What can we learn about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine from a long-dead German who wrote during the time of the Napoleonic Wars? A great deal, it turns out.
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian “philosopher of war,” had much to say about the timeless nature of war. He contended that although the character of various wars may differ, the fundamental nature of war remains constant: a violent clash of opposing wills, with each side seeking to prevail over the other. Despite the claims of Clausewitz’s detractors, technology has not negated his insights. For confirmation, we need look no further than the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
While Clausewitz’s most famous aphorism is that “war is the continuation of policy by other means,” perhaps the observation most applicable to Putin’s decision to “roll the iron dice” against Ukraine is this from On War: “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.”
As the war drags on, it seems clear that Putin has failed on that count. He apparently envisioned a short war, characterized by a coup de main, the rapid seizure of Kyiv and the replacement of the Zelenskyy government with a Kremlin puppet. This was the model that the Soviets executed during the invasion of Afghanistan in 1978. For a number of reasons, also identified by Clausewitz, the current effort failed.
As Clausewitz taught, war is not linear. It is not a predictable phenomenon occurring in a deterministic, mechanistic world. Rather, war is a highly complex interactive system characterized by chance, “friction,” unpredictability, disorder, and fluidity. As such, it cannot be subjected to precise, positive control or synchronized, centralized schemes.
Clausewitz described war as a “remarkable trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” It is the second element of the trinity—the play of chance and probability—that has caused the Russian military the most problems.
Clausewitz identified two eternal characteristics of war that remain pertinent even in an age of information technology: “friction” and “the fog of uncertainty.” The two combine to undermine the conduct of a military operation:
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war . . . This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus facts take place upon which it was impossible to calculate, their chief origin being chance.
As one of Clausewitz’s successors, Helmut von Moltke the Elder, observed, “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces. Only the layman believes that in the course of a campaign he sees the consistent implementation of an original thought that has been considered in advance in every detail and retained to the end.” Less elegantly, but more succinctly, this observation is condensed to: “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
Clausewitz identified other aspects of the nature of war that have contributed to the current stalemate. The first is the role of non-quantifiable factors. On paper, the Russian army easily should have crushed its Ukrainian counterpart. But a purely quantitative net assessment fails to consider the “moral” factors in war. As he wrote, “War is a trial of moral and physical forces by means of the latter . . . In the last analysis it is at moral, not physical strength that all military action is directed . . . Moral factors, then, are the ultimate determinants in war.”
According to many reports, regular Russian army units’ morale and fighting spirit are noticeably lacking, while that of the Ukrainians seems to be high. For instance, in a recent speech in Australia, Jeremy Fleming, director of Britain’s top signals intelligence agency, said, “we’ve seen Russian soldiers—short of weapons and morale—refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment, and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft.”
An important reason for low morale among the Russian soldiers is that they are conscripts. Of course, the U.S. military was also a conscript force until after the Vietnam War, and contrary to a widespread narrative, that army fought well in Vietnam. This is mainly because although the term of service for U.S. draftees was short, both the U.S. officer and noncommissioned officer corps—especially the latter—were essentially composed of long-term professionals who provided the cohesion and spirit that characterized most U.S. units in Vietnam.
The Russian system has no such NCO corps to provide the experience necessary to create and maintain the unit cohesion that underpins combat effectiveness. Of course, the Russians have their Spetsnaz units, the equivalent of U.S. special operations forces (SOF), and well-trained mercenaries such as the Wagner Group. But most regular units of the Russian army apparently lack esprit de corps and suffer from low morale, especially in a foreign war. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are fighting for their homeland.
But problems also afflict Russian planning and execution. Because war is a human enterprise and a nonlinear phenomenon, those who undertake it must plan for uncertainty. A coherent and flexible political-military strategy should plan for multiple, unexpected outcomes. There must be “branches and sequels” to give the decision-makers the broadest array of choices in responding to the unanticipated actions of an adversary. The current situation suggests that Russian plans have only one branch and no sequels.
Russian logistics appear to be a nightmare. As an old adage goes, amateurs focus on tactics, professionals on logistics. Even the most competent military organization can’t fight without ammunition, fuel, and rations. A steady stream of reports suggests that tanks and motorized vehicles, damaged not only by Ukrainian military action but also by bad roads, often cannot be repaired in a timely manner.
The Russian offensive faces a situation Clausewitz called the “culminating point of victory:” The further the attacker advances, the more his strength relative to the defender declines as the former’s lines of operation and supply become extended. Russia has been on the other side of this equation: its great strategic depth swallowed up Charles XII of Sweden in 1708-1709, Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941. As Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of a German Army Group on the Eastern Front, observed in an August 1941 letter to his wife, “the distances in Russia devour us.”
The outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is far from clear. There are reports that Russia is modifying its war aims. On March 25, Russian General Staff head of military operations Sergei Rudskoi said, “Our forces and equipment will focus on the most important thing, the complete liberation of Donbass.” He went on to claim that the purpose of the month-long invasion had been to keep Ukraine from retaking the separatist-controlled Donbass territories.
There are also reports that a negotiated solution to the Ukraine war is under consideration. Such an agreement would likely resemble the Minsk agreements of 2014-2015, according to which Russia would no doubt insist on its control of Donbass and Luhansk coupled with a pledge that Ukraine would not join NATO. Russia may have an incentive to accept this outcome since continuing the war will seriously hurt the Russian economy. Ukraine may believe that, despite the costs of the war, it is not in its interest to accept such terms. Indeed, many observers believe such an agreement would be a trap for Ukraine.
There is still, of course, the possibility that Putin will insist on continuing the war. David Goldman offers the most sinister possibility, suggesting that Putin’s real goal is to “ruin and depopulate Ukraine, the way Richelieu reduced large parts of Germany to cannibalism during the Thirty Years War.” But most analysts believe that a continued stalemate does not serve Russian interests, which raises the question: With his conventional forces bogged down in a stalled offensive, would he resort to nuclear weapons? Here, Clausewitz’s admonition to be sure about the kind of war the country is about to fight before engaging is pertinent.
We don’t yet know the outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war. All we say so far is that it validates Clausewitz’s description of war as a violent clash of opposing wills, each seeking to prevail over the other and in which the will is directed not against an inert object but against an animate one reacting in unanticipated ways. Since war is a human enterprise, the human dimension must be central to any understanding of the phenomenon. The Russians may have learned again what history teaches: those who plan to win a short war often lose a long one.