Clausewitz's wisdom can shine a light on what has gone wrong for Putin

By SEAN DAVID

Vladimir Putin looks on as he chairs a military meeting in early March with members of his Security Council.


By most objective standards, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not going as planned for the Kremlin. US intelligence officials have Russian casualties at around 7000 men, and at least 7 major Generals have been killed in action so far. These losses are astounding, if you consider the fact that only 14,500 Soviet soldiers died in the whole nine years of the Soviet-Afghan War. Furthermore, the failure to capture key cities like Mariupol in the south and Kharkiv to the north have shown the fierce resistance Russian troops are encountering in Ukraine, damaging the prestige and morale of the army along the way.


Putin’s fantasies of seizing Kyiv in similar fashion to how coalition forces took Baghdad in April 2003 have run into a painful reality. While Ukrainian men and women are rushing to take up arms and join civilian militias in patriotic duty, Russian soldiers are “refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft”, according to a British Spy chief. War is a clash of wills and so far, it seems the Ukrainians have more stomach for the fight. This is something Putin badly miscalculated.


The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz understood the importance of morale in war. In his own time, he saw the passion of the French armies as they swept across Europe, defeating monarchical states one after another in battle. Clausewitz observed that the newfound nationalism imbued in the French troops under the charismatic military authority of Napoleon, served as a counterweight to the inherent ‘friction’ of any military campaign. The French troops seemed to be fighting for a cause, whereas the other nations were mainly mercenary armies supplied with peasantry.


This left a mark on the Prussian. This ‘passion, hatred and enmity’, which he had seen so clearly in the spirit of the French Armies, served as the first of the dominant tendencies which constituted his ‘Wondrous Trinity’. In their real-life manifestations, Clausewitz associated this tendency with the ‘people’ of a nation. The other dominant tendencies, ‘chance’ and ‘reason’, he associated with the military and the government leaders respectively. This triad, although an analytical device devised by a man in the 19th century, has had lasting relevance with military thinkers and practitioners. One of these military practitioners was then General Colin Powell, who oversaw Operation Desert Storm. He drove home the importance of broad popular support and clear attainable political objectives, so soldiers knew what and why they were fighting. He stressed the significance of the direct unity of people, army, and government during a war, and this formed the bedrock of what later was dubbed the ‘Powell doctrine’.


What relevance does this have to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Everything. It seems Putin has discarded Clausewitz and Powell’s later contributions to the dustbin. The war doesn’t seem to have a popular base of support at home. Although difficult to gauge in authoritarian countries, there have been widespread demonstrations across Russia; many Russians were able to access foreign news about the war before Putin banned western media. Western sanctions are bound to cause economic hardship, which will increase pressure on the regime. A substantial number of Russian troops seem to have no idea why they are fighting in Ukraine, and a further number told they would be welcomed as ‘liberators’ as they crossed into Ukraine. Russian propaganda portraying the country as being ruled by brutal Nazi’s in Kyiv couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Ukrainian people have rallied around Volodymyr Zelensky in Churchillian fashion.


The Russian Trinity is in disarray, with Putin and his cronies isolated in a bubble from the grim reality on the ground. On the contrary, the Ukrainian trinity is in unity with the people, filled with fighting spirit, filling the ranks of the resistance, paired with competent military and political leadership. The Ukrainians also have the advantages associated with the ‘strategic defence’ and are backed by most of the global community, who will continue to fund and supply them with vital aid. It seems so far that in the clash of wills, the Ukrainians are winning. Unlike the Russians, they have something to defend, their homeland. Vladimir Putin sees himself as a student of history. However, his debacle in the invasion of Ukraine shows he forgot to consult Clausewitz. The Russian people will ultimately pay the price for his folly.

By most objective standards, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not going as planned for the Kremlin. US intelligence officials have Russian casualties at around 7000 men, and at least 7 major Generals have been killed in action so far. These losses are astounding, if you consider the fact that only 14,500 Soviet soldiers died in the whole nine years of the Soviet-Afghan War. Furthermore, the failure to capture key cities like Mariupol in the south and Kharkiv to the north have shown the fierce resistance Russian troops are encountering in Ukraine, damaging the prestige and morale of the army along the way.


Putin’s fantasies of seizing Kyiv in similar fashion to how coalition forces took Baghdad in April 2003 have run into a painful reality. While Ukrainian men and women are rushing to take up arms and join civilian militias in patriotic duty, Russian soldiers are “refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft”, according to a British Spy chief. War is a clash of wills and so far, it seems the Ukrainians have more stomach for the fight. This is something Putin badly miscalculated.


The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz understood the importance of morale in war. In his own time, he saw the passion of the French armies as they swept across Europe, defeating monarchical states one after another in battle. Clausewitz observed that the newfound nationalism imbued in the French troops under the charismatic authority of Napoleon served as a counterweight to the inherent ‘friction’ of any military campaign. The French troops seemed to be fighting for a cause, whereas the other nations were mainly mercenary armies supplied with peasantry.


This left a mark on the Prussian. This ‘passion, hatred and enmity’, which he had seen so clearly in the spirit of the French Armies, served as the first of the dominant tendencies which constituted his ‘Wondrous Trinity’. In their real-life manifestations, Clausewitz associated this tendency with the ‘people’ of a nation. The other dominant tendencies, ‘chance’ and ‘reason’, he associated with the military and the government leaders respectively. This triad, although an analytical device devised by a man in the 19th century, has had lasting relevance with military thinkers and practitioners. One of these practitioners was General Colin Powell, who oversaw Operation Desert Storm. He drove home the importance of broad popular support and clear attainable political objectives, so soldiers knew what and why they were fighting. He stressed the significance of the direct unity of people, army, and government during a war, and this formed the bedrock of what later was dubbed the ‘Powell doctrine’.


What relevance does this have to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine? Everything. It seems Putin has discarded Clausewitz and Powell’s later contributions to the dustbin. The war doesn’t seem to have a popular base of support at home. Although difficult to gauge in authoritarian countries, there have been widespread demonstrations across Russia; many Russians were able to access foreign news about the war before Putin banned western media. Western sanctions are bound to cause economic hardship, which will increase pressure on the regime. A substantial number of Russian troops seem to have no idea why they are fighting in Ukraine, and a further number told they would be welcomed as ‘liberators’ as they crossed into Ukraine. Russian propaganda portraying the country as being ruled by brutal Nazi’s in Kyiv couldn’t be further from the truth, as the Ukrainian people have rallied around Volodymyr Zelensky in Churchillian fashion.


The Russian Trinity is in disarray, with Putin and his cronies isolated in a bubble from the grim reality on the ground. On the contrary, the Ukrainian trinity is in unity with the people, filled with fighting spirit and filling the ranks of the resistance, paired with competent military and political leadership. The Ukrainians also have the advantages associated with the ‘strategic defence’ and are backed by most of the global community, who will continue to fund and supply them with vital aid. It seems so far that, in the clash of wills, the Ukrainians are winning. Unlike the Russians, they have something to defend: their homeland. Vladimir Putin sees himself as a student of history. However, his debacle in the invasion of Ukraine shows he forgot to consult Clausewitz. The Russian people will ultimately pay the price for his folly.



Image: Flickr / Andrew Prophet