Russia-Ukraine War Has Caused Seismic Changes In Strategic Cultures

Russia-Ukraine War Has Caused Seismic Changes In Strategic Cultures
On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a major military operation against Ukraine that has unfolded into a protracted war for territorial control. Since then, commentators have hashed over the causes of the war. The analyses offered provide several explanations for the Russian invasion, ranging from NATO’s enlargement on Russia’s doorstep, resurgent Russian imperialism to President Putin’s worldview. At the same time, the war’s security ramifications, economic fallout, diplomatic setbacks, and political upheavals at regional and international level are assessed. However, the crucial cause and effect skimpily discussed has been the strategic cultures of Russia, Ukraine and the European Union (EU).

A strategic culture is an endorsement of a set of ideas, norms, narratives, and discursive articulations about strategy and the use of force that is constructed socially, deeply rooted in history and traditions, and shared by a country’s national strategic leadership and community.

Through the lens of strategic culture, decision-makers assess power relations and distribution; make strategic decisions and adopt certain foreign and defense policies. The instrumental nature of strategic culture is very much clear in Russia-Ukraine war. Russian strategic culture primarily drove its invasion on Ukraine, which subsequently affected Ukrainian as well as the EU’s strategic culture.

The defining features of Russian strategic culture are its desire for being a great power, which is amplified by Putin’s personal worldview, and a sense of vulnerability in the post-Cold War world. Long insecure borders, a history of western invasions that were primarily launched from the territories of Belarus and Ukraine, and the prevalence of western threats generated a sense of vulnerability in the Kremlin.

Together, these features drive Russian interests in the Eurasian region and the need for acquiring buffer zones to enhance its strategic depth against NATO enlargement. Moreover, the political elite has always seen Ukraine as Russia’s natural sphere of influence, and have viewed control over Kiev as necessary for Russia becoming a great power. This has kept them invested in keeping Ukraine within their sphere of influence. Hence, the predispositions resulted in the annexation of Crimea in 2014, followed by the conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians in Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and Kremlin’s military build-up along the Ukrainian border started in late 2021 that culminated into the ongoing war against Ukraine.

Notwithstanding strong cultural motivations and ostensibly modernized armed forces, the Kremlin faced significant massive casualties and strategic setbacks. But there has been an indifferent attitude towards Russian casualties. This is primarily because of Russian strategic culture that treats soldiers as readily available and men as an invaluable tool. That’s why we witnessed a lack of training in using modern equipment on the part of Russian soldiers.

On the other hand, the strategic culture of Ukraine has been rapidly evolving since its independence. The country set off in the absence of clearly articulated national interests and a strategy to pursue those interests. Gradually, the characteristic features of Ukrainian strategic culture are defined by its decision to give up its nuclear-armed status after signing the Budapest Memorandum. This signifies Ukraine’s attitude towards international cooperation and contribution towards nuclear disarmament. Nevertheless, Ukraine struggled to maintain its identity and establish its standing in the international system with a certain strategic orientation. The 2014 conflict and Russian invasion of 2022 undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and its ability to defend its territories.

Nonetheless, the experiences of two revolutions, the 2014 conflict and ongoing war, Ukraine has appeared to assert itself more forcefully. The 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity highlighted Ukrainian’s resolve to thwart Russian interference into their country’s democratic development and integration into Europe. The defiance to ceding to Russian influence and demands, and continued resistance to Russian invasion illustrate Ukraine’s resolve to reinforce its sovereignty. Moreover, the ongoing war and Ukraine’s resistance has undoubtedly highlighted the country’s significance for the EU’s security and defense vis-à-vis Russia. Overall, Ukraine’s strategic culture is influenced by western values and aspirations to be a NATO member, that has only been strengthened by the 2022 Russian invasion.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war notably impacted the EU’s strategic culture. This high intensity war united and empowered Europe to speak the language of power in terms of its actions that brought significant changes in its geopolitical, geoeconomic, security and defense policies; thereby, setting a path to bring about a shift in the EU’s strategic and cultural outlook from crisis management to dissuasion and territorial defense, and develop the EU into a proto-defense Union.

In this regard, the EU’s decision to provide funding for the first time for a non-EU country’s (Ukraine) war efforts with a €450 million package of lethal arms through the European Peace Facility (EPF) is significant in two ways. One, this decision was made in accordance to the Article 42(7) of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that states “if a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.” This is the second time that article 42(7) was invoked: the first time it was called on at France’s request in 2015 after Paris terror attacks to other European countries to contribute to crisis management operations. This time the EU mutual assistance’s credibility is enhanced.

The use of the EPF for Ukraine indicates the Union’s adaptation of its role to play during crises. Second, the provision of lethal arms to Ukraine increased the robustness of the Union being an effective defense and security partner. This built the EU’s image as a reliable and efficient partner – a reputation that could resonate in other regions such as Asia-Pacific.

Other steps such as the imposition of unprecedented strict sanctions and restrictions against Russia that are being supported by Japan and South Korea, increase in defense spending by European countries, provision of military aid and support to Ukraine, and the bold assertion of the EU’s 2022 Strategic Compass for security and defense on enhanced strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US and the NATO marks an incredible switch in the Union’s strategic culture.

Several unprecedented precedents have been witnessed during the first year of war that made it difficult for all stakeholders to find an offramp in the near future. Besides its unambiguous impact on the strategic culture of Ukraine and the EU, the ongoing war in Europe has clearly put the resurgent authoritarianism of Russia at loggerheads with the prevalence of democratic values across the continent. In its solidarity with Ukraine, the EU has demonstrated a remarkable reversal in its security and defense policies. Nonetheless, the Union needs firm and steady support from its members to continue its solidarity with Ukraine and nurture its strategic autonomy and reputation.

Moreover, in its fight against a stronger nuclear-armed state, Ukraine has exhibited unparalleled popular resistance against Russian invasion, emanating from the deep desire of Ukrainians to uphold their identity, nationalism and to resist Russian interference and authoritarianism. Likewise, despite harsh sanctions, Russia demonstrated extraordinary resistance against foreign pressure. For several commentators and analysts, Russian strategic behavior to expand is in disharmony with the 21st century western strategic environment that obliges states to set priorities and strategic preferences compatible with western values.

The war has visibly isolated Russia, making it difficult for Kremlin to connect with Europe, whose strategic culture has demonstrated a remarkable reversal. Additionally, the war has devastated Ukraine and generated adverse economic conditions globally. Under such a situation, to find an offramp to end this war and bring in lasting stability in Europe, the West needs to reassess its policies towards Russia by providing space and consideration to Russian strategic culture and behavior.

Dr. Salma Shaheen teaches at the Defence Studies department at King's College London. She can be reached at