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The Ukraine War and von Clausewitz: Strategy vs. Mere Tactics 

Image of similar artillery being used in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Image of similar artillery being used in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

It is hard to believe the hype that potential deployments of German Leopard and U.S. Abrams tanks have triggered in the western media. Every expert and wargamer seems eager to sell the new weapons offered to Ukraine as miracle solutions and so-called gamechangers.

This is blatant ignorance; war is not a game. Battles are fought at the tactical and operational levels, but wars are won and lost in the strategic realm.

Ukraine: A Matter of Ends and Means

As the great warfare theorist Carl von Clausewitz once noted, “No one starts a war or rather, no one in his sense ought to do so without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by the war and how he intends to conduct it.” Indeed, as a war planner you must know what you can and cannot achieve with the means available to you. 

This basic principle is relevant to both parties in the current war. If Russia’s goal is to occupy, hold, and integrate the Donbas region and Crimea for national security purposes, its means may ultimately suffice, especially given the relatively manageable lines of communications it is dealing with.

For Ukraine, the retaking of lost territories provides a bit of a different challenge. Its vast yet motley array of modern Western weapons might allow the retaking of some territories, but the entirety of Ukraine’s infrastructure is at risk from Russia’s long-range weaponry so long as the war continues. Should Ukraine eventually respond with long-range attacks on Russia itself, the doors open for warfare beyond the conventional realm, and a direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO becomes possible. This promises total war with possibly global repercussions. 

Although the West promises full logistical support “as long as it takes,” an analysis from the strategic perspective would have to ask what that really means. How long can the U.S. and NATO support such a war without it impacting national debts and domestic public support? Western populations are quite fickle when it comes to accepting long-term warfare commitments that might lead to rationing, lost wealth, the possible return of the draft, and the prospect of high casualties.

Surely, America weathered the long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq rather well, yet there the enemies were impoverished third-world nations that had only limited resources at their disposal. Most Americans today, bombarded with constant messaging about the cruelty of the Russians, are still in favor of fighting the war in Ukraine to the last Ukrainian. But would they be prepared to send their own sons and daughters to partake in that far-away blood-fest? 

Clear Heads, Sound Strategy

I think it’s critical for Western leaders not to be fooled by blind beliefs in the capabilities of their weapons, nor to be overly enthusiastic about casualty reports. Here, Clausewitz again offers a reality check: “Casualty reports on either side are never accurate, seldom truthful, and in most cases deliberately falsified.” Hence Western planners must contemplate potential strategic objectives and challenges in a realistic and unbiased fashion. 

For Ukraine, the strategic Achilles heel isn’t the ability of their army to fight successful tactical battles. They have proven they can do that. No, for Ukraine, the greatest risk factor is a non-homogeneous culture and ingrained corruption. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is currently confronted with these challenges and has resorted to quite drastic measures. He has fired key leaders and confidants, and he has silenced the media as well as church authorities.

Russia knows this. Despite its own challenges at home, it is targeting these strategic vulnerabilities, in addition to bleeding the Ukrainian army and civilian infrastructure to bring about internal discontent and turmoil. 

Is It a Lesson Learned If You Later Forget?

So while Russia is fighting a limited war of attrition to hold on to its conquered territories, it also pursues the strategic goal of overthrowing the Zelensky government. It is doing this through a variety of means from the inside instead of resorting to a crude assassination attempt. As the conflict drags on, it behooves Western leaders to remember Clausewitz’s principle that, “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” It would be a costly disappointment if Ukraine wins some critical battles, yet loses because its internal strategic center is caved in by the opponent. 

The war in Ukraine is a mixture of many elements and experiences, both old and new. Hence von Clausewitz is again on target when he says that, “Every age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.” Hopefully, the West understands that and won’t be driven by focus on mere battles, miracle weapons, and unconfirmed casualty numbers. The U.S. has suffered from all these delusions in some of its recent wars, yet it seems to have forgotten once again. 

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R.W. Zimmermann is a former tank battalion commander and 3rd Armored Division Desert Storm veteran. He worked as a warfare strategy and leadership instructor for the US military.

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R.W. Zimmermann is a former tank battalion commander and 3rd Armored Division Desert Storm veteran. He served as a warfare strategy and leadership instructor for the US military and has written Op-eds on various military and international relations topics.