The war in Ukraine offers valuable lessons on changing global relations by SATO Heigo

Geoeconomic Briefing is a series featuring researchers at the IOG focused on Japan’s challenges in that field. It will also provide analyses of the state of the world and trade risks as well as technological and industrial structures. (Editor-in-chief: Dr. SUZUKI Kazuto, Director, Institute of Geoeconomics (IOG); Professor, The University of Tokyo)

This article was posted to the Japan Times on September 22, 2022:

Geoeconomic Briefing

Photo:The New York Times / Redux / Aflo

September 22, 2022

The war in Ukraine offers valuable lessons on changing global relations

SATO Heigo
Professor, Takushoku University






The global strategic community has learned many lessons from the war in Ukraine since it began earlier this year.

Looking back at global politics since the conflict erupted in February, it is evident that geopolitical interest in Europe has not faded. Ukraine’s NATO membership debate was the latest for which Russia exerted significant effort to scale back and thus maintain its geopolitical advantage.

Although there were some differences depending on the characters of political leaders of the times, a deep-rooted inclination toward expansionism has always existed within Russian society.

NATO has been on alert over such geopolitical risks and has been trying to mitigate threats posed by Russian interests by integrating them into the global economy. But such attempts failed to prevent the country from invading Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has had a significant impact on international politics in Europe, as it has widened the geopolitical window in the region and the wider world.

Sweden and Finland have been provoked by the fear of the Russian threats, and both applied to join NATO in May.

Countries like Turkey, Iran and China, meanwhile, have moved toward strengthening their relationships with Moscow.

Such moves apparently reflect the fact that countries around Russia have been stimulated by the ongoing war, and have prioritized their own national security considerations.

Washington’s Russia policy

Following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, there has been an ongoing debate on whether the United States’ Russia policy since the end of the Cold War had been appropriate to ease Russia’s transition into the liberal democratic order.

However, it is too early to determine the causal relationship between Russia’s aggression and U.S. policy, considering that consistency in policies had been largely affected by the change of administration in Washington.

Meanwhile, Russia’s aggression, including the 2014 Crimea crisis and this year’s war in Ukraine, has reminded the world again of the importance of territorial defense. It is believed that by invading Ukraine this year, Russia was initially aiming to overthrow the Ukrainian government and disarm its neighbor.

Just like the U.S. during the 2003 Iraq War, Moscow must have been seeking to topple or forcibly change another nation’s regime by conducting large-scale, focused military operations in the country’s core cities. But Russia’s attempts failed, and Moscow shifted its strategy to securing the region in south and eastern Ukraine that had already been captured in the initial stages of the war. The region critical for Russia includes Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militia have successfully separated politically from the Ukraine government.

Russia has abandoned its initial offensive operation and switched tactics to securing the areas it seized and repelling Ukraine’s counterattacks — or, rather, gradually expanding its occupied areas through counterattacks — and the Ukraine war is turning into a prolonged war of attrition. Indeed, Ukraine’s failure to take advantage of the change in Russia’s strategy shift and go on the counteroffensive reflects the current state of its military strength.

In such circumstances, at a certain point voices calling for an end to the conflict will grow.

If cease-fire negotiations start from the current situation, the war will most likely end with Russia effectively becoming the winner. In conflicts over territories, the one who makes occupation of a territory a fait accompli is at an advantage.

If the Russian invasion succeeds, the global community will have to continue being on high alert against the country well beyond the latter half of the 21st century, since the successful experience of the 2022 invasion may tempt Moscow to stage a repeat.

Ukraine’s counterattacks

The international community has learned many lessons from Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. Ukraine has endured initial attacks by Russia, prevented its own government from collapsing and managed to create a stalemate on the front line.

Although such a situation doesn’t represent a decisive victory for Ukraine, the world was amazed to see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration remain in Kyiv — despite expectations that they would flee the country — and create a united front to fight against Russia, even if it meant exposing a pro-Russian camp within the administration.

There are some noteworthy factors regarding Ukraine’s counterattacks.

The country showed the significance of cognitive or psychological warfare — in which human minds and society in many respects become the battlefield — as part of cross-domain operations. Russia has been known to conduct such operations in fighting its “hybrid war” to annex Crimea in 2014.

In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, both sides have made intensive use of psychological warfare in cyberspace.

It is said that Ukraine’s resistance activities have been supported by its “IT Army,” made up of around 300,000 people, as well as private citizens sending out information via social media, which has helped the country grasp the situation regarding enemy forces by using information and communication technology.

Ukraine also succeeded in forming international public opinion through cognitive or psychological warfare.

The Ukrainian government’s skillful sharing of information, and citizens voluntarily disseminating information, effectively revealed to the world the barbarity of the Russian troops’ conduct in cities like Bucha and Russian attacks on civilian targets.

Such Russian conduct, suspected to be a serious violation of international law, put Moscow in an extremely unfavorable position within the international community.

Russia is now being held accountable for noncompliance with the international norm. From NATO’s standpoint, however, it has become more difficult to predict how this war will end.

World history

The 20th century saw more forms of warfare determined to be illegal. If Russia’s “special military operation” is not justified as exercising the right to individual self-defense, it will be defined as an act of aggression.

And it is difficult to agree to a cease-fire or an end to a war under the international legal order when responsibilities of a state or an individual regarding injustice are left ambiguous.

In today’s international community, it is not possible to choose the option of realizing stability through power politics between superpowers.

Ukraine is apparently aware of such circumstances as it continues to advocate the significance of protecting the interests of smaller countries and, in particular, conduct counterattacks with the goal of regaining the Crimean Peninsula.

One of the lessons learned from the Ukraine war is that even smaller countries can resist attacks by superpowers to some extent as long as their actions are justifiable under international law and they can win support from the global community, thus winning a war in the cognitive or psychological domain.

In this case, support from the global community means military assistance.

Needless to say, Ukraine did not get all the weapons or political commitment it asked for, including extended nuclear deterrence.

However, NATO countries, especially the U.S. and the United Kingdom, have been providing weapons necessary for Ukrainian forces to push back Russian troops attacking its territory, in accordance with the changing state of the war.

New ways of fighting

A variety of weapons are needed for Ukraine to conduct effective counterattacks against Russia.

For instance, weapons necessary to prevent Russian troops from attacking and occupying Kyiv are different from arms and troops needed to push back Russian troops occupying the eastern and southern regions of the country, or to attack Russian forces in the occupied areas from a distance or to retake facilities such as a nuclear power plant.

The biggest surprise in the latest war was that Ukraine managed to prepare enough war-waging capability to fight against Russia.

This tells us much about how wars are fought in the 21st century.

First, it shows that the capability to continue fighting and that flexible operations of such capability can influence the outcome of the war.

The issue is related to the important question in military studies of whether it is best to fight a war with stocks or focus on flows.

During times of war, it is extremely important to have the ability to obtain necessary weapons, either through domestic production or transfers.

If the war prolongs, weapons stocks will run low. In addition, it will become necessary to upgrade weapons or procure new ones depending on the state of the war.

This means it is indispensable to have the industrial and technological foundations to make that possible.

If a country doesn’t have such foundations, it is important to secure weapons through transfers. Ukraine managed to procure them effectively from overseas.

However, when fighting a war with flows, there emerges the risk of the war being controlled by countries or companies which provide these weapons.

The flows comprise military logistics and an industrial base, but during contingencies, morale within a country could wane and voices calling for surrender could increase before the country becomes well prepared to fight a war, possibly leading to the domestic base being eroded.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that military logistics will definitely be secured. This could pose a serious challenge for Japan as an island nation, for example.

Secondly, conventional wars over territory can still exist, with their tools little altered over time.

In other words, in territorial conflicts, the role of conventional military forces has not changed.

Yet, if the main focus of the war is to acquire territory, there remains the issue of what lessons can be learned from past failures of superpowers like the Soviet Union or the U.S. in smoothly governing occupied areas after war.

Ways of fighting a war differ depending on the purposes — whether it is a war aimed at occupation and annexation, which needs to take into account people’s livelihoods after the war, or whether it is a war targeted at regime change, using armed forces as a punitive measure.

While human resources are important in a war aimed at occupation and annexation, air power is often regarded as important in a war targeted at regime change.

When thinking about the characteristics of conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region, it is necessary for Japan to seriously look into this issue.

Reviving internationalism

The war in Ukraine has inflicted enormous damage not only on Ukraine but also on the international community.

Countries proximate to Russia are again on high alert over Moscow’s expansionist policies, and it will take a long time for them to regain peace of mind.

Furthermore, it will not be possible to settle the issue of the atrocities committed by the Russian military without punishing those who are responsible.

While it depends on how the war ends, many of the countries around Russia are likely to turn to NATO to secure their national security, and such moves will accelerate the bipolarization of Europe.

This means the international community will turn into a world in which conventional norms don’t work and there is a need to reconstruct international order.

And today’s world is facing the challenge of being required to do that when an internationalist approach, such as international treaty negotiations, is failing to function.

Looking back on history, when the U.S. negotiated with the Soviet Union on a series of bilateral arms control agreements in the 1980s, it advocated the phrase “Trust, but verify” as a principle to work on a difficult challenge of facing an opponent that was totally untrustworthy. Surprisingly, however, the principle and policy have gradually won support both within the U.S. and the international community.

In re-establishing internationalism after the war in Ukraine, what issues should we start with and what principles should we stand on?

Even as the war continues, we must start considering how to reconstruct internationalism, looking toward the era after the conflict.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this API Geoeconomic Briefing do not necessarily reflect those of the API, the Institute of Geoeconomics (IOG) or any other organizations to which the author belongs.