For more than two years, Western observers have produced a seemingly infinite number of articles and reports trying to derive key lessons from the war in Ukraine and predict their implications for the future of warfare. Beyond the obvious but too often ignored fact that this war is a single and very unique case, drawing meaningful lessons has been further complicated by the fact that most of these studies suffer from confirmation bias due to their authors’ inability to abandon their Western, Clausewitzian analytical lenses and their apparent desire to keep such a theoretical paradigm alive and prove its universal relevance. As a result, important and informative observations have been either ignored or interpreted in completely wrong ways, generating false understanding of the war and leading to meaningless changes in many European countries’ national defense strategies, military doctrine, command and force structures, training and education systems, and equipment acquisition. While many European countries responded to Russia’s invasion by promptly increasing their defense budgets and expediting their acquisition of new equipment, they have largely been applying these increased resources toward the wrong solutions to the security challenge they face. This conflict has confirmed that besides a small number of large European countries such as Poland, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, for most there is no point in building and maintaining more conventional military forces. Contrary to the argument of many experts, the war in Ukraine is evidence of the limited utility of the Western way of war for most European countries.

There have long been reasons, which should have been obvious, that many European countries should not invest in Western-style conventional defense frameworks. Among these are their close proximity to Russian forces, their comparatively small populations, the lack of natural obstacles on their territory, little to no strategic or operational depth to develop a multilayered conventional defense, the lack of history and institutional culture of combined-arms maneuver warfare, limited defense industry production capacity, and their small and insufficiently equipped militaries. But the war in Ukraine makes clearer than ever that these countries should instead develop defensive approaches geared toward fielding formations customized to the unique historical, cultural, geographic, and other features of their operational environments, rationalized for budgetary and manpower considerations, and sustainable with or without the conventional might of any allies and partners. While the Ukraine conflict is indeed very unique, and we must be cautious when trying to apply its lessons elsewhere, there are several observations that are worth close examination by other European countries.

Observation 1: Never present your adversary with a type of war that he is organized, trained, and equipped for.

Like the conflicts of the last two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine has proved that an underdog can only be successful by avoiding fighting on the terms of its conventionally superior enemy. David cannot defeat Goliath by trying to become a small and poor version of Goliath but becoming the best David possible. At the beginning of the invasion Ukraine was extremely successful by avoiding fighting the Russians on their own terms, but as soon as Ukraine shifted its strategy to a more conventional approach, like its much anticipated 2023 counteroffensive, the war become a matter of material competition in which the underdog always comes out defeated. The underdog, as most European countries would be in a war with Russia, can only hope for success if its war strategy focuses on creating multiple dilemmas and the largest possible asymmetry between the stronger and the weaker sides. European countries watching the war in Ukraine should understand this lesson and design national defense approaches that avoid fighting on conventional terms at all costs and are purpose-built for ensuring asymmetry with conventional formations.

Observation 2: Like it or not, war happens in the cities and among the people.

The war in Ukraine is continuing the decades-long trend that modern conflicts are not being waged on remote battlefields away from civilian populations. The idea of separating and protecting the civilian population and protecting urban areas from the horrors of wars has become an illusion. European countries should understand, accept, and even embrace the importance of urban areas in national defense strategies. Through appropriate infrastructural preparation of urban areas, the capabilities of adversaries’ conventional intelligence collection, targeting, and weapons systems can be significantly degraded or even rendered irrelevant. European countries should enhance and fortify existing features and build new artificial ones to limit the maneuver abilities of attacking conventional formations. Preparation in advance should allow urban areas, in the event of conflict, to be turned into fortresses, with underground avenues of approaches to potential targets, preestablished escape routes, prepositioned weapons caches, camouflaged field hospitals, a plan to quickly mine key terrain, and dummy positions to mislead the enemy`s intelligence.

Observation 3: Strategic depth is crucial for survival.

Most European countries completely lack strategic depth in both a physical and a societal sense. The only way to overcome such disadvantages is stronger partnership with allies and partners. European countries need bilateral or multilateral defense agreements going way beyond the scope of current ones, which would likely even require transactional commitments that impinge on national sovereignty. Defense industrial production capacity, equipment depots, troop training centers, civil population protection facilities, and more should be established and maintained on the soil of foreign countries far away from the reach of a possible aggressor. This ensures the long-term sustainability of critical functions and prevents them being taken over and exploited by the aggressor for its war needs. The lack of physical strategic depth, of course, is a function of small territorial size, and along with this, European countries also have populations small enough to create manpower problems in the event of conflict. To overcome their shortages in human capital and expedite the inclusion of trained foreign citizens into the ranks of their militaries, European countries also should create the legal framework enabling other countries’ soldiers, civilians, and private military contractors to serve in each other’s armed services.

Observation 4: Friends are important in war, but they can become detrimental for the success of the defense efforts.

Ukraine has arguably been fighting the kind of war it has been fighting because of the advice and the type of equipment it has been receiving from its Western allies and partners. Beyond Western defense industry production capacity and Western political will becoming necessary conditions for Ukraine to be able to fight, the Western way of war has also become a must. Simple logic dictates that if the Ukrainian leadership received advice from sources socialized in different military cultures and equipment suited for a different type of war, then Ukraine’s strategic approach would have been also different (as it arguably was at the early phases of the war). The Russian experience in Chechnya and our own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might have suggested a different approach about how to effectively counter a numerically and technologically superior conventional enemy, instead of presenting it with a type of war that it is organized, trained, and equipped for. European countries need friends but the level and type of reliance on them should be carefully considered. Building interoperability with allies and partners is a good idea for fighting alongside each other but blindly following international standards developed by more advanced nations might kill adaptability of those with limited resources.

Observation 5: Prewar exercises should be platforms of losing and learning instead of always winning.

Exercises should focus more than they currently do on finding gaps in capabilities and capacities and experimenting with solutions. Realistic scenarios must be more than a buzzword exercise planners pay lip service to; this must be made reality through the inclusion of all sectors of society into national defense exercises. The war in Ukraine has further proved that national security is no longer a function solely of the government, let alone the defense forces. The complexity of the modern battlefield and the distribution of capabilities and capacities among different stakeholders necessitate the inclusion of the entire society into national defense plans. Exercises provide the perfect platform to experiment with the utility and integration of the different parts of society and to identify necessary legislative changes leading to more effective national defense efforts.

Observation 6: Intimate knowledge of your enemy is an invaluable force multiplier.

Ukraine’s longstanding historical and cultural ties with Russia, the similarities between the Russian and Ukrainian language, the fact that many senior Ukrainian military leaders served in the Soviet forces, and the fact that the Soviet Union and later Russia were for many years the primary providers of military hardware, training, and education provided an unparalleled understanding of Russian military tactics, techniques, and procedures for the Ukrainians. After the end of the Cold War, European countries (like the United States) systematically get rid of their Russian cultural experts, eliminated all remnants of Soviet doctrine from their military schools, and largely stopped teaching the Russian language. The war in Ukraine should incentivize European countries to reintroduce Russian cultural and language studies in their professional military education institutions. Additionally, close attention should be paid to Russian force designs, command-and-control practices, tactics, techniques, and procedures, and equipment and weapon system capabilities, which should serve as foundations for future military training and education of European military personnel.

Observation 7: Forget armor and other big-ticket, traditional military platforms.

The war in Ukraine has produced unbelievable attrition, on both sides, of traditional military platforms. The figures are especially telling in comparison to the total number of soldiers and military equipment available for all Eastern European countries together. Additionally, most of the tanks and armored fighting vehicles were not destroyed in big tank battles but by small, fast, low-cost, easy-to-develop, and difficult-to-detect unmanned platforms. Ukraine also sunk one-third of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, not in large naval battles but through the use of similar unmanned platforms. Most European countries have long been struggling to purchase and maintain tanks, armored fighting vehicles, airplanes, and ships due to their ever-increasing price tags. Now, the war in Ukraine has shown that these are among the worst investments they can make when it comes to national defense. European countries should move away from these high-tech traditional platforms toward right-tech solutions that are not large, expensive, and easily targetable but small, cheap, abundant, stealthy, and highly effective. Naturally such a transition would—and should—affect force design, tactics, techniques, procedures, training, and education.

Observation 8: Not everyone will fight and those who will are not necessarily those most fit to do so.

Ukraine’s society has been celebrated by many Western countries’ political leaders as the prime example of national cohesion and resilience. The will of Ukrainian people to fight against Russian aggression has also been glorified by many academics and the sources of such will have already been extensively studied. However, the war has also demonstrated that such strong unity and resilience notwithstanding, a large part of a society at war is very likely to try to avoid being drafted into the military forces either by fleeing the country or going into hiding within the country. Another troubling observation from the war is the reluctance of younger generations to fight for their country. As of late 2023, the average Ukrainian soldier was forty-three years old. It is unnecessary to explain the difference in physical capabilities and performance of such middle-aged people compared the forces of a much younger army. European countries with much smaller pools of human resources should take these observations into serious consideration when planning for their national defense. They need to take both legislative and executive actions now to prevent a similar situation to that Ukraine is currently facing from occurring, which would seriously degrade their already limited capabilities to mount a meaningful defense against aggression.

Observation 9: National defense is not only a military or government function.

The war in Ukraine has shown that the totality of a government’s military and other resources can very easily be inadequate for defending a nation. Domestic and international commercialization of the battlefield and crowdsourcing of intelligence collection and targeting have been significant force multipliers and proved to be a significant challenge for the Russians. Besides major legislative actions, the integration and employment of nongovernmental and nonmilitary capabilities into national defense systems require fundamental changes in the training and education of future European military leaders as well as full integration of these capabilities into national exercise programs.

Observation 10: Deception is still a force multiplier.

The war in Ukraine War has repeatedly demonstrated the wisdom of Zig Ziglar’s quote—that “you cannot hit a target you cannot see.” It has also shown that you will waste a lot of resources by hitting fake targets. Both sides seem to have rediscovered the art of deception and its force-multiplier effects and have been using it in both physical and virtual spaces. Similarly to the integration of nongovernmental and nonmilitary capabilities, the need to become batter in deception warrants fundamental changes in military education and training in European countries. It also points to new requirements for defense industry stakeholders to research and develop deception tools for both physical and virtual environments and commission them en masse into European countries’ military structures.

European countries sit at a historical turning point, one that potentially affects their long-term national survival. The existential-level shock that many suggest is a necessary condition for groundbreaking changes has been delivered to them by the Russian attack on Ukraine. All of them responded with more and faster investment in their national defense. Unfortunately, too many have been pursuing misguided responses to this shock and continue investing in poorly suited and even meaningless capabilities based on the continued illusions about the conduct of conventional war. Observations from the war in Ukraine point toward a need for a complete paradigm shift. A theory of war that works for one country and in one time may prove to be wholly inapplicable to other countries in a different time. When that happens, leaders must be prepared to modify or even abandon that theory of war. European countries should completely redesign their national defense approaches based on the realities of the twenty-first-century battlefield. Failing to do so may force them to pay the ultimate price in the event of Russian aggression.

Dr. Sandor Fabian is a former Hungarian Special Forces lieutenant colonel with twenty years of military experience. He was previously an MWI nonresident fellow and is the author of the book Irregular Warfare: The Future Military Strategy for Small States.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Junior Specialist (OR-2) Synne Nilsson, Allied Joint Force Command Naples