What We’ve Learned From the War in Ukraine

Remember the adage that generals always fight the last war? In Foreign Policy’s latest print issue, we asked 12 experts to think about the next one. What might it look like? More importantly, how do we prevent it? And how has the war in Ukraine re-shaped the global order?

FP subscribers can read the cover story here. I had a discussion with two of the issue’s contributors on FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. David Petraeus is a former director of the CIA and a retired four-star general who led U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Anne-Marie Slaughter is the CEO of New America and a former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. Subscribers can watch the full 30-minute discussion on the video box at the top of this page. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: General, I’ll start with you. You’ve led U.S. war strategy in some of its longest conflicts. Has anything about the war in Ukraine surprised you?

David Petraeus: There have been a number of surprises. I was impressed and slightly surprised that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been so positively Churchillian. A strategic leader has to get the big ideas right, communicate them effectively, oversee their implementation, and determine how to refine them—and then do it again and again and again. He has done that magnificently. And, of course, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not. He’s gotten it all wrong.

What really surprised me was the sheer incompetence of the Russians. We knew about their deficiencies, but I was surprised by the fact that they didn’t seem to do anything during that period of maneuvers [before the war began]. You don’t just send tanks rolling down the road. You have infantry out in front of them to keep the anti-tank guided missiles off them. You have mortars and artillery helping them. You have air defense. You have electronic warfare to jam the other side’s communications. You have engineers and explosive ordnance to deal with the obstacles and explosives that they might encounter along the way. They have just been abjectly poor.

It’s a mystery to me what they did during those months of maneuvers on the borders of Ukraine. Had I had that time, I’d like to think—as a commander—that we would have been trained to a razor’s edge when it came to actually launching the invasion. Beyond that, the campaign design was woefully inadequate. The command and control was organizationally screwed up. It didn’t have unity of command or unity of effort. And then there was a shocking lack of modernization as well. The conduct of the operations by the Russians has been poorer than I anticipated, and that is quite a surprise given the amount of time they had to prepare.

FP: Anne-Marie, from your vantage point, what are the things that have surprised you in this war?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I was at the Munich Security Conference, as General Petraeus was, just the week before it began. The invasion was all anybody talked about. All of the Europeans that I talked to and half of the Americans, including me, said, “Putin’s not going to do it; this is a massive bluff.” And, of course, a week later, I was on a show like this one, eating my words, being very surprised not just by the attack but the scale of the attack. I was also surprised at how quickly the Russians were bogged down.

The biggest surprise to me, however, was the reaction, particularly of India but also of Brazil and South Africa—countries that the United States has been cultivating actively in this renewed divide, as U.S. President Joe Biden puts it, between democracies and autocracies. And we have poured effort into recruiting India in the Quad [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue] and in lots of other conversations as we positioned ourselves vis-à-vis China in the Pacific. And yet India very clearly refused to take a position. And, of course, it’s still buying energy from Russia. It’s still prepared to buy arms from Russia. That is the signaling of a much bigger shift in the global order than most American and European analysts give credit for.

This is not the nonaligned movement of the 20th century. This is a bunch of important powers—India, Brazil, South Africa, the Association of Southeast Asian countries—who are saying, “This is no longer our war, and what we’re really worried about is our own regional conflicts.”

DP: I’ve seen glimpses of this during events in India, in particular with Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, back when he was the foreign secretary and also the ambassador [in Washington]. I remember a particular exchange where I told him, “It’s time for India to choose. You’re part of the Quad. India must make a choice between East and West.” And he said, “General, we have chosen. And we have chosen India.” And this captures anecdotally very clearly what Anne-Marie is getting at. That is a big development.

FP: Coming back to military matters, what lessons are countries around the world learning from the war in Ukraine?

DP: It’s important to observe that this is not the war of the future. This is really more of a throwback to the Cold War turning hot. When I was a major in a brigade on the inner German border, had war broken out, then it would have looked more like this then I think would a future war between truly great powers.

We see elements of futuristic war, but they’re quite limited. For example, you see the precision rockets that we have provided to Ukraine that can land on a dinner table 80 kilometers [or almost 50 miles] away—the guided missile launch rocket system, known as HIMARS, that is a game-changer. You see drones being used to enable that, as forward observers for rockets and artillery. But again, it’s not the kind of global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance that you would see if you were in, say, an Indo-Pacific conflict that we might imagine.

The elements of the future that would be dramatically different are going to be massive quantities of unmanned systems remotely piloted or perhaps even algorithmically controlled systems, where the human in the loop is not the person making the final decision. It’s the person who actually designs the algorithm that allows the machine to check off the conditions and make the final decision itself.

There is a saying from the Cold War: “If it can be seen, it can be hit; if it can be hit, it can be killed.” Now imagine a future in which everything is visible, a future in which you have unmanned systems not just on the ground and in the air and at sea but subsea and in space. Swarms of them. A future in which, again, if it can be seen, it can be hit—and you can see everything. I think you have to be very measured about what this tells us about the future because the real future is going to be dramatically different from this.

FP: What is your sense of how Beijing views Russia’s war in Ukraine? What lessons do you think the Chinese are taking from this war?

AMS: I suspect Chinese President Xi Jinping is thinking that with friends like these, who needs enemies? Because this almost certainly was not at all what Xi expected when he and Putin met at the Olympics just a year ago and promised a partnership of unlimited boundaries.

Russia’s actions have put China in a very awkward position. It’s now a very uncomfortable relationship. This is where I have questions about Washington’s democracies versus autocracies strategy because we are pushing China closer to Russia when, in fact, as the Europeans recognize, there’s a real opportunity for China to see the costs of being so close to Russia in terms of the sanctions, in terms of simply being perceived as backing this. I think we should have a more nuanced strategy of finding ways to reach out to China.

With Taiwan, no one should be predicting what China thinks. You can make Taiwan a porcupine—that’s one of the titles of the Winter 2023 print issue, where at the very least you can raise the cost of an attack. You can see Taiwan as an island just wrestling with asymmetric but nevertheless very effective weaponry to raise the costs for China, for Chinese troops, for Chinese society. That, plus a very effective sanctions plan, would give Xi reason to keep pushing this off.

FP: Anne-Marie, one of the terms you used in your contribution to the cover story was not MAD [mutual assured destruction] but MAC—mutually assured cyberdestruction. And I have been wondering why cyber hasn’t been a bigger element of the war in Ukraine. Is it that the Russians weren’t as competent as we imagined? Is it that the defense was strong enough? Or have there been cyberattacks and they just haven’t been as prominent as the conventional warfare?

AMS: I think there are two things. One, U.S. Cyber Command. We expected this to happen, right? It was U.S. intelligence saying this was coming, and we were prepared. The other point though is we weren’t just prepared with our government but with our Big Tech companies, and this is a feature of this war that I do think continues, the fact that everybody with a cellphone could help provide information that ultimately could help targets or collect evidence for war crimes. This is a war in which, because of the technological capabilities, lots of people and companies could be involved. The combination of cyber command and our private capabilities have outmatched the Russians. I’m not at all sure that would be true with the Chinese, and I continue to think that that is one of the key fronts of future warfare.

DP: Anne-Marie is exactly right. They did come at Ukraine. They threw everything at them, and they came at us as well. And you remember that there was an unprecedented warning by President Biden. No president has ever before issued the kind of warning he did because we knew what was coming. Microsoft published a very good open-source report on what Russia attempted to do, and it just wasn’t good relative to Ukraine’s cybersecurity and resilience. Ukraine got much better with a lot of assistance, and that assistance continued because you don’t have to have boots on the ground to provide that.

FP: Anne-Marie, a final lesson: Do you get the sense that America is overusing sanctions? Could that backfire at some point?

AMS: There’s a real risk that we are overusing them. Each time we use them, we tell not just China or Russia or Iran—countries that we are applying sanctions to—but all the other countries, “Be careful if you run things through the U.S. payment system, if you run things through U.S. banks, if you depend on the United States for communications, you are vulnerable.” At the very least, they develop alternative routes. We see that China is developing the digital yuan. If you are an African country thinking about how you protect your own links to the rest of the world, you’re going to start thinking, “I need a backup system.” You can have a whole global payment system that does not go through New York, even though it’s very hard for the United States to think about that.

But I also think this was necessary with respect to Russia. Honestly, Europe bears a much greater burden from those sanctions than the United States does because its trade with Russia is so much bigger—and not just energy.

Looking forward, forcing the world to choose between the United States and China by cutting China off, that I don’t think is the right way to go. I think we need to say, yes, we absolutely need self-reliance in key munitions, things like medical equipment, as we discovered in the pandemic. But fundamentally, we are an open economy. We are an open society. We want to double down on those characteristics as long as we’re protected. And that’s one of the big differences between us and China and between us and Russia rather than dividing the world and suggesting you’ve got to choose. Countries around the world will only choose themselves.