Clausewitz and the Danger of A False Victory in Ukraine
A peace agreement may presage war if strategic interests or realities are not altered
What does it mean to win a war? When is a war truly over? From Clausewitz’s theory of war, we can see that while Ukraine recapturing its occupied territory may be a prerequisite for victory, it is by no means sufficient. Russia may not regard its defeat as final and intend to continue the struggle at a more favorable time. In this manner a “false peace” could follow a Ukrainian victory where, unless deterrence can be quickly established, a continuation of the war is likely. Clausewitz’s theory of the relationship between war and peace is essential to understanding the danger posed by the West failing to swiftly provide security guarantees in the event of a Ukrainian victory.
THE RESULT OF A WAR IS NEVER ABSOLUTE
Lastly, the final decision of a whole war is not always to be regarded as an absolute one. The defeated state often sees in it only a transitory evil, for which a remedy can yet be found in the political circumstances of a later day. How greatly this also must modify the violence of the strain and the intensity of the effort is obvious.
Clausewitz’s 19th century verbiage may make the point less than clear. But, most basically, the essence is that peace agreements can break down, and that this is a common historical occurrence. This is because the circumstances that lead to warring nations to agree to peace are not necessarily the same as those that cause both parties to lastingly abandon the use of force in accomplishing its policy goals. To Clausewitz, this was eminently clear in the course of the Napoleonic Wars. Peace agreements frequently proved no more than an interlude for armed struggle while both sides sought to gain an advantage. The choice to abandon the means of violence does not inherently imply a chance in policy goals or strategic interests.
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We can look to a more recent example than the Napoleonic wars to illustrate the principle. A post-Cold War policy goal of the United States was regime change in Iraq. This was a secondary objective when it assembled a coalition to oppose the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait. The war ended without regime change and a peace agreement between the United States and Iraq. Yet the US did not lose its strategic interest in effecting regime change in Iraq. This interest drove US policy towards the country, and it continued to be pursued through peaceful means such as sanctions. When these measures failed to achieve the policy goal and circumstances permitted, this effort culminated in the use of force in the 2003 invasion.
It would have been a mistake to assume the United States had given up on getting rid of Saddam Hussein when it chose not to remove him from power directly in 1991. A war grounded in regime change conflicted with other policy goals at the time. Crucially, that fact did not indicate a change in interests or disposition. The US still desired regime change, but chose to pursue it by other means for the time being. In this way, peace can occur not because there is a true agreement, but because a party hopes to await more favorable circumstances to accomplish its goals by non-military means in the interim.
This example is one of the many that illustrate the phenomenon that Clausewitz observed. Abandoning the use of force at one point in time does not indicate a change in intention or strategic interest. The United States was willing to accept peace with Iraq in 1991 without achieving the goal of regime change because of the fact it could continue to pursue that goal in the future with both military and non-military means. This rule holds for all states in all conflicts; therefore the outbreak of peace must never be mistaken as inherently durable. This point is of particular salience when applied to the case of Ukraine.
Let us consider a scenario in which Ukraine has successfully expelled Russia from its sovereign territory and in this sense, achieved victory. This is the stated objective of Ukraine’s government, in line with popular opinion, and the objective stated by its Western backers. Without overly digressing, it will suffice to say that this is one of several likely outcomes of the war and therefore worth consideration. Nevertheless, regardless of its likelihood, this scenario clearly demonstrates the theoretical concepts this article seeks to highlight. Further, while the example chosen is that of a maximalist Ukrainian victory, much of the analysis applies to any scenario in which Russia is forced to abandon its central political objectives in Ukraine, even if some territory remains in Russian hands.
Russian leadership will have taken notice of the ability of Belarus and Iran to endure widespread domestic discontent. The war has brought a drastic decrease in the already limited political freedoms of the Russian people. The more Russia emulates a totalitarian state, the lower the domestic consequences of a defeat on the battlefield in Ukraine. If the regime decides that it is advantageous for hostilities to cease, state media will promote that line and dissenters will be persecuted in the same manner that anti-war protestors were. Furthermore, the limited extent of anti-war protests in Russia are in keeping with a trend of disinterest in high politics. The public is more likely to take to the streets because of the cost of living than because of the outbreak or cessation of a war.
But why might Russia accept a false-peace in Ukraine in the first place? The answer to this lies in the fact that Russian grand strategy has been based in the exploitation of Western division and/or inattentiveness. The Russian autocracy seeks to take advantage of the often rapidly shifting priorities of democratic states to gain strategic advantages. The seizure of Crimea was undertaken under this premise. The sanctions imposed were borne without concern under the assumption that while relations would eventually normalize, Crimea would remain forever in Russian hands.
This principle was attempted to be exercised in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Russia expected a repeat of the annexation of Crimea. Instead, not only did it find the Western powers prepared to take decisive action, but it fundamentally failed to acknowledge the developments in Ukrainian capabilities since 2014. Yet, even a serious misstep is unlikely to be sufficient to convince Russia to abandon its approach to grand strategy. The shift to a war of attrition is in accordance with this policy; Russia hopes to sustain the war for longer than the West can stay interested in it. Thus far, it has not found success. But, while it has suffered some particularly humiliating setbacks in the Kharkiv and Kherson counter-offensives, Russia does not believe itself to be in a sufficiently precarious position to change tack: it believes it can keep up the pressure.
But how might Russian strategy change if this were proven untrue? If Ukraine succeeded in inflicting major defeats on the Russian army and restored its internationally recognized borders, what would an opportunistic Russian posture call for? In such a scenario, peace would suit Russian interests. To explain this, we can recall Clausewitz’s assertion, “The result of a war is never absolute.” Peace in Ukraine would reduce the salience of the region to Western interests. The thorny and divisive questions of Ukrainian accession to NATO and the EU would threaten to fracture the Western coalition. With peace established, Russia, with a greater understanding of the strength of Ukraine, the deficiencies of its own forces, and the disposition of the West, could prepare for a renewed offensive against Ukraine at a time of its choosing.
There is no shortage of opportunities for the coalition that backed Ukraine to dissolve. Elections will lead to tension as interests change and personalities clash. International crises will demand attention and resources. Russia can hope that this lesson of Clausewitz will be lost on Western governments that are beholden with electorates with limited attention spans.
Peace, if a government so choses, can be nothing more than an opportunity to prepare further aggression to be unleashed when it can be expected to enjoy the greatest prospects of success. What Clausewitz demonstrates is that even if Russia meets defeat in Ukraine and agrees to peace, that does not preclude the continued pursuit of its maximalist objectives.
Without prodigious foreign aid, Ukraine would be in a substantially weaker position from which to regenerate its armed forces than Russia on account of both the devastation wrought by the war and its pre-existing relative poverty.
What this means is that it is crucial from a moral, and strategic perspective that Ukraine be swiftly integrated into the architecture of Western security after the conclusion of the war. The failure to do so would be to invite the continuance of the war at a moment most favorable to the Russians. However, swift admittance into the EU and NATO is far from certain. While the EU has acted quickly to grant candidate status, it has equally quickly moved to temper expectations and shut down suggestions of a “fast-track” to membership. NATO membership can be more quickly attained, but is reliant on unanimous consent which, as Finland and Sweden have discovered, can prove elusive. More significantly, it is likely contingent on a Democrat being in the White House. Aid to Ukraine has increasingly become a partisan issue, which makes joining NATO after the war an uncertain prospect.
“...war is only a part of political intercourse, therefore by no means an independent thing in itself.” ON WAR, Book VIII, Chapter 6
Clausewitz’s most famous aphorism finds its reciprocal in the idea that the result of war is never final. Just as violence may be introduced into a dispute of policy by the side that believes itself the stronger, so too may it choose to buy peace at any price for the sake of reintroducing violence at a more favorable moment. War is the introduction of violence to achieve policy goals, but peace involves the pursuit of those same objectives without violence. Peace is not sought for its own sake, or on humanitarian grounds, but rather because the power seeking it does not believe further violence matches its interests. The transition from peace to war and back again is driven by what is strategically advantageous to a state, both in terms of the international landscape and developments on the battlefield. Peace is no more than an interlude in violent struggle if the political conflict between the two states remains unresolved to mutual satisfaction. Unless overwhelming deterrence is established, a dissatisfied party will sooner or later find it beneficial to improve its position by force.
In other words, where theory meets reality is in the challenge to distinguish peace intended to gain a later advantage from a lasting peace. This is the difficulty that would accompany Ukrainian victory in Russia. There is a danger of a blind appetite for peace. It is this humanitarian tendency that Russia can hope to prey upon to end the conflict until Western attention drifts and the balance of force favors another attempt at the conquest of Ukraine. Regardless of the victory that Ukraine accomplishes on the battlefield, if Ukraine is not granted its formal place in the Western alliance Ukraine will remain threatened by the prospect of aggression from its larger, wealthier, and nuclear armed neighbor.
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