Essays & Reviews

Alex Deep on Putin, Clausewitz, and Ukraine

On the Small Wars Journal website, Alex Deep, a U.S. Army captain now studying at Johns Hopkins SAIS (selected to instruct International Relations and Comparative Politics at the United States Military Academy upon completion of that study), writes on Putin, Clausewitz, and Ukraine. 

Of course, the use of Clausewitz to analyze conflicts can easily become hackneyed and a means to provide authority to justify own view of things.  But conducted in the correct spirit — e.g., to make sense of Russia’s current strategy of neither peace nor war along its periphery — can help one think through problems at hand.

According to Deep, Putin is attempting to balance the trinity of passion, military means, and political aims in executing a plan that relies on friction and mass to succeed on the ground; and to use war as a way of achieving political ends.  However, the real question might not be whether Putin’s strategy is Clausewitzian, but whether he is choosing the correct means by which to accomplish the goal of increasing Russian influence along its borders.

At the operational and tactical levels, according to Deep, Russia is leveraging the Clausewitzian concepts of friction and mass to its advantage in Ukraine.  The persistent ambiguity over Russian overt military involvement due to a lack of information coming out of Eastern Ukraine has been advantageous to Russian strategy as it causes friction and a fog of war to develop for both Ukrainian forces and the international community.  Russian news media has greatest access to the region as reporters embedded with separatist units provide a propagandized version of the conflict for consumption both in Russia and, more importantly, with the targeted Russian Diaspora in Eastern Ukraine that watches predominantly Russian television.  The idea that information technology has somehow lifted Clausewitz’s fog of war does not apply when Russia is able to maintain information dominance over the narrative coming out of Eastern Ukraine.  (Despite taking advantage of friction during the initial phases of the conflict, Russia was also the victim of this concept when separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 777.)

Deep cites Clausewitz’s view that the nature of the commander is essential towards the execution of a military campaign to achieve political ends.  However, Clausewitz warns that the military and political structures should be separate with the former subordinate to the latter.  In Russia, Vladimir Putin has essentially combined the roles of military commander and political leader, driving Russian political policy and the military means by which to achieve those goals. Putin has displayed characteristics of a leader that Clausewitz equated to “genius” such as decisiveness, political awareness, and determination, in the execution of a nuanced strategy to expand Russian influence. However, Clausewitz also understood that leaders must be able to alter actions and decisions based on the effectiveness of a strategy.  Whether Putin can do this is still undetermined, but his staunchness in continuing to execute a strategy that alienates the states he wants to influence, seems counterintuitive.

As Clausewitz used historic examples to display general concepts, comparing Russian strategy in Ukraine with pre-WWI sheds historic light on Russian behavior.  Prior to WWI, Russia equated its great power status to territorial expansion and influence over its Slavic Diaspora in the Balkans as Czar Nicholas II drove the decision-making process based on the nature of the authoritarian regime.  However, this obsession with expansion led Russia to decline as defeats in the Russo-Japanese War and Crimean War weakened its status prior to 1914, and WWI led to social revolution. Today, Russia is executing an aggressive strategy to reclaim its great power status through a hybrid of conventional and irregular warfare under the auspice of protecting the Russian Diaspora. However, this obsession with destabilizing the territorial integrity of neighboring states, now including territorial expansion in Crimea, has weakened Russia financially and encouraged states within its perceived sphere to move towards the West.  In Deep’s opinion, Russia is following concepts from Clausewitz in Ukraine, but might be selecting the wrong strategy to achieve its political goals.