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Why Ukraine’s War Is More Reminiscent of Past Conflicts Than 21st Century Conflicts

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For some time now, when the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine by Russia was being floated, the expectation was that it would unfold as a kind of postmodern war, defined by 21st century weapons—media manipulation, disinformation to confuse frontlines, cyberattacks, false flag operations and unidentified combatants.

These elements even feature prominently in the conflict. But it is the traditional dynamics of the 20th century that have dominated: changes in the battle lines of tanks and troops, urban attacks, struggles for air supremacy and supply routes, mass mobilization of troops and weapons production.

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The contours of the war, which began almost a year ago, are not so much like those of any other future, but rather like those of a certain type of conflict of past decades — in which one nation does not completely conquer the other.

Such wars became increasingly rare after World War II, a period often associated with civil wars, insurgencies, and American invasions turned occupations. But they continued: between Israel and Arab states, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. They are the ones military historians and analysts tend to cite to draw parallels with the Ukrainian War.

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“We have great similarities with the Korean War, for example: big conventional battles, bombing of infrastructure”, says Serguei Radtchenko, historian at Johns Hopkins University, in the United States.

Each war is unique. But certain trends in this subset of conflicts can help shed light on what drives the fights from week to week, what tends to determine victory or failure, and how things tend to end — or not.

modern frictions

“Many conventional wars boil down to attrition,” analyst Michael Kofman recently said on the War on the Rocks podcast. “The side best able to rebuild its structures over time is the side that can sustain the war and, ultimately, win.”

The Russia-Ukraine conflict fits this model, which helps explain many of its twists and turns.

To give an example: each side’s ability to conquer and hold territory is largely determined by its ability to field tanks and other heavy vehicles more consistently than its rival. Since airpower is effective in destroying these vehicles, the rate of attrition on the ground is partially determined by who controls the skies.

The argument has a historical basis. Analysts argue that Iran only ended its decade-long war with Iraq in the 1980s when it finally gained air dominance.

In this sense, the outcome of the Ukrainian War would be largely determined by whether or not Ukraine possessed enough anti-aircraft weapons to deter Russia’s deployment of aircraft. This, too, is a question of attrition — though it is as economic and diplomatic as it is military.

It still helps to explain why Ukraine, whose weapons production was barely keeping pace even before Russia started bombing its factories, went to such lengths to get Western military help; why Western governments have focused so much effort on targeting the Russian economy; and why Russian forces have launched so many attacks against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure — which both degrade industry and the functioning of the power grid and force the invaded country to relocate air defenses from the front lines to cities far from the battlefield.

All of these are, in some ways, fronts in a war of attrition. And they have parallels with conflicts of the same type — in the Korean War, for example, several of the US-led airstrikes against North Korean cities were more devastating than Russia’s strikes on Ukraine.

One lesson is that, as each side grows desperate to keep up with the other, it struggles ever harder to gain international support.

When the favored is the aggressor, this can prolong the war – as was the case with Iraq’s attempt to invade Iran, which was supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. It can also help decide the outcome of the fight, as in the conflicts arising from the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Or, ultimately, lead to a reshaping of geopolitics more broadly: the alliances established in the Korean War, in which the North won Soviet and Chinese support against the US-backed South, are still in place 70 years later.

Wars of many decades

“The Yom Kippur War comes to mind,” Radchenko says of the Russian invasion, referring to the Middle East conflict in 1973.

At the time, the Arab coalition that attacked Israel sought to oust the enemy from territories it had conquered in previous battles and re-establish regional dominance — just as Moscow is trying to pull Ukraine back into its orbit and, more broadly, reconstitute itself. part of its Soviet-era power in Europe.

In his speech announcing the invasion, Vladimir Putin even described it as an attempt to reverse Ukraine’s independence, which he called a “historic mistake” amid the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years earlier.

It also has parallels with the repeated wars that have erupted since Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence, in territory that Arab states rightfully considered to be Palestine. The most recent occurred in 2006, that is, the area has been in conflict for 58 years. Several of these countries only formalized peace with Israel in recent years, and with others tensions remain low.

This pattern has held in many conflicts since World War II. While direct fighting can be infrequent, with what Radchenko calls “active phases” lasting only a few months, lulls usually require deep international involvement to sustain. US troops have been stationed in South Korea for over 70 years, for example.

It’s impossible to predict whether this will be the future for Russia and Ukraine — though it may already be their current state. The seven years before the invasion were marked by minor fighting, with strong Western diplomacy and support for Ukraine aimed at avoiding a major clash.

This pattern shows that one side rarely completely defeats the other, especially with foreign states ready to intervene. And it offers another lesson: political change rarely provides the kind of breakthrough that observers hope will one day drive Moscow to retreat. The decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan only deepened with the rise of reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

New wars, old patterns

The fact that the Ukrainian War seems to fit an old pattern rather than pointing in a new direction may offer more general lessons. “Strategic weapons have not and will not replace armies,” Canadian analyst Stephanie Carvin wrote in an essay circulated among experts.

Only conventional forces can take and hold territories, thus forming the core unit of warfare. New technologies like drones or satellite communications haven’t changed that dynamic — nor have new methods like cyberattacks or media manipulation. “There is no doubt that the ways of waging war have evolved since the time of Clausewitz,” says Radchenko, referring to the 18th-century Prussian general credited with modern military theory.

But, many, many times, what at first “could be called a military revolution actually represents considerably slow changes”, completes the historian.

Likewise, Carvin wrote that “weapons can help to bring about a ceasefire, but not to establish a lasting peace”. Despite the many attempts by great and small military powers to develop warlike methods effective enough to impose their political objectives on their adversaries, none has found a way around the hard work of negotiating a peace acceptable to both sides.

A lesson from the past 80 years of wars may be that if states are unable to come to terms —which Russia may be the case with Ukraine, as it finds the very independence of Ukrainians intolerable—even fighting to mutual exhaustion may not bring peace.

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