Key lessons and insights on the Russia-Ukraine war from current and former foreign policy leaders
The world has shifted dramatically since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. As we sit on the hinge of history, our summer 2022 issue examines the ever-widening impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war. With features covering a range of topics—from European security to world resources to mental health and more—we asked some of the nation's most experienced and respected foreign policy experts to share their thoughts on the biggest lessons and insights thus far.
Putin’s War Crimes Cannot Stand
Representative Michael T. McCaul
The warning signs of Russia’s malign actions have been present well over the last decade, from its invasion of Georgia in 2008, to its annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas in 2014, to its brutal tactics in Syria.
What has surprised the world, however, are the war crimes committed by Putin and his Russian invaders.
We have seen images of corpses littering the streets of Bucha, with their hands tied behind their backs, and many of whom had been placed in shallow graves. Mothers and young girls have been brutally assaulted. And all the while, Russia brings in mobile crematoriums to hide the evidence of its crimes.
Ukrainian women and children are being rounded up and forcefully deported to internment camps in Russia. It is clear there is no limit to Putin’s cruelty.
The widespread destruction of nonmilitary targets—including apartment buildings, schools, and venues such as shopping malls—remind us that no country can remain neutral in the face of this evil. For example, Russia deliberately targeted and bombed a theater in Mariupol that had the word “CHILDREN” written outside it in Russian, large enough for satellites to see.
These are Putin’s war crimes. And he, along with the Russian troops who have carried them out, must be held accountable.
That is why I introduced H.R. 7276, the Ukraine Invasion War Crimes Deterrence and Accountability Act. It passed the House—now it is time for the Senate to act and send it to the president for his signature.
This law will ensure that the United States helps Ukraine gather, analyze, and maintain evidence of war crimes. It will also put Russian troops and their leaders on notice that the world is watching.
We are taking the names of war criminals. And we will absolutely seek justice.
Congressman Michael T. McCaul is currently serving his ninth term representing Texas' 10th District in the United States Congress. He is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Echoes of History
Representative William (Bill) Keating
Echoes of history are resonating from Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine. Once again, a European country has aggressively crossed sovereign lines, killing innocent civilians, committing war crimes and genocide.
Ukrainians have exceeded all estimates for success with their sheer bravery, leadership, and military ability. It is imperative that the US and its transatlantic allies sustain vital assistance to Ukraine in its heroic effort to defend itself from Russia’s illegal and immoral war.
Since this war’s threat extends far beyond the nations that are directly involved, the stakes could not be higher. Under the backdrop of a global clash between authoritarianism and democracy, a loss by Ukraine would incentivize those countries experiencing authoritarian influences to veer away from values of individual freedoms and the rule of law. And it would strengthen China’s hand as it seeks global dominance.
Addressing the efforts of this war will be daunting. With more than 5 million Ukrainians seeking refuge in neighboring countries, Europe faces its greatest wave of migration since World War II. The seizure and blockade of Ukrainian food exports will result in widespread famine, migration, and death. The ratcheting up of global oil and gas prices is creating inflation and political unrest in Europe and the US.
Yet our response to Putin’s aggression will have a far-reaching effect, which could mirror that of the post–World War II era. Transatlantic unity, witnessed by combined economic sanctions and a higher-funded NATO, which will include Finland and Sweden, have no doubt confounded Putin. Importantly, Europe is accelerating its historic energy transformation from a reliance on Russian oil and gas, while advancing to non-fossil-based energy.
The outcome of this war remains uncertain. In the final analysis, Ukraine’s sovereign decision must dictate the result. One thing is certain from a global perspective: Russia has already lost.
Bill Keating represents Massachusetts’ Ninth Congressional District. He is a senior member of the House of Representatives, sitting on both the Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees. He currently serves as chair of the Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and Environment subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Ukraine and the Future of Democracies in the 21st Century
Leon E. Panetta
After months of bloody warfare in Ukraine, it is becoming clear that a difficult and prolonged war of attrition could result in dangerous or disappointing consequences or a successful defense of democracy—either way, it will have a pivotal impact on the course of history.
What path is taken will be decided by whether Ukrainian, US, and NATO leaders remain resolute, unified, and patient.
Growing frustration on both sides of this war could force greater risks that could escalate an already-dangerous war. That same frustration could also produce a less-than-satisfactory settlement of the conflict that would leave a neutral but divided Ukraine vulnerable to a weakened Putin.
Just as a long war of attrition and failed diplomacy defined World War I and the struggle for power in the 20th century, what ultimately happens in Ukraine could well define the struggle between autocracy and democracy for the rest of the 21st century.
For too long, autocratic adversaries have sensed weakness on the part of the United States and Western democracies. Putin took advantage of this weakness by invading Crimea, Syria, and Libya, and by conducting a bold cyberattack against US elections systems—and he never paid a price for his aggression. Finally, President Biden and our NATO allies said enough is enough. They came together in unprecedented unity to draw a line on Russian aggression: tough economic sanctions have crippled the Russian economy; crucial military assistance supported brave and courageous Ukrainian fighters; and NATO was strengthened by reinforcements, potential new members, and an Article 5 pledge to defend any NATO country from attack. The Russian invasion was stopped at Kyiv; and although the war, the killing, and destruction continue, it is clear that Putin failed to achieve his principal objectives.
Now is not the time for the US and our NATO allies to weaken our resolve to defend Ukraine. There is a larger strategic goal at stake that is served only by a strong message of unity in defense of democracy. This message must be sent not just to Russia but also to China, North Korea, Iran, and any other adversary that threatens the sovereignty of free nations.
If this war is to have a chance of ending successfully, Ukraine must continue to be supported by advanced weapon systems essential to pushing back Russian advances. President Zelenskyy needs negotiating leverage to achieve a just end to this war. This may require more time, blood, and patience, but it is the only effective way to defend Ukrainian sovereignty and give hope to future democracies in the 21st century.
Leon Panetta is former CIA director and secretary of defense.
Four Foundational Lessons
H. R. McMaster
It is time to forge a common understanding of what the free world should learn from the invasion of Ukraine. Four lessons should be foundational for new policies and strategies.
First, many had clung to the overly optimistic post–Cold War assumption that an arc of history had guaranteed the primacy of free societies over authoritarian systems. It is time to identify new ways to compete effectively against Russia and China.
Second, “triangular diplomacy,” as practiced by President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to separate China and the Soviet Union, is not feasible vis-à-vis today’s revanchist dictators Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, who have announced that the friendship between them “has no limits.” Rather than try to separate Xi and Putin, it is time to glue the dictators together, because the advantages of their partnership derive mainly from their ability to cover for one another through obfuscation, obstruction, and coercion.
Third, Russian aggression and Ukrainian courage have confirmed G. K. Chesterton’s observation that war is not the best way of settling differences, but it may be the only way to ensure that they are not settled for you. The free world must strengthen its collective defense to restore deterrence and prepare to respond to further aggression.
Fourth, it is folly to rely on authoritarian regimes for critical supply chains or energy security. Governments and businesses must reduce the risk of supply chain disruption; new policies must integrate national security and energy security with efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
H. R. McMaster is the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. Upon graduation from the US Military Academy in 1984, he served as a commissioned officer in the US Army for 34 years, retiring as a lieutenant general in 2018. He was then the 26th assistant to the president for national security affairs.
War in Ukraine Is Changing Europe, Especially Germany
With reunification in 1990, Germany was no longer a potential battleground for opposing armies. Point Alpha—a critical observation post, where US soldiers warily watched the inner-German border for Warsaw Pact forces—became an out-of-the-way memorial. The end of the Cold War fundamentally altered Germany’s threat perception. For the first time in decades, Germany had potential partners, not adversaries, on its borders.
NATO and EU expansion cemented this fact. Though Germans faced global challenges—managing migration, combating terrorism, ensuring nuclear nonproliferation—they did not see a fundamental threat to European security. Even Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 did not shake that view; rather, it was a problem for multilateral management through the Minsk Process, the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, and sanctions.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that. It shifted Germany’s threat perception profoundly. The invasion was a hard power action that recalled a too-familiar hard power past.
Germany’s chancellor, Olof Scholz, told parliamentarians on February 27, 2022, that they were in a “watershed era.” Shifting a long-held policy of promoting economic ties with Russia, Germany became a full-on participant in EU sanctions—and stopped the controversial Russia–Germany gas pipeline it had long defended. Germany also took a hard look at its own military readiness and capabilities. The result: a special €100 billion fund for defense investment, and a pledge to steadily invest more than 2 percent of GDP annually in defense—the NATO standard it had failed to reach. Implementation will take commitment and tenacity. It will take sustained public outreach to justify defense investment even as energy prices hit budgets hard. But Scholz’s government is at the beginning of its term. It has time to balance competing priorities effectively. If Germany can accomplish that, its actions will change Europe’s defense capabilities, strengthen NATO, and reinvigorate our transatlantic partnership. It will, in fact, mark a watershed.
Robin Quinville is the former Charge d’ Affaires to Germany and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Global Europe Program.
Cover photo: Dnipro, Ukraine Mar 11, 2022. Shutterstock/Vojtech Darvik Maca.