Ukraine: Lessons to learn from Iraq

After the second week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we’ve taken some time to examine what lessons the US and its allies in Europe can learn from the invasion of Iraq in order to inform the West’s response to Russia.

The most striking scenes to come out of any war zones are those that exemplify the impact of war upon civilians. The displacement of Ukrainians is now Europe’s most pressing humanitarian issue and will only become worse. Many Iraqis are able to empathise with the people of Ukraine as they too have been displaced by the coalition’s invasion in 2003. While over a million people have already fled Ukraine, these refugees have an advantage over their Iraqi counterparts due to their proximity to the European Union and the willingness of many states to accept these refugees. Iraqis were, and still are, turned away by Western states as they try to enter without the correct visas. 9.2 million people have been either internally displaced or became refugees due to the 2003 invasion and the ongoing threat of the Islamic State. 

In a statement on Twitter, senior political figure Muqtada al-Sadr condemned the violence in Ukraine stating that:

Iraq has “gained nothing but ruin, weakness, and dispersal amid exacerbation of extremism and terrorism”

Muqtada al-Sadr

This exemplifies the impact that wars like the invasion of Iraq, and now Ukraine, have, and will have, upon its citizens.

The sanctions placed upon Russia due to the invasion will directly impact the Middle East. Having already experienced heavy sanctioning following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the people of Iraq are bracing themselves for food shortages and hunger. Russia and Ukraine provide us with a quarter of the world’s wheat supply. However, war and sanctions threaten the supply of this wheat to states worldwide. The rising price of wheat will threaten Iraq’s ability to provide for its people and could potentially lead to unrest as people are unable to afford to feed themselves and their families. The people of Iraq are trying to warn governments that heavy sanctions preventing Russia from trading necessities such as wheat will only impact the people of Russia and the global community, making life “unliveable” for more than just Putin and his people.

The use of economic sanctions and cultural isolation tactics by the US and its allies has raised international discussion about the power of the West. Prior to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was believed by some in the global community that the US had the power to “reshape other societies”. However, the protracted and expensive nature of these wars and the questionable benefits of attempted state-building has challenged this belief. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have bared the limits of the power of the US as it took on more than it could manage. The US is now under pressure not only to support Ukraine but to do so in a way that conveys power and influence as a superpower, albeit in an increasingly multi-polar world. 

The most important lesson that the coalition learned in Iraq was that it was the occupation, not the invasion, of Iraq that was the most difficult element of its intervention in the state. This is a point not lost by commentators on the Ukrainian defence that have remained in the state to resist Russian forces and any resulting occupation that may occur. Ben Wallace, the UK’s Defence Secretary drew parallels between this and the coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 stating that much of the Iraqi population welcomed the presence of US and British forces in Iraq, making some elements of occupation easier. Russia’s presence as an occupying force is largely unwanted in Ukraine which will promote Ukrainian resistance to Putin’s forces for a long time of come. In addition to this, The Washington Post suggests that Russian forces must number 20 soldiers per 1,000 people in order to successfully invade and occupy Ukraine. The US only had 1 soldier per 1,000 inhabitants during their invasion of Afghanistan and faced insurgency for nearly 2 decades. Numbers are currently estimated to be 4:1000 in Ukraine with 190,000 Russian troops deployed to Ukraine’s borders and beyond. However, as the Twitter thread below demonstrates, this is simply not enough to successfully invade and occupy Ukraine in the long-term. The coalition’s post-war aftermath in Iraq was poorly planned and had little direction in terms of how reconstruction would manifest itself. Given that Putin’s invasion is already considered to be going badly, it is likely that any post-invasion planning will be just as challenging and subject to resistance by the people of Ukraine.

There has already been some redemption for the coalition states during the initial stages of the invasion of Ukraine. So far, intelligence collected and collated by British and US intelligence forces has been accurate with NATO able to predict the phases of Putin’s plan. This is a far cry from intelligence prior to the invasion of Iraq, which was heavily politicised, and regarded as manipulated, by claims about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq to justify the conflict. This shrewd use of intelligence and information operations has allowed the West to prepare Western publics for the invasion and any action taken by their governments in order to counter Russia’s attack, and to help unite Western governments in a demonstration financial deterrence. However, the fact that Western intelligence has been correct does not bode well for the Ukrainian people. The vindication of the West’s intelligence capabilities has to be coupled with diplomatic measures (including a so-called “off-ramp”) that will help Ukraine protect those people, cities and regions that are the targets of Russian aggression.

Despite the bleak international picture, the invasion of Ukraine does present some potential opportunities for energy producing states in the Middle East region. Iraq is one such state. Currently, it has additional capacity to produce greater amounts of gas which it could sell to Western states and the European Union in order to provide energy to these states in lieu of Russian contributions. Not only does this provide additional revenue for the state but it could also demonstrate to the West that Iraq is a reliable producer of energy and could result in long-term energy contracts for the state. Any form of positive relationship building for the state can also only be seen as a positive step towards further integration in the international community.

There are lessons that the West can learn from the Invasion of Iraq in 2003 when considering actions and counter measures now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. What is most striking is the human element of both wars and the significant impact that these invasions have had, and will have, on the citizens of the invaded state. The voices of these people are often lost behind the loud, politicised rhetoric that accompany these conflicts. However, the US and its allies will hopefully look back at its actions in Iraq and strive not to repeat any of their mistakes during its attempt to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty.