By Jong Eun Lee
On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched a large-scale military offensive against Ukraine. Despite initial predictions that Russia’s self-described “special military operation” would quickly take over Ukraine, Russian forces were met by the latter’s determined resistance and have failed to capture many of Ukraine’s major cities, including the capital Kyiv. The international community has largely condemned Russia’s military operation and has imposed stringent economic sanctions on the latter. Two weeks after the start of the war, Russia continued to maintain military superiority over Ukraine. Yet, with Ukraine receiving economic assistance and military arms from the West, the course of the war remains uncertain and volatile.
Despite international sanctions and Ukraine’s resistance, could Russia succeed in its bold, risky military campaign? In history, Russia has experienced “glorious victories” and “shameful defeats”. Russia’s past victories include the Great Northern War in the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century, and the Great Patriotic War (World War II) in the 20th century that have helped Russia’s rise as a world power. In stark contrast, military defeats in the Crimean War, Russo-Japanese War, and Soviet-Afghan War resulted in Russia’s political crisis and even contributed to the collapse of its political system.
Two common factors were present in Russa’s past victories.
First, formidable foreign aggressions have motivated Russians to rally behind their political leadership. Past European powers such as Sweden, France, Germany initially defeated the Russian army on the battlefields and inflicted a mass number of casualties for Russia. Yet, national crises reinforced Russians’ resilience in enduring the suffering from wars. The Tsardom of Russia melted church bells to make cannons for renewed battles with the Swedish army; Russia/Soviet leadership implemented a “scorched earth” strategy to deny supplies to advancing French and the German army. Persisting in a brutal war of attrition, Russia eventually turned the war tide against its adversaries, especially when the latter suffered from the infamously cold Russian winter.
Second, Russia was assisted by foreign allies in the wars it has won. During the Great Northern War, Poland, Denmark, several German states entangled Sweden in protracted battles, allowing respite for Russia to mount a counteroffensive. Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, the United States during World War II, each supported Russia in eventually trapping Napoleon and Hitler in a two-front war. Absent supportive military operations from allies, it would have been difficult for Russia to have won with its military strength alone.
In contrast, the two factors were absent in wars where Russia suffered defeats. In wars where Russians did not resonate with war’s purpose, Russia lost even to a weaker adversary. During the Russo-Japanese War and the Soviet-Afghan War, the Russian public was critical of the military, economic losses from wars being fought overseas. Failing to communicate compelling justification for public endurance of the war costs in the Far East and the Middle East regions, the Russian state eventually faced popular uprisings against its rule. The wars Russia fought alone without support from foreign allies also ended often as defeats. During the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War, wary of Russia’s expansion, the European powers either collaborated against Russia or refused to support the latter. In the Soviet-Afghan War, the weakness of its allied socialist Afghanistan government compelled the Soviet army to take the lead role in fighting Afghan rebels (“Mujahadeen”) backed by the US, Pakistan, Iran, and China for nearly ten years. Eventually, the escalating war costs forced the Soviet government to withdraw from Afghanistan.
In the current Russia-Ukraine War, the two factors behind Russia’s past victories are not visible, signifying disadvantages for Russia. The Russian government portrayed Ukraine’s possible NATO integration as an external security threat and launched preventive measures to “demilitarize” Ukraine. However, the level of security crisis the Russian public perceives from Ukraine’s hypothetical NATO membership is unlikely to be equivalent to past wars when Russia experienced a direct military attack. Does Ukraine pose a security threat so severe that the Russian public should be motivated to endure the cost of economic sanctions and military casualties? A prolonged war in Ukraine would burden the Russian government with defending the justification of military operations.
In the past, Russia had mitigated its military costs and responsibilities by engaging in proxy wars with foreign allies. During the Korean War and the Syrian Civil War, Russia supported the North Korean and Syrian regimes respectively, legitimizing military interventions as support for allied regimes. In Ukraine, Russia has also justified its intervention as support for pro-Russia separatist governments such as the Donetsk People’s Republic.
However, the current Russia-Ukraine war is not limited to territories occupied by these separatist governments but over wide areas of Ukraine, fought mostly by the regular Russian military. Russia, therefore, cannot as easily use the cover of a proxy war to deflect its war responsibility and burden. Nor has Russia succeeded in expanding local support for Pro-Russia separatists. On the contrary, the Russian military has confronted determined resistance even from Russia-speaking regions within Ukraine. Even if Russia succeeds in conquering Ukraine’s territory, the lack of a reliable local allied government will concentrate the burden of military occupation on Russia. With only Belarus as a foreign ally actively supporting Russia, other potential allies such as China maintaining so far ambiguous stances toward the war, Russia confronts Ukraine and the West mostly alone.
If Russia disregards these disadvantages and continues the war in its current state, there is a high possibility that Russia could repeat its history of military defeats. However, as dynamics of war could shift, it is prudent to be cautious in predicting war’s outcome. Currently, NATO has refrained from direct military intervention. Should NATO intervene with measures such as imposing the no-fly zone over Ukraine, Russia could redefine the war as a military confrontation between the West and Russia. It is possible the heightened security crisis and hostility toward the West motivate the Russian public to rally behind their state, at least temporally containing the state’s domestic vulnerability. Alternatively, should Russia revise its original objective of controlling entire Ukraine and focus more narrowly on securing separatist governments’ independence and territorial expansion, the war could display more of a proxy war character. Russia would then be unlikely to win a grand victory, but through partitioning sizeable Ukraine’s territory, avoid the perception of a military defeat.
Once again, Russia’s history is facing a defining moment. Whether Russia reemerges as a regional hegemon of a new cold war or reverts to a tumultuous state of post-cold war ’90s, the Russia-Ukraine War is an event that could significantly reshape Russia’s place in the international order.
*Jong Eun Lee is a Ph.D. Candidate and is also an adjunct faculty at the American University School of International Service. Prior to this, he has served as a South Korean Airforce intelligence officer. His research specialty includes U.S. foreign policy, South Korean politics and foreign policy, alliance management, East Asian regional security.