After the one-year anniversary of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine—and what a horrible “anniversary” to mark—it would be irresponsible not to take stock of what this war has to say about America’s preparedness, resiliency, awareness, and willingness to defend the things we say are important.
In the most basic sense, the war in Ukraine is a bloody reminder that “war” remains a feature of international relations, regardless of what the diplomatic class and news pundits say.
In a violent refutation of aphorisms such as “modern states don’t make war on each other,” “major countries are too economically interdependent to risk going to war,” and “the costs of becoming an international pariah state are too high,” Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine anyway—because his goal of making it a vassal state was more important than any of these other interests.
Cough, cough. The same can be said about China’s goal of bringing Taiwan under the direct control of Beijing and of Iran’s clearly demonstrated interest in becoming a nuclear-armed state with the stated intention of destroying Israel as soon as the Islamist regime thinks it’s able to do so.
Some countries refuse to play by the rules preferred by the U.S. and they hold other things more dearly than does the West. They’re perfectly willing to risk economic harm or favorable perception if it means achieving a more important religious, territorial, or power objective.
Thirty years of relative peace and enormous prosperity following the end of the Cold War has led the West (including the United States) to become complacent, distracted, naïve, and short-sighted in foreign, domestic, and economic policies.
Here are some lessons waiting to be learned from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Timidity does not prevent war or mitigate its severity. In fact, just the opposite results: Timidity, fear, and hesitancy incentivize aggression and worsen the consequences of war.
In responding to war, half measures and tepid, delayed assistance lengthen the duration of conflict, increase the amount of destruction, add to suffering, and make war harder to end. Risk aversion encourages one’s enemy to be more aggressive, rather than less so. It invites bellicosity, threats, and escalation.
New technologies such as drones, long-range precision missiles, and microsatellites (thanks, Elon Musk) give an advantage on the battlefield but by themselves are not war-winners. Despite the use of technology such as cellphone apps and drones, the war in Ukraine has worn-on for a year with artillery, mortars, machine guns, and grenades across broken landscapes that resemble World War I.
New technologies add to long-proven conventional capabilities (sometimes referred to as “legacy” capabilities) and always increase the overall cost of an effective military force. But they can’t be ignored because not having them gives the advantage to the enemy.
Small militaries and minimal inventories of munitions limit a country’s options when war rears its ugly head. The more a nation depletes limited stocks of equipment and ammunition and reduces units and personnel, the more risk-sensitive it will get—and thus less willing to sustain support even when success or disaster hang in the balance.
In several key areas, U.S. forces are half the size they were during the Cold War, when America and its allies faced the Soviet Union. Munitions inventories are at perilously low levels and the companies that make them will need years to bring production back up to speed. And most of the equipment used by America’s military was fielded in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wars are harder to end, more expensive, and far more destructive than most of those who grapple with the realities assume when they start. As costs, complexity, and losses mount, everyone from policymakers to regular folks start to fret, increasingly concerned about how to pay for it all and experiencing the fear that accompanies the potential for escalation.
Americans are used to conflicts and catastrophes ending in the space of a 90-minute movie on Amazon Prime. Reality is harsher.
With this in mind, how should we think about war and what we collectively want for the U.S.? The best world is one where America is safe, free, and prosperous. That means doing what we must to prevent major competitors from denying us access to foreign markets and resources.
It means reassuring other countries that it’s better to partner with the U.S. than with China or Russia or Iran. It also means maintaining a military force that competitors believe is able to defend key U.S. interests anywhere in the world, the very underpinnings of deterrence.
Having all of these—ensuring access to markets, sustaining partner confidence in U.S. capabilities, and presenting credible deterrence that keeps enemies at bay—presumes a military that is sufficient large, modern, competent, and appropriately postured.
Such a credible military is expensive in peacetime, to be sure, and the expense easily can be criticized as unnecessary, even wasteful, when war isn’t being waged. But when war comes—and it always seems to—not having such a military results in the horrible consequences that are playing out on the battlefields of Ukraine.
War is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later affair. Paying up front for training, equipment, and preparedness is costly, but ideally prevents war from occurring. The actual costs of war in casualties, destruction, and money are enormously more than maintaining a military force that could have prevented such larger costs.
An America that is safe, free, and prosperous in a dynamic world replete with competing powers that threaten U.S. interests requires a military and the mechanisms to sustain that military commensurate with these interests.
It is a tragedy that war seems to be needed to remind us of this truth. Ukrainian blood and American treasure are the terrible price being paid for this reminder. A greater tragedy, though, would be to dismiss the lessons generated at such high cost.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal