The war in Ukraine has attracted a lot of interest from military leaders, analysts and historians worldwide because it is the first direct near-peer conflict of the 21st century. Such conflicts ceased once more nations acquired nuclear weapons after World War II. The fear of seeing nukes used again created the longest period of peace between major powers. The second-longest such period was the 43 years between the armistice that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, to the outbreak of the First World War in 2014; a total of forty-three years, five months, and twenty-eight days. In effect, since November 5, 1988, every day that the Great Powers have not been at war with each other has set a new world record for the duration of a peace.
This “nuclear peace” did not end wars involving major powers, but led to the nuclear powers backing proxies (smaller non-nuclear nations) in several major, but non-nuclear conflicts. After assessing the destruction caused by World War II, several nations collected data, did the math and agreed that a major nuclear war would destroy civilization as we know it and cause unpredictable risks of even greater changes similar to those caused by major catastrophes over the last hundred million years. This includes major asteroids and volcanic eruptions that left archeological evidence worldwide documenting what happens after such catastrophic events. Nuclear weapons gave mankind the ability to create a similar catastrophe. It took over a decade for the full import of that threat to be realized.
The first two atom bombs were used in mid-1945 against Japanese cities. The first one did not change minds in the Japanese leadership because while the bomb destroyed the city and killed a lot of people, there were earlier non-nuclear air raids that were just as destructive and killed more people. Then came a second atomic bomb on a city. Japanese military analysts and nuclear scientists were able to conclude that these two weapons were different. One bomber delivered each bomb in daylight. Japanese air defenses were still numerous but organized to deal with mass attacks carried out by hundreds of bombers. A single bomber was believed to be carrying out reconnaissance. After the second attack it became obvious the Americans had developed a workable nuclear weapon and more than one of them. There was virtually no way for Japan to fight back against such weapons. The emperor, his chief advisors and most military leaders accepted this and Japan did the unthinkable (to most Japanese) and surrendered. This not only ended World War II, it also ended centuries of wars between major powers.
This was all because the United States used nuclear weapons to force Japan to abandon its plans for national suicide by literally fighting to the death against any invasion. The A-bomb did not kill as many people as a single attack on a city with conventional bombs. Those fire-bomb raids required as many as a thousand heavy bombers delivering enough conventional and incendiary bombs in a short period to create a literal fire storm. The first such major incendiary attack took place in 1943 against Hamburg Germany. Nearly 40,000 people were killed and most of the city was destroyed. This raid required over a thousand heavy bombers dropping their bombs from high altitude. There were several more of these raids, like the ones against Berlin and Dresden. But none were as destructive as the March 1945 raid on Tokyo with 300 heavy bombers flying a low altitude (for better accuracy) to quickly start a fire storm. This one killed 100,000 people and destroyed much of the city. Attacks like this did not persuade the Japanese to surrender but the two nukings and threat of more did.
The resulting nuclear peace meant that there were no opportunities to see near-peer forces going at each other with their most modern and, theoretically, effective weapons and equipment. Using proxies meant, at best, that one side was unable to provide the most effective defenses. The 2022 Ukraine war had seemingly well-equipped Russian forces facing NATO, in the form of Ukrainians who wanted to join NATO and had been given weapons and training by NATO nations since a more limited Russian operation in 2014 quickly seized the Ukrainian province of Crimea and half of two other of two other provinces in the Donbas region. Russia claimed it was not directly involved but just supported a local uprising against Ukrainian persecution of ethnic Russians in Donbas and Crimea. Over the next few years, the extent of direct Russian involvement grew, much of it coming from Russian media reports mentioning specific special operations units involved and a growing number of Russians who died in Ukraine or were captured by Ukrainian troops holding the line in Donbas. During the eight years between the Ukrainian territorial losses in Crimea and Donbas and the 2022 invasion the Russian missed or ignored the extent of the changes in the Ukrainian military. By 2022 the Ukrainians were using NATO tactics, military organization and some weapons. The Russians were still using less effective Soviet-era tactics and unit organization. The Russians ignored the fact that Ukraine was where many key military weapons development and manufacturing of the old Soviet Union took place and the Ukrainians continued to use those skills to upgrade Soviet era weapons for export markets that wanted cheap but effective weapons. During the 1990s Ukraine began developing Western style weapons and equipment, plus some new ones pf their own, and developed an appreciation for what the high quality and performance of these more expensive weapons could do compared to the upgraded Soviet era gear they were selling for much less to nations or factions that did not need and could not afford anything more effective or expensive. In Russia the media reported the problems encountered after 2014 when Ukrainian firms refused to supply Russian manufacturers with essential components that Russian firms did not or, it turned out, could not produce.
And so it came to pass that the most modern and effective Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2022 and quickly discovered they were not facing an inept, poorly trained and armed foe but one that was far more effective. The main offensive in the north against the Ukrainian capital took heavy losses and within weeks was forced to retreat. Russian troops were told by their government that they had encountered NATO troops who were in Ukrainian preparing to invade Russia. The surviving Russian troops knew better because all they encountered were Ukrainians, usually armed with weapons similar to what Russia used. The Ukrainians used more effective tactics and some new weapons. Many of these were Western models but some were Ukrainian made. The Russian state-controlled media was ordered to ignore reports like this and stick with the official story that this was all a secret NATO operation to attack Russia via Ukraine.
While this information war played on, the Russian military ordered everything Russia had, short of nuclear weapons, to salvage the situation. Russia was at war with a near peer opponent and was losing. Many Russians, civilian military, figured out what was happening and were openly criticizing and sometimes physically attacking their government because of the mess in Ukraine that was killing a lot of Russian troops. These Russian critics were often well-educated professionals in regular contact with Westerners, including more than a million Russians who had left since 2014 because of fears Russia was headed for what actually happened in 2022.
NATO countries believed the Russians had the edge in some areas, like electronic warfare, but the Ukrainians were demolishing that with their own ingenuity and the help of Western technologies that no one believed had military potential. Chief among these was the American Starlink satellite-based Internet service that Ukrainian engineers and electronics experts believed, even before the 2022 invasion, had military potential. Ukrainians also developed new artillery fire-control software and tactics that were far more effective than anyone, Ukrainian, Western or Russian, imagined.
NATO nations also learned some valuable lessons. The first one was that their intelligence services, like the CIA and similar operations in major NATO countries, did not see this coming. Exactly how this happened is still unexplained, even though the CIA has a history of similar lapses, along with many less-newsworthy and noticed successes. It’s the major failures that are most visible and the first near-peer war in Ukraine is one of the most striking. Some of this is due to priorities, where seeking potential dangers is more important than spotting potential opportunities. This is an ancient attitude, but in an age where electronic media and weapons speed up the creation of new threats and the spread of news about them, the traditional prediction methods don’t work as well as they used to. You can see this in the different reactions of the many NATO members or new applicants like Sweden and Finland. These last two nations had successfully used armed neutrality for a long time. Sweden has avoided war for over two centuries and Finland has done the same for nearly a century. Both nations had always considered Russia their primary threat and with that background these two neutrals have a much more practical and realistic assessment of the Russian threat. The farther a NATO nation is from Russia the less accurate is their perception of the Russian threat, which has been active for nearly five centuries. Americans are seen by Europeans as actively ignoring the past. After all, most Americans are descendants of foreigners, most European, seeking to get away from wars and oppression in their homelands. In the 20th Century, America became the wealthiest nation on the planet and soon discovered that success came with a price; involuntary involvement in foreign wars, especially the two World Wars and the Cold War, often described as “World War III waiting to happen”.
The unexpected near-peer battle in Ukraine finds the Russians resorting to Cold War slogans, like the threat of triggering World War III. A fundamental problem with Russia is that they are enthusiastically paranoid, seeing all neighbors as potential threats or territorial acquisition opportunities. As bad habits go, that has been a hard one to shed. After 1991 Russia tried but then tradition returned to power in the form of a former KGB (secret police) officer. A growing number of Russians have done the math and concluded that the old ways are too expensive in terms of lives lost along with economic opportunities. Ukraine is the enemy because they have left the old ways behind and are killing Russian invaders with the economic opportunities and other innovations that Russia resists.