Russia’s one-sided war on Ukraine is modern war’s true image
When Russia launched its unprovoked war on Ukraine, it did not expect retaliation. The war so far has been fought entirely in Ukraine, with the exception of one reported attack on an Millerovo airfield by Ukraine. Because it is not a member of NATO, Ukraine only received defensive weapons from several Western powers and there is no expectation that the conflict will become a total war like those in the past, with both countries’ capital cities bombed — unless, of course, Russia pushes into a NATO state such as Poland.
This kind of war, in which a strong country attacks a weaker country, and the conflict is largely one-sided, appears to be a main feature of modern warfare in the post-Cold War period. In the past three decades, almost all major wars have been carried out similarly. The U.S. perfected this method during the lead-up to the Gulf War in 1991, putting together a large coalition to eject former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Iraq had begun the conflict by invading Kuwait and only once did Iraq try to attack a Saudi Arabian city with an armored column; otherwise, Iraq was pounded by air power and then forced into submission.
In earlier conflicts, such as the Korean or Vietnam wars, North and South Korea and what were then North and South Vietnam were involved in the conflicts. Both sides suffered, sometimes grievously, and forces for countries that intervened, such as the U.S. and French in Vietnam and China in Korea, suffered casualties as well.
Today, a one-sided or “asymmetric” aspect of modern war is common to conflicts, such as those in the 1990s and early 2000s in which the U.S. and its allies carried out various campaigns with little chance of retaliation. For example, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, to force Serbian forces out of Kosovo, was done without expectation that Serbian forces might attack NATO powers. Later, during the Global War on Terror, the U.S. and allies fought in Iraq and Afghanistan against terrorists and insurgents.
More recently, Turkey has waged several invasions of Syria, fighting against Kurdish groups, without any real repercussions for Turkey. Israel carries out strikes on Iranian targets in Syria and, so far, there has been no war with Hezbollah or Iran as a result. Iran also carries out one-sided attacks, such as those on Saudi Arabia in 2019 involving cruise missiles and drones, without retaliation by Saudi Arabia.
A key feature, then, of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is Moscow’s knowledge that there is no chance Ukrainian troops will end this conflict with a march on Moscow. While civilian air traffic has stopped over Ukraine, with flights canceled, planes are still flying into Moscow. If we think of World Wars I and II, or even wars with smaller geographic footprints such as the civil wars in the United States or Spain, there was always a sense that both sides had to risk all in the conflict. Today’s great powers risk little — and know they can fight wars in other countries while their civilians go about life as normal.
The lesson of this kind of conflict is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine borrows from its sense that, regardless of how well its military performs, it will come away unscathed. If Ukraine were to target numerous Russian cities with missiles, there is a good chance this would be portrayed as “escalation,” as opposed to retaliation.
There is a sense that modern war can be fought in a sanitized fashion by powerful countries, and for smaller regional powers, there is also a fear of wars that might risk real escalation. Iran, for example, uses proxy groups in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon to target its adversaries, but Iran itself prefers to stay out of the conflicts it backs. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition also wages war in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthis without real fear that Saudi Arabia will be forced to defend its own soil.
When Western powers discuss the next steps in Ukraine, it likely will be in the context of continuing to help Ukraine defend itself or coming to a diplomatic agreement. Since Russia faces no real repercussions on its own soil, there’s every expectation that more wars will follow in which Russia will try to force its will on others. Some see this as a world order now dominated by “might makes right.” The method of wars without consequences may continue until a country like Ukraine chooses to strike back against its aggressor and demands accountability for a war waged on its soil.
Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.