What 70 Years of War Can Tell Us About the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Any Russian invasion of Ukraine was long expected to play out as a kind of postmodern war, defined by 21st-century weapons like media manipulation, battlefield-clouding disinformation, cyberattacks, false flag operations and unmarked fighters.
Such elements have featured in this war. But it is traditional 20th-century dynamics that have instead dominated: shifting battle lines of tanks and troops; urban assaults; struggles over air supremacy and over supply lines; and mass mobilization of troops and of weapons production.
The war’s contours, now nearly a year into the fighting, resemble not so much those of any future war but rather those of a certain sort of conflict from decades past: namely, wars fought between nations in which one does not outright conquer the other.
Such conflicts have grown rarer in the period since 1945, an era often associated more with civil wars, insurgencies and American invasions that have quickly shifted to occupation.
But wars between nations have continued: between Israel and Arab states, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. These are the conflicts that military historians and analysts, when asked to draw parallels with the Russian war in Ukraine, tend to cite.
“You have these big commonalities. In Korea, for example,” Sergey Radchenko, a Johns Hopkins University historian, said, referring to the Korean War. “Big conventional battles. Bombardment of infrastructure.”
Every war is unique. But certain trends that have played out across this subset of conflicts, including in Ukraine, may help to shed light on what drives week-to-week fighting, what tends to determine victory or failure and how such wars typically end — or don’t.
One after another, Dr. Radchenko said, such wars have started over fundamental territorial disputes that date back to the warring countries’ founding and are therefore baked into both sides’ very conception of their national identities. This makes the underlying conflict so difficult to resolve that fighting often recurs repeatedly over many decades.
Those wars have often turned, perhaps more than any other factor, on industrial attrition, as each side strains to maintain the flow of matériel like tanks and antiaircraft munitions that keep it in the fight.
The State of the War
- Soledar: The Russian military and the Wagner Group, a private mercenary group, contradicted each other publicly about who should get credit for capturing the eastern town. Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, has rejected Russia’s victory claim, saying its troops were still fighting there.
- Russia’s Military Reshuffle: Moscow has shaken up its military command in Ukraine again, demoting its top commander after just three months and replacing him with a Kremlin insider who helped orchestrate the ill-fated invasion.
- Western Escalation: A cease-fire proposal seemingly aimed at splintering Western unity has instead been met with an escalation of military involvement by Ukraine’s allies.
- New Equipment: The Western allies’ provision to Ukraine of infantry fighting vehicles signaled their support for new offensives. Now it looks likely that tanks will be added to the list of weapons being sent.
But this works very differently from the competition over raw manpower that defined conflicts like World War I, touching more on matters of technology, economic capacity and international diplomacy.
A Modern Sort of Attrition
“A lot of conventional wars come down to attrition,” the analyst Michael Kofman said recently on the national security podcast War on the Rocks. “The side that is better able to reconstitute over time is the side that’s able to sustain the war and ultimately win.”
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine neatly fits that model, which helps to explain many of its twists and turns, added Mr. Kofman, who is the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va.
To take one example, each side’s ability to take and hold territory is determined in large part by its ability to field tanks and other heavy vehicles more reliably than its opponent.
And, because air power is effective at destroying such vehicles, each side’s rate of attrition on the ground is determined in part by who controls the skies.
This is consistent with other such wars. Some analysts argue that Iran ended its decade-long war with Iraq, in the 1980s, only when it finally wrested control of the skies.
By the same token, the question of who controls the skies is determined in large part by whether Ukraine can field enough anti-air weaponry to keep pace with Russia’s ability to field aircraft. That is a question of attrition, too — though one that is as much economic and diplomatic as it is military.
This helps explain why Ukraine, whose production could hardly keep pace even before Russia began bombing its factories, has focused so much on winning Western military aid; why Western governments have focused so tightly on constraining Russia’s economy; and why Russian forces have launched so many strikes on Ukrainian cities — which both degrades Ukrainian industry, down to even the functioning of its electrical grid, as well as forces Ukraine to relocate some air defenses from the front lines to cities far removed from the battlefield.
All of these, on some level, are fronts in the war of industrial attrition. This, too, parallels other such wars, for instance the Korean War, in which U.S.-led air attacks devastated North Korean cities in a manner not unlike, and often exceeding, Russia’s strike campaign in Ukraine.
One lesson of those conflicts is that, as each side grows desperate to keep pace with the other, it goes to ever-greater lengths to win international support.
That can prolong the war when it favors the aggressor, as did American and Saudi support for Iraq’s attempted invasion of Iran. It can help decide the war’s outcome, as happened in some conflicts amid the breakup of Yugoslavia, where Western support for one side ultimately exceeded Russian support for the other. It can also reshape global politics more broadly. The geopolitical lines set by the Korean War, in which the North won Soviet and Chinese support against the U.S.-backed South, are still largely in place 70 years later.
“The Yom Kippur War comes to mind,” Dr. Radchenko, the historian, said of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, referring to the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.
The coalition of Arab states that attacked Israel sought to eject it from territory it had seized in prior rounds of fighting and re-establish their regional dominance, much as Moscow is seeking to reimpose Ukraine within its orbit and, more broadly, reconstitute some of its Soviet-era power within Europe.
In his speech announcing the invasion, Vladimir V. Putin, Russia’s president, even described it as a war to reverse what he considered to be the historical error, amid the Soviet Union’s breakup 30 years earlier, that established Ukraine as an independent state.
This, too, parallels the Arab coalition’s repeated wars with Israel, which date to that country’s declaration of independence in 1948, on territory the Arab states considered to be rightfully Palestine. The most recent war between Israel and one of those states was in 2006, marking 58 years of conflict. Formal peace with several of those countries was declared only in the last few years, and tensions still remain at a low boil with others.
This pattern holds across many of the conventional wars since World War II: a conflict over territory and power balance that began with the declaration of those modern states and that has flared intermittently ever since.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, for instance, two countries that also emerged out of the Soviet Union’s breakup, have fought periodic wars ever since, broken by long but tense cease-fires. India and Pakistan fought their first war within months of their independence and partition in 1947, followed by three more wars, most recently in 1999, and repeated lower-level conflicts now held at a tentative nuclear peace. North and South Korea reached an armistice in 1953 but remain in a technical state of war with occasional flare-ups and an ever-present threat of all-out fighting.
Such conflicts, in other words, have often persisted for as many as six or seven decades. With peace talks minimal or nonexistent in many cases, some may well continue longer than that.
And while outright fighting may be infrequent, with what
Dr. Radchenko termed “active phases” lasting only a few months, periods of calm typically require deep international involvement to maintain. American troops, for instance, have been garrisoned in South Korea for more than 70 years.
It is impossible to predict whether this represents the future for Russia and Ukraine, though it perhaps already describes their present state. The seven years before Russia’s 2022 invasion were marked by lower-level fighting, with heavy Western diplomacy and support to Ukraine aimed at forestalling wider conflict.
This pattern shows that one side rarely vanquishes the other outright, especially with foreign states ready to step in. And it offers another lesson: Political change within those countries rarely provides the sort of breakthrough that observers are hoping might one day lead Moscow to pull back. The decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, only deepened with the elevation, in 1985, of the reform-minded leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
New Wars, Old Patterns
That Russia and Ukraine’s war would seem to fit an old pattern at all, rather than charting a new direction in warfare, as had been widely predicted, may offer wider lessons for the world.
“Strategic weapons have not replaced and will not replace armies,” Stephanie Carvin, a Canadian analyst, wrote in an essay on the trajectory of warfare that has circulated widely among experts.
Conventional forces alone can seize and hold territory, making them the central unit of warfare. Newer technology like drones or satellite communications have not altered that dynamic, nor have new methods such as cyberattacks or media manipulation.
“There’s no doubt that ways of waging wars have evolved since the time of Clausewitz with the introduction of new technologies,” Dr. Radchenko said, referring to the 18th-century Prussian general credited with modern military theory.
But, over and over, he added, what might initially “get called a ‘revolution’ in military affairs actually plays out as fairly slow changes.”
But by the same token, Dr. Carvin wrote in her essay, “Weapons can help produce cease-fires, but they cannot themselves create long-lasting, established peace.”
Despite many attempts by large and small military powers alike to develop methods of warfare effective enough to force their political goals on their adversary, none has yet found a way to sidestep the hard work of negotiating a mutually acceptable peace.
But a lesson of the past 80 years of warfare may be that if states are unable to come to terms — perhaps, as with the case of Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine, because one side sees the other’s very independence as intolerable — then even fighting to a state of mutual exhaustion might not bring peace.