Leadership: Learning From Past Mistakes

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November 7, 2022: The Ukraine War has been a unique conflict. It was largely unexpected, although for the last two decades Russian “president for life” Vladimir Putin has been talking about NATO reviving the Cold War by trying to limit Russian territorial ambitions. At the same time, Putin, like many former KGB officers and nostalgic Russians in general, believed the dissolution of the Soviet Union (the centuries old Russian empires) was a great tragedy. That sort of attitude is nothing new and it is still a factor in many parts of the world. It was clear in 2014, when Putin acted on his imperial nostalgia and seized Crimea and tried to grab two east Ukrainian provinces. This was naked aggression and a cause for alarm among NATO members, especially the ones that joined after 1991 when they were finally free of Russian occupation or domination. The original (pre-1991) NATO members were alarmed at these Russian actions in Ukraine and offered to assist Ukraine in dealing with the continued fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in the two partially occupied eastern (Donbas) provinces. For the new NATO members this Russian aggression was a much more threatening move by their traditional enemy.

This disagreement continued even after Russia tried to take all of Ukraine in early 2022. That war is still underway and the differences between NATO members are still there, only more intense and more in need of resolution. That is happening, but slowly and painfully. NATO united to assist Ukrainians in fighting the Russian invasion. What was still lacking was agreement on how to move forward with a war NATO did not want or expect. Because Ukraine was not yet a NATO member, NATO could not automatically join the fight against Russia. To do so anyway would, as Putin announced, trigger another World War. This was more of a psychological ploy than substantial threat but it worked and it soon became clear that Putin may have lacked the military power he thought he had, but was still a contender, and effective, when it came to the war of words.

The Cold War era KGB was more than just a large intelligence agency, it was also where many of the most talented, ambitious and amoral Russians could find a useful career. The KGB existed to keep the Soviet communist police-state in power. As long as the economic flaws of the communist system were kept under control, the KGB could do its job. A communist command economy eventually self-destructs and the KGB was the first to recognize that this was happening. It took too long to convince senior government leaders that this was happening and that reforms had to be developed and implemented quickly to preserve the Soviet Union. It wasn’t enough, it didn’t work and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Russia tried democracy for a decade but it didn’t work. The Soviet era officials were gone but not the epic levels of corruption that had developed during the decline of the empire.

Putin got elected by convincing enough Russians that he could do something about corruption and he did, for a while, but then became part of the problem that still traps Russia in a spiral of self-destruction. Putin’s efforts to solve his problems with military aggression failed spectacularly. The unprecedented level of economic sanctions imposed on Russia in 2022 have crippled the Russian economy and created problems that will take years or decades to repair.

NATO nations have also been forced to reexamine their own military resources and capabilities. When it came to sending Ukraine weapons, some European nations gave all they had, but the Americans ended up supplying most because they had vastly larger stockpiles and military resources in general. This was quickly discovered when the nations supplying Ukraine established a central system for coordinating Ukrainian requests with what contributors could supply. This system was established early on and made it clear that, even though total annual NATO defense spending was nearly 18 times larger than Russian spending, this did not provide NATO with an overwhelming advantage. European nations once more had to admit that their peacetime armed forces spent far more on payroll than weapons procurement and maintenance. Since the 1990s many NATO nations treated the military budget as a jobs creation program and many of those in uniform were not combat ready.

As was the case during the Cold War, Russia still had a command economy that produced a lot more weapons. Fortunately the Russians were still unable to maintain a lot of those weapons or adequately train sufficient manpower to operate them. Russia command systems and tactics were still stuck in Cold War mode and that led to the surprising ineffectiveness of these weapons and troops in Ukraine. Russia used its command economy system to gather more resources and troops but these were poorly armed and equipped, and even less trained. Despite that Russia is still able to send these second-rate troops to Ukraine while NATO has a difficult time supplying Ukraine with weapons and economic aid. Russia took advantage of this by switching their attacks to economic targets. This meant Ukraine was in desperate need of food, fuel and other necessities to keep the country alive, especially during the months of cold weather. Ukraine and its NATO allies proved up to the challenge so far.

European nations are also having problems getting through the cold weather season. Too many European nations thought they could depend on Russian supplies of petroleum and natural gas. Selling this to European nations was profitable to Russia, but also a powerful wartime weapon that the Europeans downplayed. Dealing with this error in judgment has caused political as well as practical problems for Europe. Many Europeans want to deal with their own economic problems at the expense of aid to Ukraine. Once more, they look to the United States to make up for the shortfalls. Even with all their resources, the Americans are unable to cover all needs of European nations and Ukraine. One would think this would prompt European nations to carry out needed reforms. It will, in some cases, but with 30 NATO members in Europe, the degree of reform will vary. All politics is local and this very much applies to the willingness of all NATO nations to do what must be done.

 


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