Any Russian invasion of Ukraine was long expected to play out as a kind of postmodern war, defined by 21st-century weapons like media manipulation, battlefield-clouding disinformation, cyberattacks, false flag operations and unmarked fighters.
Such elements have featured in this war. But it is traditional 20th-century dynamics that have instead dominated: shifting battle lines of tanks and troops; urban assaults; struggles over air supremacy and over supply lines; and mass mobilization of troops and of weapons production.
The war’s contours, now nearly a year into the fighting, resemble not so much those of any future war but rather those of a certain sort of conflict from decades past: namely, wars fought between nations in which one does not outright conquer the other.
Such conflicts have grown rarer in the period since 1945, an era often associated more with civil wars, insurgencies and American invasions that have quickly shifted to occupation.
But wars between nations have continued: between Israel and Arab states, Iran and Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan, India and Pakistan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. These are the conflicts that military historians and analysts, when asked to draw parallels with the Russian war in Ukraine, tend to cite.
“You have these big commonalities. In Korea, for example,” said Sergey Radchenko, a Johns Hopkins University historian, referring to the Korean War. “Big conventional battles. Bombardment of infrastructure.”
Every war is unique. But certain trends that have played out across this subset of conflicts, including in Ukraine, may help to shed light on what drives week-to-week fighting, what tends to determine victory or failure and how such wars typically end — or don’t.
One after another, Radchenko said, such wars have started over fundamental territorial disputes that date back to the warring countries’ founding and are therefore baked into both sides’ very conception of their national identities. This makes the underlying conflict so difficult to resolve that fighting often recurs repeatedly over many decades.
Those wars have often turned, perhaps more than any other factor, on industrial attrition, as each side strains to maintain the flow of materiel like tanks and anti-aircraft munitions that keep it in the fight.