By Edward Luttwak for UnHerd
War is the domain of paradox, contradiction, and boundless surprise. It is not merely because of ignorance or stupidity that military history is a record of crimes, follies, defeats, and very few victories worth their cost. Even so, the Ukraine war is exceptional in the amplitude of its paradoxes, the extremity of its contradictions, and the magnitude of its surprises.
For the “post-Pacifist” German mainstream, the most bitter paradox of all is that the Russians might not have attacked Ukraine had they foreseen Germany’s response: that the Bundestag would cancel the new Russian gas pipeline, invest in regasification terminals, send weapons to Ukraine, reaffirm its fealty to Nato, and move to drastically upgrade its armed forces with a €100 billion injection.
The Russians could not possibly have known these things. The day before Putin launched his invasion, the German government declared that the new Russian gas pipeline would be inaugurated no matter what, and that they would send no weapons to Ukraine; it even affirmed it would prevent Estonia’s delivery of 122mm howitzers to Kyiv because those guns had briefly belonged to Germany when the West German army absorbed East Germany’s.
Yet more egregiously, Germany also denied overflight permission for British transports delivering weapons to Ukraine. As for Nato, Germany reiterated its refusal to spend 2% or even 1% of its GDP for defence. If there were to be collective defence at all, let it be European, and directed by the decidedly civilian European Commission.
In that remote past of a month ago, those were all decidedly mainstream preferences throughout Europe, albeit with a north-south divide. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden had all resurrected their ancient Baltic connections and therefore viewed Russia as a live threat. But in Italy and Spain such attitudes were rare, and declared Putin admirers could become ministers in coalition governments.
As for France, Macron did not oppose the effectively pro-Russian stance of the German government because he also wanted a European defence, led by France, of course, as the only European nuclear power.
All this has now slipped into oblivion in today’s Europe, where Nato’s centrality and its US leadership are largely uncontested. The Russians assessed Nato as weak because it was weak, and therefore attacked Ukraine. Yet because they attacked, Nato is stronger than it has been for decades.
In every country’s military, the equally abrupt reversals are causing no end of trouble for the staff officers and civil servants working on next year’s budgets. The infantry is once again the queen of the battlefield, empowered as it is by anti-tank missiles that pursue armoured vehicles until they destroy them, and by portable anti-aircraft missiles that are the doom of helicopters, even if they cannot intercept much faster jets.
This means that current combat helicopter and armoured vehicle purchases should be cancelled until they can be redesigned with much better protection; that is active defences that detect and intercept the incoming missiles — a process that might take years. (So far only Israel has active defence systems for its armoured vehicles ).
By contrast, killer drones that can reliably destroy armoured vehicles and anything else beyond the horizon are grotesquely underfunded given their demonstrated combat value, largely because they are captive to air force priorities, set by pilots and ex-pilot senior officers. Only with political intervention can the stranglehold of the flying fraternity be overcome — they are today’s reactionary horse cavalry that resisted tanks in the Twenties.
But the main thing, of course, is to have more infantry and to train it very well, and that raises the need for compulsory military service which only Sweden has confronted so far — by re-instituting it.
Because Nato has not instituted a no-flight zone, for the excellent reason that it would lead to air combat that the loser might try to nullify by escalation, and with everything happening much too fast for adult supervision, no new air combat lessons have been learned. While the heroism of Ukrainian pilots flying older models of Russian aircraft against newer models is highly admirable, it adds nothing that is not already written in The Iliad.
At the level of grand strategy, the largest and by far most consequential discovery is that in spite of decades of talk about the “diffusion of power”, particularly with the rise of China but also of Turkey, Iran, Brazil and South Africa, it is still the same old G7 countries that hold the keys of the world. Once the US, Canada, Japan, the United Kingdom and the European Union make a decision, any country can be cut off from world finance and most of world commerce.
Russia’s Aeroflot, for instance, had to stop flying abroad because its aircraft are leased from Western companies, and the money-transfer sanctions blocked its payments to them, leading to the confiscation of its aircraft if they land outside Russia.
That would not bother the Chinese, whose airlines do not depend on foreign lessors. But by the second day of the Ukraine war, Beijing realised that China also lives in a G7 world, with its economy utterly dependent on the daily arrival of bulk carriers loaded with animal and human food from the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil and a slew of other countries. China’s economy was self-sufficient if miserably poor in 1976 when I first visited, with a population on the edge of malnutrition.
But today’s citizens will not grin and bear it without their meat, eggs, or milk. Last year, Xi Jinping’s naval groupies, including the jovial retired Admiral Luo Yuan, suggested that the US could be scared off from defending Taiwan against a Chinese invasion by sinking a US warship or two, perhaps even an aircraft carrier. Now Xi must realise that if a US warship is sunk, the supply of animal feed would end.
Finally for the United States, the greatest lesson of immediate importance is that its foreign and defence policies are drastically degraded by the lack of basic intelligence about foreign countries — not because the CIA fails to steal their war plans, but because it cannot acquire elementary situational awareness.
This is an inevitable consequence of a cultural collapse: in the old days, a CIA officer appointed to serve in a foreign country whose language he did not know would apply himself furiously to learn as much of it as possible. But now, very few CIA officers speak any foreign language. Their superiors do not demand that they learn them, and they themselves are too busy chatting with each other to talk with the locals — other than with English-speaking local counterparts who mostly tell them what they want to hear.
This is why Biden paid a high political price for the effortless Taliban conquest of Afghanistan and the rapid fall of Kabul: the CIA told the White House that the Afghan army would hold out on its own for much more than a decent interval, for years perhaps, and said nothing at all to suggest that it might crumble without a fight.
Not knowing Tajik, Uzbek, or any Pathan dialect, the CIA officers who uselessly served in Kabul from their offices did not overhear the jokes on the street about the Afghan army, or hilarious accounts of how incompetent fools could become instant officers by paying a modest bribe.
Because American generals, including media-star David Petraeus, flatly refused to call upon the regiments of Pathans, Tadjiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who might fight out of ethnic solidarity, instead creating a mythical national “Afghan” army, the result was a fraud from day one. When the time came, they did not fight or even flee: they handed over their US-supplied weapons to the Taliban.
In Kyiv, exactly the same thing happened, but in reverse. Just as in Kabul, we had CIA officers with no situational awareness. They did not listen, or understand, or even speak Ukrainian — they proclaimed it unnecessary “because everyone speaks Russian”, before sheepishly admitting that they themselves did not. Hence the CIA told the White House that Zelenskyy would flee, that the government would dissolve, that the Ukrainian army would not fight, and that the Russians would control Kyiv in 24 hours.
Since the White House still gave credence to the CIA in spite of its long history of incompetence, it ordered the urgent, even panicked evacuation of the US diplomatic mission to Lviv. Had they had any idea at all, they might have noticed that the Russians proposed to invade Europe’s largest country with very few troops — 150,000 compared to the 800,000 sent into far smaller Czechoslovakia in 1968 — and told the White House that with a bit of help the Ukrainians would contain the invasion.
But the CIA is highly professional in its press relations, and sure enough the New York Times promptly published an article that featured “former intelligence officers” highlighting the impossibility of ascertaining “fighting spirit”. It was as neat an illustration as any of why Kabul fell, and why Kyiv could too. Unless the US remedies its CIA problem by emptying out and fumigating the place, before restaffing it with people who care enough about the world to learn its languages, the US will continue to fly blind — and crash into the next Ukraine.
Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.
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US generals got it wrong from the start (ALLISON JOYCE/AFP via Getty Images)