Clausewitz on Ukraine
10th June 2022
Putin has said that he does not want Russia to suffer the fate of the Soviet Union, in the case of defeat. We are finally hearing that the ‘special operation’ is in fact a war. Each party in a war wishes to win. An honourable armistice, or end of hostilities is ideal, especially from a civilian point of view. The reality of war is about winning. Winning means defeating the other country. Defeat means the victor has the power to decide the fate of the other country. We are no longer used to thinking of war as something so overwhelming for the defeated country. We think of war as an economic battle in which each party is gaining large amounts of wealth through arms deals and reconstruction contracts. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen has indicated the EU’s interest in reconstructing Ukraine.
We need to go back to von Clausewitz (1780-1831) and his treatise on War (1832): “war is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. He then continues: “Now, philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the Art of War. However plausible this may appear, still it is an error which must be extirpated; for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst. As the use of physical power to the utmost extent by no means excludes the co-operation of the intelligence, it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigour in its application. The former then dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counter-acting force on each side”.
Putin is now reacting to such statements. If Russia is to lose in Ukraine, what will the consequences be for Russia? His statement indicates that he fears such a defeat may not only be achieved by Ukraine alone but ultimately combined with NATO. He has also talked about the partition of Russia, as the Soviet Union was also disintegrated in 1991 in the case of defeat.
Clausewitz indicates that there are three aims in war: 1) invasion and occupation 2) to aim for those strategic objectives which will do most harm to the enemy 3) wearing out the enemy.
One may add that if Russia is worn out, the internal national tensions of the Federation could emerge and risk a sort of implosion or even partition into zones of influence. The Far East to China, the West to the EU and neutral vis-a-vis NATO. However, the real risk is a permanent conflict in the Caucasus. The West may be worn out too, depleted economically and militarily. Russia and NATO could be exhausted, while Ukraine is crushed between them.
China would then emerge energized and a well-rested onlooker. China delayed the Russian operation until the end of the Olympics were over, at the time when the mud in Ukraine (rasputitsa) makes any invasion impossible. It stopped providing spare parts to Russian airplanes in March and decreed a no-fly zone for Russian planes in May. In the meantime, Europe is restless about the economic mayhem ahead and putting its head in the sand about Eastern Europe’s concerns and fears.
Clausewitz was right, the defeated party is the one which is worn out. NATO, Russia, and Ukraine could soon be exhausted. At that point the winner is China.