The War In Ukraine: Strategic Lessons



By Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead and Dr. Michael Milshtein | March, 2022​


Joh Biden and Vladimir Putin
Photos: Remix: Gage Skidmore (CC BY SA 2.0) | (CC BY 4.0) | maxpixel


Although the war in Ukraine began a month ago, it remains shrouded in heavy mist due to a combination typical of many 21st century conflicts – an overflow of information and piles of fake news – making it tremendously difficult to form an accurate assessment of any given situation and provide policy recommendations. This challenge is faced by decisionmakers in the West, including Israel, as well as agencies engaging in intelligence assessment, the media and academic world.


The fundamental issue of superfluous information and the need to distinguish between truth and fiction are joined by additional hurdles that assessors must overcome, such as the bias caused in the West by emotional identification with the attacked, which impacts the way reality is portrayed, and, at times, confuses wishes with assessments, as well as the gaps created between the western onlooker's values and considerations, and those of the Russian subject studied. Thus, a situation emerges in which we know a great deal about the state of affairs without necessarily gaining any profound insight into it.


The campaign in Eastern Europe is teaching media commentators, academic scholars, and intelligence assessments agencies some deep, strategic, and valid lessons:


  1. A distinction between event analysis and process comprehension: Western intelligence agencies, particularly those in the U.S. and UK, had excelled in their pre-war assessment that it was highly likely to be waged. They had relied on a combination of outstanding collection of information on Russian military maneuvers (primarily the accumulation of forces and training thereof for war) and precise intelligence on the decision made in Moscow to invade. However, the intelligence agencies clearly struggled to provide in-depth assessments of processes, and issue an early warning, months in advance, that such dynamics were forming, and that the potential for an explosion between Russia and Ukraine was growing. Contrary to short-term (and often tactical) intelligence, this kind of strategic intelligence is based on understanding in-depth streams and collective cognition, such as Moscow's historical sensitivity to NATO forces' presence on its doorstep, especially when it comes to Ukraine, which many in top Russian echelons continue to view as a historical part of "Greater Russia".

  2. The importance of intelligence regarding intentions: Whereas the information provided on the Russians' military capabilities and tactical maneuvers was of top quality, it seems western intelligence agencies remained in the dark before the war, and to a large extent to this day, on Moscow's strategic intentions. Thus, even now, several key questions have yet to be answered, namely: Was a full invasion of Ukraine and the establishment of a puppet regime in Kiev indeed part of the original Russian plan? How wrong did the plan go in view of what appears to be a military complication? What is the Russians' time perception with regard to the current campaign? And what is the decision-making dynamic pertaining to the war in the Kremlin (will Putin take this decision alone, or will it be reached in collaboration with his team)? The map of the battle is therefore becoming gradually clearer; however, uncertainties remain with regard to the strategic perception that is guiding the military effort. This gap reveals that, even when the understanding of reality improves when a large database is available, it will forever be lacking unless it includes a decoding of enemy logic.

  3. The importance of cultural understanding when analyzing the enemy: This argument is valid in many cases in recent decades whereby western parties (including Israel) were in conflict with non-western parties (particularly in the Middle East), and were often surprised by the "Other's" forms of conduct, objective defining, and thinking patterns. In the Ukrainian campaign it is also crucial to familiarize oneself with historical and cultural dimensions, including Moscow's basic perception of its impact spheres, and fear of foreign (primarily American) infiltration, alongside the blood-soaked history between the two nations. These aspects were prominent in Putin's seminal speech on the eve of the incursion, in which he had outlined his historical view whereby a separate Ukrainian identity did not exist, and the Russian Federation's imperial past and vision were underscored; as well as in the highlighted presence of the memory of World War II in the current campaign (the Russians present themselves as liberating Ukraine from a pro-Nazi regime, whereas Kiev is portraying Putin as Hitler's successor). Another critical issue that cannot be discerned in the absence of cultural understanding is the approach common among the Russian public to the war: Several polls have indicated that the campaign is perceived as a national maneuver, garnering support, and, at present, it remains unclear whether the sanctions are causing internal discontent or are, in fact, uniting the Russians against an external threat.

  4. The risk of reducing and personalizing the assessment: Various commentators, particularly in the media and academia, tend, during the current crisis, to focus on "what goes on inside Putin's head", often arguing that it is in this narrow space that Russian strategy is determined. This tendency is sometimes joined by the claim that the Russian President has lost his sanity, as well as all touch with reality, in support of which one brings Putin's willingness to use violence and breach the code of conduct common in the West. Some of these arguments are based, inter alia, on "remote psychoanalyses" conducted on the Russian ruler, more often than not by scholars who are not knowledgeable in his language, values or culture. Thus, a comprehensive conflict between two nations is simplistically reduced to the dimensions of a single man, and is tended to be viewed as the essence of the dispute as a whole, which often allows assessors to avoid putting in the effort to make an in-depth analysis of the other side's logic – an endeavor that, as previously mentioned, requires one to have command of Russian culture, language, and historical awareness.

  5. The limited impact of intelligence-based disclosures: Prior to and during the war, the West has been attempting to use the uncovering of intelligence on Russian intent to change its conduct and disrupt its plans. However, it did not deter Putin from waging war (the disclosure was supposed to embarrass him internationally, and make it clear that he had lost the element of surprise), and, at present, one wonders whether these tools will successfully thwart the use of non-conventional weapons, which Moscow is reported to be seriously considering. The lesson to be learned is that the tools that may, at times, deter actors of limited power (Israel versus Hamas or Hizballah) have relatively limited impact when it comes to great powers that are willing to take risks, are not too impressed with global public opinions, and strive with all their might to broaden their influence, or reinstate the imperial glory they had lost.

  6. The war over hearts and minds (The Cognitive Campaign) – "a one-sided conflict": Many of the reports on the events taking place on the battlefield originate in Ukraine, and are filled with disinformation. The war over hearts and minds is used, for the most part, by the attacked, either to achieve domestic goals (raise morale and feed the combat fire) or international ones (garnering support from the West and demonstrating the price of war to Russian public opinion). These sources yield the majority of reports on Russian casualties, Ukrainian forces' successes, and, at times, the goings-on in Russian society. Putin himself seems utterly disinterested in playing this game: He does not aspire to convince the western public that his means and accomplishments are justified, and instead focuses his public diplomacy efforts on the internal arena (presenting growing external threats and delegitimizing the Kiev regime). His online activity is also relatively limited, whether because he has been disconnected from the worldwide web by the West, or because of the restrictions he himself is imposing on virtual discourse. As in the intelligence-based disclosures, it is difficult to present achievements in the war over hearts and minds when fighting a great power that has no interest in convincing international public opinion and, in fact, has little respect for the political norms governing it; deters external forces from intervening in the fighting, despite the fact that the Ukrainian tragedy is being resonated; and is blocking public discourse within his own borders.


And, naturally, there's the Israeli perspective too. Many of the takeaways from the war in Ukraine have already been etched into the minds of Israeli decisionmakers and assessors over the years, including the grave repercussions of misinterpreting an adversary's strategic intent – as starkly demonstrated by the Yom Kippur War in 1973; underestimating enemies and believing that their mind and being may be "engineered" (an assumption that crashed in 1982, for example); and the tendency to describe rival leaders as insane (as in the case of Yahya Sinwar from Hamas or Iranian President Raisi, for instance), among other reasons due to the difficulty to profoundly decipher the logic behind their actions.


At the same time, the campaign in Ukraine exemplifies the Israeli assessing agencies' limited knowledge, understanding and proficiency. The conflict is taking place in a broad, complex, and distant geopolitical theater that ranks relatively low on Israel's state security agenda. Therefore, the ability to form an intelligence picture, let alone assessments and estimates on such arenas is inherently limited, unlike areas closer to Israel, where it invests most of its efforts and knowledge, with which Israel's familiarity is longstanding and detailed on all levels. Such an understanding requires basic modesty, that was absent before the war began, and especially recognition of the gaps and need to rely more extensively on external sources to form a snapshot of strategic reality, and make decisions on those faraway arenas.




Authored by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, Executive Director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and Dr. Michael Milshtein, senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS).



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