The bear is snared. After more than two months of war, the Russian campaign in Ukraine has stalled. The stalemate settling across the battlefield has left legions of analysts, strategists, and statesmen bewildered. Some predicted a quagmire from the outset, but most seasoned military observers expected Russia to dominate the battlefield within the opening week of the war. Despite Russia’s claim that its “special military operation” is proceeding according to plan, the signs of a grave military miscalculation are mounting. The UK minister of defence estimates that over fifteen thousand Russian troops have been killed in action since the start of the war, and Russian factories are straining to replace the hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles that have been destroyed. As the battered Russian forces regroup in the Donbas, the Western military commentariat is assiduously assessing how Europe’s largest conventional army became embroiled in a grinding war of attrition against an ostensibly inferior opponent.
Some attribute the morass in Ukraine to megalomania on the part of Vladimir Putin, or the poor planning of the Russian military high command. Of course, the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people has played its part. But I argue that the root cause of the Russian crisis in Ukraine is more mundane. The Russian military has stalled because the theory of victory that undergirded its campaign was based on an assessment of will, not means. This flaw is rooted in a common transposition of military mathematics. Devising a theory of victory that hinges on breaking the will of the enemy, as opposed to overwhelming the enemy’s capacity to resist, is tenuous at best, and catastrophic at worst. This oft-ignored but sobering reality is playing out before the eyes of the world in Ukraine.
On the matter of exertion of strength in war, Clausewitz wrote, “If you want to overcome your enemy you must match your effort against his power of resistance, which can be expressed as the product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will.” In his classic analysis. “Theory of Victory,” J. Boone Bartholomees Jr. expresses this dictum as a mathematical formula: r = m x w, in which r represents the power of resistance, m the total means available, and w the strength of will. In this formulation, victory is reached when r approaches zero, through the reduction of m or w. Since human will is mercurial and incorporeal, however, the measure of material means must carry the greatest weight in the estimation of enemy resistance and the formulation of military strategy. One can never be sure of the intentions of the adversary, but one can be sure of the destructive power of Javelin missiles.
Material means and will are inseparable in war, and the complex interplay between the two presents innumerable challenges for a strategist. Indeed, Napoleon Bonaparte famously observed that in war “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” Prudence dictates, therefore, that theories of victory factor in the multiplicative power of will on means. Tolstoy noted in War in Peace that “the relative strength of bodies of troops can never be known to anyone.” Indeed, a battalion in the enemy order of battle might fight with the combat strength of a battalion or a division depending on its disposition, equipment, and motivation. It would be improvident, therefore, to assume the former when devising a campaign plan. This is not to say that the enemy order of battle should be automatically multiplied for the sake of an axiom, but it would be wise to consider the possibility, especially when troops are fighting to defend their native soil. Too often in war, planners place their hope for victory on the collapse of the ever-mercurial enemy will. This strategy obviates the cardinal virtue of prudence that should guide sound strategy.
The Rhythm and Rhyme of History
In Barbarossa, his classic history of the struggle between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, the British historian Alan Clark describes Adolf Hitler’s appraisal of Russian fighting potential on the eve of the campaign as such: “Hitler dismissed the latent strength of [the Red Army]. He believed that the Soviet military machine was so riddled with Communism, insecurity, suspicion, and informants, and so demoralized by the purges that it could not function properly. . . . ‘You have only to kick in the door,’ he told Rundstedt, ‘and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” In the mind of the German dictator, the Soviet Union was a house of cards that would implode under the weight of the onslaught. German intelligence estimates of Russian military strength were ominously vague in the run-up to the invasion, but this did not deter Hitler. The latent economic and military might of the Soviet Union was irrelevant. The looming struggle would be a triumph of the will. Six months into the campaign, however, the “whole rotten structure” stood firm. Despite the shock and fury of the German attack, the battered Russian armies remained in the field, roused to the heroic defense of their motherland. Forests and swamps teemed with guerrillas, hampering the movement of Nazi supplies and harassing overstretched lines of communication. In blinding snow, the German advance ground to a halt at the gates of the Russian capital and doomed Hitler to his downfall.
More than a century before the panzers clattered across the Russian frontier, another invader endeavored to conquer Russia. Despite his tactical and operational genius, Napoleon was prone to strategic miscalculation. This was rooted in his deep and abiding faith in his superior intuition, intellect, and destiny. This sense of superiority was not altogether undeserved but nonetheless clouded his judgment at a crucial moment in his rule of France and led him into one of the greatest blunders in military history. On the eve of his fateful invasion of Russia, Tsar Alexander I emphatically warned Napoleon that if he chose war, “he [Napoleon] would have to go to the ends of the earth to find peace.” During their last peacetime meeting, the tsar spread a map over the table and swept his hand across the vast expanse of Russian territory to emphasize his point. The French emperor was unmoved and chose to challenge the sincerity of the tsar’s declaration when he sent his Grande Armée streaming across the river Niemen.
Napoleon had few illusions about the vastness of Russia, its punishing climate, or the size of its population, but he wagered that he could force the tsar to terms before those forces were brought to bear. As he advanced deeper and deeper across the boundless expanse of European Russia, he clung ever more tenaciously to this hope. Not even the greatest military commander since Alexander the Great was immune to wishful thinking. At the height of summer, he confidently told an aide that the tsar would sue for peace within two months. In retrospect, his boast was based on a tangle of fallacies and illusions about the mettle of his opponent, rather than a sober assessment of the means the tsar could mobilize to resist the French invasion.
Vladimir Putin is not Hitler or Napoleon, but there are striking similarities between the flawed theory of victory that undergirded his foray into Ukraine and their doomed invasions of Russia. Putin was convinced that the whole structure of the Ukrainian state would come crashing down under the weight of the Russian attack. He seized on a theory of victory that obviated the need to comprehensively defeat the Ukrainian army in the field. He expected his forces to crash across the border in strength and swiftly collapse the unpopular government in Kyiv, enabling a resurgent Russia to decisively disarm, dismember, and dominate its wayward western neighbor.
The deadlock in the Donbas underscores the folly of Putin’s prewar plans. Did he dismiss the vast stocks of Ukrainian weapons and ammunition, or overlook the difficulty of the terrain and complexity of the logistics needs? The Russian army has salient structural flaws, but despite the claims of some Western scholars, it is not fundamentally incompetent. The Russian army is struggling to win this war because it did not plan to fight a general war against a determined and resilient enemy. It did not mobilize the mass and firepower necessary to overwhelm the Ukrainian forces in the opening phase of the war. Its leaders kept tens of thousands of soldiers in the dark about the operation, setting the state for a crisis in morale. Russian planners chose a needlessly complex operational scheme of maneuver and failed to stockpile sufficient supplies and ammunition to sustain their momentum. It is counterfactual, but still valuable, to assess how the war might be going if the Russian army had been prepared. I do not assert that any combatant can fight a flawless campaign, but I attribute the bulk of the Russian setbacks to the flawed theory of victory, not a fundamental lack of military competence.
The Strange Voyage
Russia is not doomed to defeat in Ukraine. Indeed, the Russian forces may yet blast and bludgeon their way across large tracts of eastern Ukraine. At some point in the future, Putin might mount the rostrum in Red Square and declare mass mobilization of the Russian people. Unwilling or politically unable to cut his losses, he might commit his country to total war. In the end, the weight of Russian numbers may tip the scales in his favor, but the fruits of that kind of victory would be little more than ashes in his mouth. The declared strategic aim of the campaign—the disarmament of Ukraine—does not appear imminent or even attainable unless Russia commits to a longer war. That is because the central assumption of the Russian campaign—that Ukrainian will would collapse—was born of a delusion. These delusions, like most wishful thinking, arise in the delta between available means and desired ends. Rather than accept that a political goal might be unattainable, proud leaders often sink into wishful thinking; they ignore the potential parade of horribles that any war invites and fixate on a formulation that will deliver their desired aims. This should ominously resonate with American strategists.
No matter how the Russian campaign unfolds from here, the “special operation” has devolved into a costly mess. Russian forces are stalled, their losses are mounting, and the economic screws are tightening. Adam Smith wisely noted that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation, so Russia will likely weather the storm of sanctions, but as the war drags on, the economic crisis will deepen and the pressure on the Putin regime will mount. At this point, a negotiated settlement seems to be the only sensible option, but wounded authoritarians are prone to double down when facing failure. The forlorn but evidently palpable hope that Putin will cut his losses and slunk back across the border seems detached from the reality of the existential crisis facing the Russian leadership. What incentive does Putin have to deescalate? Propriety, decency, and a regard for human life? Such considerations rarely enter the minds of revanchist despots.
American leaders, military officers, strategists, and commentators have been euphoric watching the vaunted Russian war machine sink up to the axle in Ukrainian mud, but it was not that long ago that the United States was embroiled in a costly quagmire of its own. Our schadenfreude should be tempered by the realization that this has happened to us in the past and can happen again unless we correct our military math. As we peer into the mists and squalls of the unknown future, we would be wise to heed the words of Winston Churchill. “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”
Joe Donato currently serves as a military intelligence officer in the United States Army Reserve. He is a veteran of Operation Inherent Resolve, where he served as a political-military advisor to the commander of a combined joint task force in Iraq from 2018 to 2019. He holds a BA in history from Seton Hall University and an MA in security studies from Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, DC.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons