One Lesson from Ukraine: NATO Must Prepare for a Long War Against Russia

The Atlantic Alliance was ready when the largest conflict in Europe since World War II broke out, but is it ready for an expanded confrontation that could drag on for years?

Ukrainian soldiers take part in NATO exercises in western Ukraine last fall. Image Credit: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

As the world reacts to the poor performance of Russian forces in the invasion of Ukraine, two important points stand out: The long-maligned North Atlantic Treaty Organization has done an excellent job of both anticipating the war and helping Ukraine after it started. And NATO is reaping a wealth of information on the weaknesses of the Russian forces that will help frontline countries prepare for future threats from Moscow. But the events of the past three weeks raise a question that NATO might rather not ask: Is it ready for a long war against Russian aggression that could stretch on for years?

When Russia started massing forces at the Ukrainian border under the veil of field exercises, most military analysts and political pundits believed that Putin was aiming only to exert pressure and maybe prepare for some sort of limited, local military action to support a well-muscled diplomacy. If a conflict started, most thought Russia would use “hybrid warfare” techniques, such as economic, information, cyber and other non-lethal force backed by limited military power. That Russian President Vladimir Putin instead launched such a destructive war shocked many and has turned every assumption about European security upside down. And just as surprising: Despite its vast power, Russia was unable to subdue a much weaker and militarily isolated country quickly.

NATO was less surprised. It had been conducting intensive intelligence-gathering along the frontier with Russia using manned and unmanned aircraft. As the storm clouds gathered, NATO moved troops, aircraft and air-defense systems into its frontline member states: Poland, Romania and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. So, the key decision-makers in the Atlantic Alliance had good information on Russia’s moves and intentions even as an air of disbelief hung over the last days of peace.

Arming Ukraine

Some of this intelligence probably was made available to Ukrainian officials, which may have helped blunt Russia’s initial thrusts. And before the invasion began, weapons were arriving in Ukraine. The U.K. supplied NLAW anti-tank missiles and Poland sent shoulder-launched air-defense missiles that were on hand to inflict losses on the invaders from the start. Soon after the war started, reinforcements came from the U.S.: Stinger air-defense missiles and anti-tank Javelins. Turkey has supplied its Bayraktar missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicles and is replacing ones that are lost.

With NATO countries already balanced on the edge of direct involvement by supplying weapons, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pressed the alliance to establish a no-fly zone over Ukrainian territory to stop Russian air attacks on civilian targets. While such attacks are clear violations of international law and should be treated as war crimes, any direct combat involvement by NATO almost certainly would trigger a Russian military response, which might escalate the conflict beyond any control. This is also why Ukraine’s request for MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft from Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria has not been approved yet.   

By launching the largest war in Europe since World War II, Putin has done Russia a disservice by dispelling the respect for its power in the minds of its potential enemies. Initially, NATO was worried that Russia, with its seemingly modern and capable forces, would achieve a blitzkrieg-like victory. It was conceivable that Russia would not stop in Ukraine and might start a broader war in Europe. NATO’s Baltic members were especially exposed since Russia views these countries as lost territory. Poland, next to Ukraine, also appeared endangered. But doesn’t the idea of a blitz to the Atlantic coast now seem ridiculous?

Destroying Everything in its Path

Not so fast.  Russia now appears to be less of a military threat and more dangerous at the same time. It fumbles and it’s reckless. The real Russian threat lies not in its ability to conduct fast, effective operations but in its persistence in pursuing a victory through tremendous endurance and stubbornness, and at the cost of enormous losses for all. It is worth noting that Russia has not given up.

Indeed, Russia’s forces are still grinding forward, killing a rising number of Ukrainian civilians and eroding Ukraine’s will to resist. Some analysts pin their hopes on Russian morale and cohesion dissolving, but at any moment, the morale of Ukraine’s people and leadership could collapse under the tremendous pressure of the killings and destruction. Cities are being turned to rubble and a massive flow of refugees to the West is under way. Already more than 1.8 million refugees have arrived in Poland alone. This is the Russian way of war.

More importantly, Russia is learning. We hope the lesson is that it can’t reach its geopolitical goals with massed formations of armor, but it is probably learning that increasing the ferocity of its artillery, missile and airstrike attacks will do the trick. And there is always the specter of nuclear weapons to make advances on the battlefield and eliminate airfields, depots and other targets behind enemy lines. Indeed, there is a school of Russian military thinking that nuclear weapons may be used in a tactical way that avoids destroying cities in a strategic nuclear exchange.

Many analysts are confidently predicting that Russia cannot sustain a long war in the face of a heroic defense and serious economic sanctions. But that has yet to be shown. The ability of Russian troops and civilians to endure hardship should not be overlooked.

NATO’s Many Advantages 

NATO is also learning. It is exploring Russia’s shortcomings in the war, such as its poor intelligence-gathering, ineffective command, immobility in the north due to its use of forces too large for the terrain and spare road networks, largely ineffective firepower and air support, and an almost nonexistent logistics operation. NATO already enjoys an edge over Russia in these areas and is now looking to expand those advantages and implement the lessons learned:

  • By and large, NATO’s intelligence infrastructure functions well and is adequately supported by a computerized network that is continually improved, especially to guard against cyberattacks.
  • Military commanders are trained to exploit their informational advantage, recognizing and exploring opportunities on the battlefield. NATO members and partners hold regular joint exercises to sharpen these skills.
  • The optimum size of ground units still needs to be worked out, but Ukraine is showing that small and agile forces are much better than a large heavy force trying to navigate crowded roads.
  • The key to providing air support and defeating enemy attacks is dense air-defense systems on the ground that are protected by fighters managed by airborne radar and control platforms. Manned aircraft, such as fighter-bombers and helicopters, need to be supplemented by numerous unmanned reconnaissance aircraft armed with light but lethally precise weapons. NATO countries have learned that unmanned spotter aircraft combined with computerized control systems for field artillery are more valuable than a large number of battalions operating with less guidance and that end up pumping thousands of ammunition rounds into empty fields, forests or residential areas.
  • Boosting NATO’s supply systems, even at the cost of reduced combat forces, is of paramount importance. Ten fully equipped and regularly resupplied tanks moving rapidly on the battlefield are worth more than thousands of tanks without ammunition and fuel, their crews marauding in the vicinity looking for something to eat. Modern armies burn through ammunition and other supplies at an enormous rate; you can’t have too much.

All of this may seem obvious, but it apparently was not obvious to the Russian forces. Russia, however, will learn from its Ukraine adventure and improve its capabilities. The Soviet Union’s military in 1944 was much more capable than it was in 1941, although it was smaller and operated only half as many tanks. Numbers do not fight, people do; and people learn.

Going Long

This raises the specter of something NATO has not prepared for—or even considers necessary to prepare for: a long war. Rather than seeing the invasion as an isolated event in which it serves as a helpful bystander, NATO would do well to consider that it’s already at war with Russia. This is not to say that direct military action is called for. Instead, the war is best seen as a series of events in which Russia slices off more sections of countries, creating a succession of crises, engagements and conflicts of limited duration between intervals of calm, negotiated settlements and even rapprochement. Only in retrospect will historians define it as a war, much like the Hundred Years’ War between France and England in the 14th and 15th centuries.

To persevere in such a war, NATO must focus on its exposed frontiers and its sources of strength and weakness. Its most obvious vulnerability is the northern frontier, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They share their eastern and southern borders with Russia and its ally (and partner in crime) Belarus. And as with Belarus and Ukraine, they were part of the Soviet Union, so Russia considers them part of its sphere of influence. If one of them is attacked, NATO is committed to come to its defense militarily.

Russia’s armed forces could rapidly overrun these small countries in a way that was impossible in Ukraine. Armored vehicles could drive through them with a single load of fuel. To counter such a threat, NATO needs to permanently deploy radar and surveillance aircraft in the Baltic States. In the case of an invasion, the air and firepower support of rapid reaction forces might save those countries and spoil the Russian plans.

Finland and Sweden, and Poland

To bolster its northern flank, NATO could add Finland and Sweden. Reacting to the invasion, these officially neutral countries have been considering joining NATO. The geography of the two countries makes them highly defensible, and protecting them would not overextend NATO’s combat resources. In fact, they would improve NATO’s ability to provide for its collective defense.

The Baltics’ exposure to attacks from Russia and Belarus make them the wrong location for stationing a large number of aircraft. But Sweden and especially Finland have the territory to host airpower to help defend the Baltics. 

Another NATO weakness is Poland on its central front. The country comes with Warsaw Pact baggage, including those MiGs, and as a result it tends to mount heavy land forces that might not be ideal. Poland does spend its NATO-recommended 2% of gross domestic product on defense and operates a significant amount of Western equipment, including advanced F-16s, but the modernization of its forces progresses slowly.

Poland’s recently adopted National Defense Act will boost the defense budget to 3% of GDP and double the size of its armed forces to around 250,000 personnel (including 50,000 reservists). But that’s the wrong priority. Poland needs better intelligence and surveillance systems to monitor not only Kaliningrad Oblast, the Russian Baltic enclave it borders, but also its long border with Belarus, and also Ukraine, if Russia’s invasion succeeds.

Air superiority is also essential. Instead of buying 250 new Abrams tanks, Poland should expand its air defense forces. That means more early warning airplanes, more fighter jets, more bases for deploying the jets and as many air-defense missile systems as possible. So, while Poland is putting money into defense, the lessons of the Ukraine war indicate that it is traveling in the opposite direction.

Reality Bites for Germany

For years Germany believed that Russia was maturing into a civilized and stable though not necessarily democratic state. So it formed stronger trade and investment ties with Russia, and it became dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. It is amazing that Germany allowed such a situation to evolve. To make matters worse, during the last two decades Germany disarmed itself almost to the level of the Weimar Republic.

Now, it seems to have woken up. The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, says Germany will raise military spending to the NATO-recommended 2% of GDP (it spent only 1.4% in 2020). He has not said how the extra money will be spent, but when it comes to personnel versus technology, let’s hope he learns the lessons of Ukraine faster than Poland. And perhaps the German leadership will see that a line of defense at the Vistula River in Poland is preferable to one at the Elbe River in Germany. Establishing and keeping forces in Germany that are ready to deploy to Poland is better than hastily mobilizing them to defend German soil after Poland fails.

The other European countries in NATO should also reconsider their approach to Russia and review their capabilities in light of what’s happened in Ukraine. And they should be mentally prepared to send their forces to defend frontline countries. The alternative might be turning into a frontier themselves. The U.S., of course, is the indispensable power behind NATO, but the European members must look first to themselves for their collective security.

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