Which antagonist—if either—will prevail in Ukraine?
The longevity and success of Russia’s offensive is a hot topic of debate among foreign-policy practitioners and the commentariat. Nor is it an idle topic. But beware of too-confident assessments. Canvassing military history indicates that campaigns tend to sputter over time. A campaign may stagnate, and reversals of fortune are far from rare. It takes not just a proficient military machine but leadership possessed of ingenuity and force of character to keep the momentum going, or regain it if it slips way.
So Russia isn’t predestined to be the victor over Ukraine even though it’s the stronger combatant—by far—by the numbers. Indeed, the Russian offensive has shown signs of faltering since day one. A lesser combatant that makes maximum use of its latent combat power can stymie an opponent that wastes its potential.
Ukraine has a chance.
Martial sage Carl von Clausewitz explains the rhythms of the battlefield in somewhat mystical terms, showing how military success relates to and helps bring about political success. The central idea he puts forward is the “culminating point,” the point at which the fortunes of war start to change for one or both combatants, sometimes in drastic ways. One antagonist’s relative strength may top out while the other’s bottoms out and starts to rebound. Or they may come to a crossover point beyond which the erstwhile stronger competitor is now the weaker.
First, there’s the “culminating point of victory.” Clausewitz posits that the attacker amasses initial supremacy in the military balance by virtue of surprise, the initiative, the prerogative to choose the initial point of impact, and so forth. At the same time, though, Clausewitz believes tactical defense is the strongest form of warfare. That being the case, he prophesies that the attacker’s military advantage will crest and start to dwindle over time. But because political advantage—bargaining leverage that goes to the likely victor—starts to ebb away after the culminating point, so does the attacker’s ability to impose its will on the defender.
Call it the Clausewitzian paradox. The attacker generally has to press its offensive beyond the culminating point of victory—its maximum margin of military superiority—to seize what it wants. But it’s in a weaker and weaker position as the offensive goes on. It takes masterful generalship to sustain the battlefield advantage long enough to pluck the fruits of war.
Politically speaking, Russia may already have culminated. Its failure to score the lightning triumph craved by President Vladimir Putin has stained Russia’s reputation for martial prowess. Fewer foreign leaders will fear Moscow’s threats in the future, or seek out support from what seems like an untrustworthy ally. Repute is everything in power politics, and Russia has damaged its brand.
Through its unprovoked assault, moreover, Russia stands revealed as a foe of small sovereign states everywhere, and as an unworthy steward of the U.N.-led world order put in place at San Francisco in 1945. It has outdone China for lawlessness, which is saying something nowadays. Russian arms may yet prevail in Ukraine by brute force. But Russia’s political standing has suffered—making lasting political gains elusive.
The defender also gets a vote on when the attacker’s fortunes culminate. It is possible that Russia overshot its culminating point of victory very early in the campaign, with an assist from an ornery home team. To its credit, the Ukrainian Army has refused to fight Russia’s fight. Rather than risk a conventional toe-to-toe engagement in which they might lose everything, Ukrainian commanders have resorted to irregular warfare—a strategy whereby the weak deliberately prolong the endeavor to sap the physical might and willpower of the strong. The longer the fighting drags on, the more intense the international opprobrium and, potentially, the greater the resistance to the war among Russians back home.
Some form of compromise peace might eventually result.
The defender’s allies and partners can also help nudge the aggressor past its culminating point of victory. International sanctions can degrade the aggressor’s stocks of warmaking materiel over time. Running in weaponry to arm the defender—especially antitank armaments in the Ukrainian Army’s case—helps even the balance of forces in a more direct way. Russia’s margin of martial superiority will wither in part, and with it Moscow’s capacity to win a convincing triumph in reasonably short order. Alliance management is crucial to Ukraine’s prospects.
The second type of culminating point Clausewitz espies is the “culminating point of the attack.” If the attacker surges beyond its culminating point of victory and keeps going too far, its margin of superiority will diminish by the day. Ultimately it will narrow to zero—and the attacker will find itself the weaker contestant, probably deep within hostile territory. If bargaining power flows from superiority on the battlefield, the erstwhile attacker will lose its ability to wrest away a favorable peace.
Now, It’s doubtful Russia will overshoot its culminating point of the attack in light of the massive resource disparity between the combatants. But it’s not impossible. George Washington’s Continental Army confronted such a mismatch during the early years of the War of American Independence, and yet the irregular approach coupled with deft alliance politics let the American colonists prevail after a lengthy struggle. Mao Zedong’s Red Army came back from its Long March, when Chinese Nationalist armies hunted the Chinese Communist Party almost to extinction. The odds are forbidding against Ukraine—but survival is a possibility.
So there’s a formula: spread out rather than mass forces, deny the aggressor a quick strategic victory, and court allies and friends able to influence the outcome. The ebb-and-flow dynamics of combat are what the strategist Edward Luttwak terms the “paradoxical” logic of warfare. Commanders’ tendency to overextend their forces sweeps the campaign past its culminating points; overstepping may bring on an “ironic” reversal of fortune. The victor may become the vanquished—or at least fall short of its political aims.
Commentators on the Russo-Ukraine war have been quick to make sport of Russian arms or to despair of Ukraine’s chances of survival against the Russian juggernaut. Clausewitz, Washington, and Mao would mock such premature, ahistorical verdicts on the conflict. In all likelihood, the coming weeks will witness ups and downs for both belligerents.
It ain’t over till it’s over.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone.