being a security partner in Europe. Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 came as a shock—I know because I was at a NATO Defense Ministers meeting when the rumor first surprised the plenary room that little green men had entered Crimea. Not only would Russia not be brought around to becoming a security partner, but deterrence had once again failed like it did in 2008. And like in 2008, the resulting weak Western sanctions and non-lethal assistance for Ukraine did little to impose an unacceptable cost to Russia, further undercutting deterrence.
By 2022, Putin was not only undeterred by Western warnings against a second invasion but felt based on his 2014 experience that he could handle any sanctions that came his way. More than that, he made the wrong assumptions about unity in the West and how strongly the West would react both with harsher sanctions than in 2014 and with assistance that was quite lethal. His assumptions about Ukraine’s willingness and capability to fight were also well off the mark. But the West gave him plenty of reasons to make those faulty assumptions, after weak responses to the earlier invasions and clinging to the hope that Russia would eventually become a partner. But the West too made significant faulty assumptions early in the war, both underestimating Ukraine’s willingness and ability to fight and overestimating Russian military capability. How we came to make such wrong assumptions about Russia and Ukraine—and how we allowed deterrence to deteriorate due to wishful thinking—is something the West needs to examine honestly.
Heli Hautala, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program:
We do not know how Russia’s war in Ukraine will end. We do know, however, that the security landscape in northern Europe has changed for good and not to Russia’s advantage. Its violence against Ukraine pushed Finland and Sweden to apply to join NATO. One year from the start of the war their memberships are only two ratifications away, those of Hungary and Turkey. Finland and Sweden are also negotiating Defense Cooperation Agreements with the United States. Russia, bogged down in its war of aggression, could not prevent neighboring Finland and Sweden from abandoning their policy of military non-alignment. As a result, Russia suffered collateral damage that cannot be undone. When Finland and Sweden join, all Nordic countries will be in NATO, seven of eight Arctic countries will be in NATO and all Baltic Sea countries except Russia will be in NATO. With the addition of two militarily capable and technologically advanced members, the alliance will get stronger. At the same time it will expand near two areas that have great military and strategic significance to Russia: the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic, host of Russia’s nuclear-armed Northern Fleet, and Russia’s second largest city St. Petersburg, which lies at the easternmost end of the Baltic Sea and is the starting point of an important maritime route for Russia.
Jon B. Wolfsthal, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program:
Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has been backed from the beginning with irresponsible nuclear threats from Vladimir Putin and his minions. These repeated allusions to Russia’s nuclear capability, combined with Russia’s dangerous military attack on and around nuclear power plants have rocketed nuclear risks to the top of the global agenda. Thus, every military move Ukraine, NATO and the United States have made has been weighed for both the benefit to Ukraine’s defense as well as the risk that it could lead to unwanted nuclear escalation. The only path that can be lead to a Ukrainian victory is one where Putin cannot conceivably use nuclear weapons, even as his hold on Ukrainian territory weakens. Threading this needle is the challenge now before us.
If and when Ukraine can declare victory without Russian nuclear use, then there will be a major reconning—one where nuclear armed states will have to assess that their nuclear capabilities will protect them from defeat in a war of conquest. This will likely have important lessons for China and North Korea, if not would-be nuclear states in the future. At the same time, the fact that Russia’s conventional capability—already far less than has been supposed just a year ago—has been severely degraded will invariably lead Moscow to rely even more heavily on its nuclear weapons. That makes efforts to replace expiring arms control and constraint agreements like New START harder to achieve, but all the more imperative for Washington and NATO. If the only thing Putin has that can truly threaten the Western alliance are nuclear weapons, then finding ways to cap them—even as Washington keeps close watch on China’s growing nuclear capabilities—seems very much in NATO’s and Washington’s security interests. Whether the political support for such talks, let alone negotiations and agreements, can be mustered, remains a long shot.
Emily Kilcrease, Senior Fellow and Director, Energy, Economics, and Security Program:
A year into this grinding conflict, it has become ever more important to increase economic pressure on Russia with the aim of impairing its ability to wage its unjustified war on Ukraine. The United States has imposed nearly 2,000 sanctions on Russian entities, along with developing new sanctions tools, such as the use of export controls as a sanctioning instrument and the innovation of oil price caps. Yet, more remains to be done. Enforcing the price caps and looking to ratchet them downwards will be critical to reduce the energy revenues that are continuing to fund the war. Cracking down on sanctions evasion and illicit trade networks should remain a high priority. The role of China in supporting Russian evasion efforts remains a persistent concern, as does the spoiler role that other third-party countries may play. At this phase in the economic battle, enforcement has become as important as rolling out new measures, if not more so.
Jonathan Lord, Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program:
Almost immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine one year ago, the world grew smaller. We observed the conflict contribute to instability in distant regions. For one, the war in Ukraine threw into stark relief the real cracks in global food security. Middle Eastern governments raced to identify new sources of grain as their countries’ stocks rapidly ran low. Hopefully, it demonstrated to the region’s leaders that they can’t wait a moment longer to begin working together meaningfully to invest in reconstituting the region’s ability to feed and water itself.
Separately, in the last six months we’ve seen revisionist powers align and collaborate to challenge the world order that the United States and its allies have risen to defend. The emerging confluence of Iranian and Russian interests has had ramifications for Europe and the Middle East. Iran’s weapons of gray zone warfare, well-known to its neighbors, are now infamous for targeting Kyiv’s civilians. Moscow and Tehran are poised to assist each other in developing new weapons, evading the West’s sanctions, and cooperating economically to increase their respective economic resilience and capacity, in the face of shared isolation.
New opportunities are likely to emerge for Washington, along with its partners and allies in both regions, to work together to neutralize the threats posed by this emerging Russian-Iranian axis. Iranian drones made more lethal by Russia, won’t stay in Europe. Nations (Israel and the Gulf states, alike) that have otherwise been comfortable hedging in their relationships until now, will soon find their own security further threatened, and will need to take direct action to confront an Iran further enabled by its burgeoning relationship with Russia.
Katherine Kuzminski, Senior Fellow and Director, Military, Veterans, and Society Program:
The war in Ukraine has been an ever-evolving case study of the human elements of operational success: the importance of the will to fight; the challenges associated with managing a conscripted force. While traditional net assessments predicted a swift and decisive Russian victory based on platforms, stockpiles, and resources, the Ukrainian military has demonstrated the decisive advantage provided by flexible and adaptive thinking and action. The U.S. military should observe and assess the strategic advantage provided by the human capability demonstrated by the Ukrainian military and identify how the U.S. services might invest in human performance as a decisive advantage.
Jacob Stokes, Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program:
One year in, China’s takeaways from Russia’s war in Ukraine are mixed. Beijing is likely sobered by the poor performance of the Russian military, the ferocity of Ukrainian resistance, and liberal democracies’ cohesion in support of Kyiv. At the same time, China’s leaders could still be emboldened as they contemplate similar action against Taiwan at some point in the future. Beijing might believe it can learn lessons from and then avoid Russia’s strategic mistakes. These include failing to take out political and military leadership early and forestall the resupply necessary for protracted war. China might also see nuclear threats as successfully deterring more direct U.S. and allied intervention. And Beijing could conclude its central role in the world economy provides sufficient insulation against trade and technology restrictions like those imposed on Russia.
At the global level, China’s strategic partnership with Russia remains intact despite the war in Ukraine. This fact reflects Beijing’s sympathy for Moscow’s actions to fight what they both view as strengthening U.S.-led alliance systems on their borders. Chinese leaders also recognize how the demands of supporting Ukraine are diverting some key Western resources—especially capacity to produce military equipment and munitions—away from the Indo-Pacific where they would be used to balance China’s military power. Beijing knows it is paying costs, too, namely in its relations with Europe and with inflation of food and energy prices but considers them manageable. Viewed from China, Russia’s war in Ukraine creates benefits as well as costs.
Nicholas Lokker, Research Assistant, Transatlantic Security Program:
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has notably catalyzed European integration. Recognizing the need to fill geostrategic vacuums in its neighborhood, the European Union’s decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova as well as its demonstrably increased focus on the western Balkans signal a revitalized enlargement process. The prospect of a wider Union has in turn prompted calls from key member states such as Germany and France for deepened integration, in particular the introduction of majority voting in EU foreign policy.
Effectively capitalizing on this renewed geopolitical momentum will be challenging. Justified concerns about premature accession without adequate political and economic reform mean that full membership for candidate countries will take time, illustrating the potential value of a phased approach to enlargement. Meanwhile, certain EU member states such as Poland remain wary of being overpowered by the Franco-German axis, making greater reciprocal trust a precondition for institutional change. If the European Union can overcome these obstacles, however, it may emerge from the present crisis a weightier, nimbler, and more influential player on the world stage.
Hannah Dennis, Research Assistant, Defense Program:
One year in, this conflict has clearly changed Ukraine, but it has also made waves across the globe, catalyzing long-overdue policy changes, rejuvenating and strengthening international partnerships, and providing a small window into how the future of war will look. One lesson learned from this war is the breakneck speed at which critical munitions stocks will be depleted in a future high-end conflict. With relatively shallow reserves and an industrial base with limited capacity to quickly ramp up in wartime, the United States has seen how it itself might one day be caught flat footed.
How did we get here? Years of underinvesting in munitions have left U.S. stockpiles low. The Department of Defense repeatedly kicks the can down the road to prioritize larger ticket items, like fighter jets, ships, and tanks. Our research shows that what the DoD has procured, it has procured very inconsistently, creating a fragile, risk-averse munitions industrial base.
The war in Ukraine has raised the issue of munitions stockpiles to national-level awareness, and the Pentagon and Congress have begun to act. For example, the National Defense Authorization Act authorized multiyear procurement for munitions, which will provide a clearer demand signal so industry can take more calculated risks in expanding production capacity. More needs to and will be done, so that the United States can better support Ukraine in the coming months and better deter and, if necessary, defeat the next major threat.
Michael Akopian, Research Assistant, Defense Program:
One of the biggest takeaways from this year of conflict in Ukraine should be the strength of Western coordination in sending combat capabilities to Ukraine.
Since February 2022, it seemed almost daily that a U.S. or European defense official would make statements on what capabilities they are and are not ready to provide to Ukraine. But the fact that less than a year after the invasion there is a coordinated effort to send top of the line combat capabilities—including third generation main battle tanks like the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2—to Ukraine speaks to the high level of coordination among U.S. and European nations, as well as a common understanding of the threat that Russia poses.
Particularly after the previous administration's inclination to pull back from alliances and global commitments, the United States is well on its way to rehabilitating its image as a credible partner, showing its willingness to support democratic nations in conflict. Treaty allies like Japan and Australia will likely see this as a welcome sign should tensions in the Indo-Pacific flare up.
All CNAS experts are available for interviews. To arrange one, contact Cameron Edinburgh at email@example.com.