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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

The Battle in Ukraine Reflects a Tone of 1953

From Twitter: Another Russian T-72 attempted to break the record for the "longest turret flight." To achieve such a result, the AFU needed slightly less than $1,000, compared to the tank's cost of 3-4 million dollars.

It’s starting to feel like 1953 again, this time in Ukraine. That year is when the Koreas and their allies agreed on an armistice, at last, after three years of bloodshed. Fighting sloshed up and down the Korean Peninsula during the year-long war of movement (1950-1951). The North lunged across the inter-Korean border in 1950, driving South Korean forces all the way to the Pusan Perimeter, a tiny enclave at the peninsula’s southeastern tip. It looked like South Korea’s defenders might be driven into the sea. Then, after firming up the perimeter, U.S.-U.N. forces mounted an ambitious flanking landing at Inchon. They cut off and mostly wrecked the North Korean army before making their own lunge northward toward the Inchon River, which marks the Sino-Korean frontier. Then a host of “Chinese People’s Volunteers” poured across the Yalu, sending the U.N. army fleeing southward. 

Then, then, then. Up and down the peninsula warfare raged. 

Pause at the 38th 

Finally, stasis set in as the fighting front stabilized along the 38th parallel. South of the peninsula’s “narrow neck” along the 38th, Korea is a maritime theater susceptible to sea and air power such as that boasted by U.S.-U.N. naval forces. There, carriers and surface warships can control events in concert with ground forces. North of the narrow neck, though, the peninsula widens, and the terrain grows rocky, mountainous, and forbidding, largely setting air and sea power at nought. So, the U.S.-U.N. force mainly ruled the south, the Soviet-Chinese-North Korean axis ruled the north. Geography prevailed in concert with military power. For the last two years of the conflict the combatants jockeyed in vain for bargaining leverage. Unable to build up an advantage on the battlefield sufficient to compel terms, the U.S.-U.N. and communist coalitions tried out a variety of negotiating stratagems. 

To little avail. 

In the end only some combination of Soviet strongman Josef Stalin’s death and nuclear threats from U.S. presidential candidate—and then president—Dwight D. Eisenhower broke the negotiating impasse. But none of the contenders acquired their maximal strategic and political goals. Their performance on the battlefield, and in the realm of threats and promises, simply didn’t warrant maximal diplomatic results. They did too little. 

Partial results were the best anyone could achieve. 

Martial sage Carl von Clausewitz would have instantly grasped the outcome of the Korean War, and in all likelihood, he would prophesy a similar dismal outcome in Ukraine today. 

Clausewitz described the rhythm of the battlefield in somewhat arcane terms. He proposed that the invader—the combatant that launched an offensive across land borders—would build up a military advantage over the defender owing to a variety of factors, including surprise, initiative, and the liberty to choose where to land the initial blow. That’s what Clausewitz was familiar with: land warfare between contiguous states in Europe. The attacker’s advantage would widen to its zenith at what he called the “culminating point of victory.” At the culminating point of victory, the invader would likewise command its maximum advantage bargaining advantage at the peace table. 

Supremacy at arms meant supremacy for negotiators. 

Narrowing to Victory 

That would be the optimal time to open peace negotiations—if the invader had obtained what it wanted, chiefly territory, by the time it reached the culminating point of victory. In effect it could parley to keep what its arms had already won. Just as possession is nine-tenths of the law, it’s nine-tenths of peacemaking amid armed strife. But yet, Clausewitz pours cold water on the notion that a belligerent can pull off such an ideal result. Seldom does the attacker attain all it wants by the time it reaches its maximum military superiority. In most cases, he says, the invader has to go beyond the culminating point of victory to take what the leadership wants from the defender. 

It stands in danger. 

Here’s the rub. When the attacker goes past the culminating point of victory its martial advantage over the defender starts to narrow. The army is marching deeper into the enemy’s homeland, where the home-team advantage begins to tell. It has to leave behind troops to guard its supply lines, and thus it weakens the frontline force to ensure it has enough food, stores, and ammunition. Eventually the invader approaches what Clausewitz terms the “culminating point of the attack.” That’s the crossover point beyond which the attacker is now weaker than the defender. 

Beyond this second culminating point the attacker stands in dire peril. It’s trying to wrest something from a stronger defender—an inauspicious situation at best. If its commanders don’t figure out some way to restore their supremacy on the battleground, the army faces annihilation. And the political cause is lost in the process. 

Battle Lines 

The past nineteen months since Russia launched its assault have borne witness to the mercurial, back-and-forth rhythm Clausewitz espied. The invasion briefly swung the military balance in Russia’s favor, but the Russian advantage speedily climaxed before tapering to a stalemate. Moscow got none of its maximal goals, namely overthrowing and “de-Nazifying” the government in Kiev. The fall 2022 Ukrainian counteroffensive reversed many of Russia’s territorial gains before itself stagnating. The Ukrainian armed forces accomplished too little to make the political leadership’s goals—expelling Russia from all of Ukraine—feasible. Kiev did not and could not get everything it wanted politically. 

Since then both combatants have hovered around their culminating points of the attack. Indecision prevails. Neither can amass enough of a military edge to impose terms. Nor does a breakout for either side seem likely. 

So again, and sorrowfully, the 1953 template seems to apply. Might does not make right, but political results do tend to follow battlefield results—regardless of the justice or injustice of any contender’s cause. It behooves Ukraine and its Western benefactors to come to terms with that hard, uncompromising reality of arms—and figure out what they can reasonably expect to get out of a bad situation. 

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone. 

Written By

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.”