2022 in review: From Russia without love

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

War has a way of changing human beings.

When Americans awoke in December 1941 to the news that the Japanese had bombed the United States Naval Station Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing more than 2,300 Americans, they no doubt understood that life would never be the same. Three days after that attack, America formally entered World War II, and although the fighting never reached our shores, our troops and those of our allies endured heavy fighting in a war that did not end until Germany surrendered in 1945.

For the citizens of Ukraine, war began on Feb. 24 with Russian forces attacking its neighbor from the air and from the ground — changing millions of lives forever. With Ukrainian troops outgunned and outnumbered, many expected Ukraine to fall quickly. It didn’t. Here we are, entering 2023, with the war still unfolding. What have we learned?

First, never discount human willpower. Ukrainian resistance was underestimated from the start. In late February and early March, Russian warships were encountering fierce opposition. A viral video circulated of a Ukrainian soldier telling Russian seamen in the Black Sea to “f— off.” The person who made the video was one of 13 guards stationed on Snake Island, between Crimea and the Ukrainian coast, and although all 13 guards were killed, their refusal to surrender echoed around the world — an early sign that Ukrainians were not backing down.

Second, Ukrainian leadership was also underestimated. President Volodymyr Zelensky proved more than just a former comedian and an untested head of state. He became a fierce advocate for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence and a master storyteller who took his case everywhere in the world, including, in person, to the United States in a dangerous, daring move that ensured him a hefty supply of military assistance in the form of the famous U.S. Patriot missile system.

In the new era of war, good leaders must understand social media, traditional media and public diplomacy. Zelensky showed how to use information to build

popular support around the world. The question for next year is: Will his popularity hold firm?

Third, intelligence is not an exact science. Russian military prowess was overstated. Within a month of the start of the war, there were signs that Russian troops were ill-prepared for a long conflict. Russia’s 40-mile-long military convoy literally stalled on the road to Kyiv in the early days. Their tanks became sitting ducks for Ukrainian bombardment. On March 14, Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard, became the first high-ranking Russian official to admit the war was not going as planned. 

Fourth, and critically, it is good to have friends and allies. Ukraine has lasted so long because the West made the strategic decision to fund and support it in unprecedented ways, from military technology transfer and troop training to support for millions of refugees. By mid-March, an estimated 2 million people had fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, with a further 1 million displaced within the country. Not only did America and Europe step up with financial and military assistance, but the public diplomacy messaging was also one of unity and purpose. 

Sanctions were piled on month by month as Russian yachts were seized.

In June, the European Union imposed a partial ban on Russian oil imports — a turning point in the continent’s struggle to wean itself from Russian energy. With winter coming, one test of NATO unity will be Europe’s ability to weather cold while Ukrainians suffer without electricity because of Russian missile attacks on its infrastructure.

(Another test for Europe will occur in 2023 with possible admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO.)

The global media also helped the Ukrainian cause with its unfettered access to stories and civilian casualties. The siege of Mariupol in March was deadly and brutal, and cameras captured the images of citizens caught in the crossfire. The now famous image of a pregnant woman on a gurney being wheeled out of a maternity hospital bombed by the Russians became a symbol of war’s human costs, as was her subsequent death.

Russia’s mishandling of propaganda and its inconsistent messaging also helped Ukraine as more and more protests emerged, particularly against the Russian attempts to callup more reservists for its ugly invasion.

As we enter 2023, the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough in this war seem dim, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin insists he wants a negotiated end to the war.

The exchange of prisoners between Russia and the United States this month offered a moment of hope when Brittney Griner returned to America after nine months of imprisonment. But the deal left American veteran Paul Whelan stuck inside a Russian penal colony — an ongoing reminder that Russia still holds some leverage over the West.

Zelensky’s surprise visit to Washington, D.C. (his first outside the country since the war began) keeps Ukraine foremost in our minds and might sway Republicans, some of whom doubt the value of more assistance, to stick with his country. Zelensky knows that new Republican leadership in the House of Representatives could spell trouble for the continuation of American support. History taught him that war fatigue is real, and he intuited that with a holiday season approaching, the war between Russia and Ukraine risked getting blurry in the minds of outsiders and observers consumed with opening gifts and gatherings with friends and family. But for those inside the conflict and for the troops supporting Ukraine from outside the country, the hard work is just beginning. 

War is an act of patience. Peace is a long process. Be prepared to hear about both in 2023.

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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