That ought to give future aggressors—looking at you, Xi Jinping—pause. Even the best-scripted war plan can go awry, with fateful consequences for the aggressor as well as the aggrieved. And Russia’s plan merits few superlatives in the annals of military history. Few would rate it among the best.
Neglect of the nature of war is a major reason why.
After all, countless factors could knock a military campaign off script. As the martial sage Carl von Clausewitz describes the climate of war, a multitude of factors commonly combines to send a campaign careening off on wild tangents. Impersonal forces like danger, fickle chance, complexity, and combustible passions are prominent among them.
But the enemy shapes the climate of war as well. A wily and stubborn foe like Ukraine refuses to play the part for which the script-writers—a.k.a. the designers and executors of Russian strategy—have cast it. Such an opponent tries to ruin the production, deliberately compounding the problem of winning speedily and decisively. Small wonder Russian strongman Vladimir Putin hasn’t gotten his way.
Not in full, anyway. The final outcome remains in doubt, with Russia supposedly poised to wrest the offensive from Ukraine this spring.
You know what they say about assumptions: they make an ass out of you and me. Going into the war last February, Putin and his lieutenants seem to have assumed the Russian Army would make short work of its apparently overmatched opponent. In the wake of its battlefield triumph, Russia would unseat the government in Kyiv and replace the regime with something more to Moscow’s liking.
Russian arms have not delivered on this vision. This should come as little surprise. Even an outclassed combatant gets a vote in war—and invariably tries to veto its antagonist’s designs. Warfare takes on a fractal quality as human will collides with human will.
Many imperishable features of war have been on display in Russia’s war on Ukraine. Three stand out to me. One, the war reminds us that military strength is a multiple of armed might and political resolve. It is not just widgets, explosives, or other objects that intelligence folk can tally up. Not everything that counts can be counted, as physicist Albert Einstein once observed, while not everything that can be counted counts.
Intangibles are harder to gauge than physical objects but no less crucial for all that.
Willpower thus constitutes half of strength, alongside physical capability and the skill to wield it. The halves may be unequal, and again, the relationship between them is multiplicative: if either is zero, so is strength. The brawniest contender accomplishes little without the gusto to use its brawn, while the most willful contender accomplishes little if unarmed. Victors abound in both capability and determination.
On the macro level, the people are the chief locus of passion within a society. They have to want the political leadership’s goals and feel the importance of those goals in their guts to justify the outlays of lives, treasure, and military hardware that making war demands.
If the populace doesn’t care that much about the aims set by political leaders, chances are the war effort will falter. The bottom line is, popular sentiment is the propellant for any war-making enterprise. If the tanks are full, the effort rumbles toward its destination. If fuel runs short, the effort sputters—leaving statesmen the option of trying to refuel the tanks, summoning up new resolve, or striking the best compromise they can to get out of the fighting.
In a sense the two combatants in Ukraine are inverses of each other. Russia boasts the bulk of the material resources but shows scant passion for the endeavor. Meanwhile, Ukraine is short on material resources but—staring national death in the face—is lashed on by fiery passion. Which combination of capability and desire will prevail—if either—remains to be seen.
Passion also plays a central part on the micro level, where operations and tactics unspool. Clausewitz notes that the field general must possess a penetrating “inward eye” to see through the fog of war, but he also opines that the commander must have the “inward fire” to rally the troops to carry on amid setbacks and sheer weariness. Here too, Ukraine seems to possess the advantage. Its military overseers have played a weak hand well, while the Russian armed forces have played a strong hand feebly.
Two, the home team has the advantage. Defenders bestriding home ground know that ground better than any outsider is likely to, and they understand how to put physical terrain to use to make things tough on aggressors. They’re closer to their bases, simplifying logistical challenges; they’re closer to likely battlegrounds, making it easier to mass forces for tactical and operational gain; they enjoy interior lines for moving forces from place to place to meet enemy advances.
And they know the human terrain—the demographics, language, and local culture—better than any probable aggressor. In warfare as in football, in short, the home-team advantage biases the surroundings in favor of the defender. For Ukraine, it annuls Russia’s material advantages at least in part.
And three, the rhythm of the battlefield tends to slosh back and forth as combatants overextend themselves and find themselves thrown back. Clausewitz terms this the “culminating point of the attack,” the crossover point where the military balance flips to favor the formerly weaker combatant against an adversary that has pushed its offensive too far. To borrow from the strategist Edward Luttwak, “ironic” reversals of fortune can plague both sides if commanders and their political masters fail to exercise sound judgment.
The Russian Army seems to have overshot its culminating point of the attack last spring, preparing the way for Ukrainian counteroffensives last fall. We will see whether the much-heralded Russian spring offensive comes to pass, and whether it will rejuvenate Russia’s prospects for victory.
Will Russia win? It could. The campaign is an abject failure if Putin’s paramount and only goal was to conquer Ukraine in its entirety. That now seems out of reach. But if his larger goal was to weaken or break NATO and reinstate the bareknuckles principle that international borders can be adjusted by force of arms, then he could well succeed.
In fact, I would say the odds are with him if that’s his quest. It’s as hard to imagine Ukraine expelling the Russian Army from eastern Ukraine and Crimea entirely—and restoring its pre-2014 frontiers—as it is to imagine Russian legions rampaging across all of Ukraine. Which leaves Europe and the world with a mess.
Ruining your predatory rival’s script may be a good thing, and in this case it is. But that’s no guarantee your own production will be a critical success.
Author Expertise and Experience
A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.