- James Houser
Vladimir Putin, Clausewitz, and the Russo-Ukrainian War
Or: The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Vladimir Putin.
One of my main reactions to the course of the Russo-Ukrainian War has been astonishment. Amazement. Absolute surprise. Not that it happened, or that it’s terrible, or that Putin is the 21st Century’s new villain, a black hole of a human being whose ability to inflict death and pain is his only notable attribute. But astonishment at how badly Vladimir Putin has messed up.
I’m serious. There is no outcome anymore where Putin wins. None. He has screwed the pooch, botched, blundered, mishandled every step of the invasion of Ukraine. He might still “win”, based on sheer numbers and weight and resources. But he won’t WIN. He will not achieve the objectives he desired. His strategy, his plan, has gone down like the Titanic, only faster and with less soothing music.
I still see people trumping up Vladimir Putin as a great genius, as a devious manipulator, as the great mastermind of the modern world. I’d say that’s what he wants you to believe. That’s the image he wants to project. People call Putin a “genius,” “savvy” “smart.” I still see Internet commenters ranting about how “you think this is Putin’s REAL plan? Wait till you see THIS or THAT happen and then you’ll know. He’s playing 5-Dimensional Chess on an epic scale.” I call bull. Putin has failed, and he knows it.
To figure out WHY Putin has failed, I’m gonna turn to strategic theory and doctrine. Today’s post might be a bit of a vocabulary lesson for some non-military folks, and a philosophy lesson even for some military folks. Because we’re gonna talk about a dead German dude. My bro, my man, Clausewitz.
Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is history’s greatest military thinker. His competitor, to most people, is the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, author of “The Art of War.” Sun Tzu quotes are easy to share, easy to put on a stock photo with something cool behind them.
Clausewitz is harder to understand. He’s dense, tough, a German philosopher who can be damn near incomprehensible sometimes. But Clausewitz gets to the CORE of war, conflict, battle in a way that no one else did before or since. Carl Von Clausewitz’s most famous work, “Vom Kriege” (“On War”) should be a textbook for every junior officer moving on up. If you can’t understand it, well, read it till you do.
Clausewitz was a Prussian officer, a military professional who had the bad luck to be caught in the crosshairs of one of history’s greatest generals, Napoleon. Napoleon smashed the Prussian Army at Jena in 1806, and Clausewitz devoted the rest of his life to figuring out why. He tried to distill the human war machine that was Napoleon Bonaparte into a work, a theoretical conception and interpretation of war. (Clausewitz also fought against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and was the chief staff officer of several generals who eventually defeated him, so he also saw how to BEAT the human war machine.)
So Clausewitz wasn’t some academic. He knew the smell of gunpowder, the chaos of battle, the turmoil of war at the headquarters and on the ground. A lot of his work is very specific to his age…but a lot isn’t. Clausewitz put war and conflict, the sheer chaos and art and drama and violence, into words.
Clausewitz is semi-famous today. His work belongs in the category of “often quoted, rarely read,” keeping good company with The Bible and the U.S. Constitution.
I don’t know if Vladimir Putin ever read Clausewitz. But if he did, he sure doesn’t act like it. I HAVE read Clausewitz, thank you very much. So let’s have a seat, Vlad. I wanna put a bullet in your head or a rope around your neck for what you’ve done to so many men and women and children, for the misery and terror you’ve brought to God’s people, your people…but let’s have a talk first.
ONE: WAR AND POLITICS
Clausewitz: “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, carried on with other means…when whole communities go to war, the reason always lies in some political situation, and the occasion is always due to some political object…If we keep in mind that war springs from some political purpose, it is nature that the prime cause of its existence will remain the supreme consideration in conducting it.”
Y’all see what I mean? That is a crazy chunk of text. Lot going on in there. I’ll sum it up for you. “Wars are fought for political reasons. Wars have to be conducted with those reasons in mind.”
So what were Vladimir Putin’s plans in launching his war in Ukraine? What was his objective? What was his…end state?
“End state” is a term used in modern military operations, at least in the U.S., to describe what we want things to look like when the battle is over. The ideal end state is that our objectives are fulfilled without taking unacceptable losses in the process. So what were Putin’s objectives?
Lieutenant General (retired) Mark Hertling, former commander of U.S. Forces in Europe, has described Putin’s objectives as follows:
1. Subjugate Ukraine
2. Further divide NATO
3. Take advantage of what he saw as divisiveness in the United States
4. Establish economic strength by blackmailing European countries with fossil fuels
These were Putin’s objectives. This was his end state. Not only has his “special military operation” failed to achieve these objectives, he has made them less likely. And his tactics will only push them farther away.
Putin believes that Ukraine is a fake country and a fake nationality. He wants to return them to their “natural” place of subjugation, as Little Russia. He wanted to use the Ukraine invasion to expose divisions in the West and establish his authority by using his natural gas supplies to keep Western Europe compliant.
But very few things could have backfired more. Now Putin’s Russia is the most hated country in the world, with every business divesting from its territory, its economy in freefall, its citizens fleeing and going broke. Ukraine is a bloodbath, a wreckage ground for the Russian Army. None of Putin’s four objectives will be achieved. In fact, they are farther away.
But Putin has compounded his strategic failure by ignoring Clausewitz’s advice. Wars have to be conducted with political reasons in mind. Every day this war continues brings Putin further, not closer, from his objectives. Violence for violence’s sake is pointless. Every round his troops fire only electrifies Ukrainian resistance, affirms that they will never be “Little Russia.” Even if he conquers Ukraine on paper, his army will be consumed trying to hold it. Every day Putin continues this senseless war is working directly against his objectives, stated or otherwise. War has to be subordinate to politics; at this point, Russia is waging war for the sake of war.
If wars are fought for political reasons, Putin’s war makes no sense anymore. It is actively damaging the goals he wants to attain. Even his tactics – the mass bombardment of cities – only make his stated and unstated goals less attainable. His war is now disconnected from his objectives. At this point it has to be purely emotional, the product of damaged masculine ego. The wounded pride of a powerful man.
Because Putin has misunderstood his conflict, and misunderstood his enemy.
TWO: WHAT AM I FIGHTING?
Putin does not believe Ukraine is a country, that its people have a common identity. He looked at the Russian-speaking minority and assumes they will be loyal to Russia. That Ukraine would come gently back into the fold of the Tsar’s Empire. That they would accept their place as Little Russia.
Clausewitz: “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”
James Houser translation: “The commander has to figure out what kind of war he’s fighting, and not fool himself or pretend it’s something it’s not.”
Putin thought he was conducting an occupation. When he realized he wasn’t conducting an easy occupation where the Ukrainians would roll over, he resorted instead to a siege war, a war of suppression against a nation he views as illegitimate. Neither of these will work. Putin failed to understand what he was about to do on a very basic level, because of his ethnic and national prejudices. By making assumptions (and we know what happens when you assume, don’t we) based on his own personal beliefs, Putin has fundamentally misunderstood the conflict. And this is killing him.
Putin failed to prepare his country and his army for a conventional conflict against an unconventional enemy. His deceptions were geared towards a quick, lightning occupation of a wayward province, a coup, not a war. Putin’s actions and strategy only make sense in this context. He expected Ukrainian resistance to be minimal, Zelenskyy to be captured by airborne forces in 24 hours, and a joy ride into Ukraine. He got neither, not just because he misunderstood the war…but because he lacks imagination.
What was Putin before he became a dictator? Show of hands, who knows? He wasn’t a lawyer, an activist, a businessman, a politician, a billionaire, a bureaucrat or even a general. Putin was KGB. He was intelligence. He was a spook. He was part of an organization that worked in the shadows, plotted, weaved, conspired. It’s why he always tries to do squirrelly stuff, tries to manipulate social media and mass media, why he loves blackmail and intrigue. It’s why he’s so paranoid. Putin is a spook. He still thinks like a spook. He doesn’t think like a leader, a commander, or even a politician. He thinks like a spy. Cynically. Contemptuous of anything he might see as genuine or naïve.
So when asked to consider the possibility of Ukrainian patriotism, that normal people might have the resolve to defend their homeland from a foreign threat, he never considered this. Putin does not comprehend Zelenskyy. He does not comprehend genuine heroism, sacrifice, moral courage. Not to get too Biblical on you, but John 1:5: "And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." And this lack of understanding has led Vladimir Putin to this failure.
In the U.S. military, young Lieutenants are taught from their first position to consider two things in their plan: the enemy’s most likely course of action, and the enemy’s most dangerous course of action. Vladimir Putin has no military training. I know very little about Russian officer training, but I have to assume it included SOMETHING like that. Putin misjudged his enemy’s most likely course of action, and completely failed to perceive their most dangerous course of action. He absolutely failed to plan for it; it is increasingly clear that Russia had no Plan B and is scrambling to put one together. But it’s too late. Friction has already taken effect.
Clausewitz: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”
Friction is one of Clausewitz’s best concepts. Basically: “things go wrong, inevitably.” Something always messes up.
Let’s say you’re taking a trip with your family. Going to a picnic in the park in your minivan. Could go perfectly! But it won’t. Someone will be late. Someone will forget something. There will be a traffic jam. Your alternator gives out. The park is closed. The weather is bad. Your wife has a headache. Your husband spills a soda. Your daughter is singing “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and you’re smiling but inside you’re saying shut up, shut up, shut UP…
You get it. Friction. Things go wrong. And like any good family, you KNOW things go wrong and you’re prepared to deal with that. You have backups, redundancies, reserves. You have patience, alternative ideas, something to keep the kids distracted. You brought aspirin for your wife or a hoodie for your husband. You have a WAY TO COUNTERACT THE FRICTION.
Unless you’re Vladimir Putin, and your picnic is scheduled in Kyiv on February 25.
Clausewitz: “Friction is the only concept that…corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”
Real war from war on paper. That’s the difference FRICTION makes. Friction is a concept in physics, the resistance between two forces sliding against each other. Clausewitz’s friction is your plan versus reality. You ever heard the phrase, or something like it, “You make plans, and God laughs”? Friction.
Vladimir Putin is used to everything going perfectly. Used to things going his way. He’s a dictator, what he says within his country goes. He’s gotten used to having his plans work. Georgia 2008. The seizure of Crimea 2014. Social media manipulation 2015 and 2016. But Putin has receded into a bubble, where what he says goes, where he’s surrounded by yes-men who won’t point out the flaws, the FRICTION, in his plans.
The plan for the invasion of Ukraine only works if you assume A.) that Ukraine rolls over like the good Little Russians they supposedly are, and B.) everything goes perfectly. That last bit is key. Putin assumed that everything would go according to plan. You NEVER assume that. Never never never. You always have a backup in mind. You ALWAYS have to have a Plan B, C, D. Anticipate the FRICTION. Know that things will go wrong, and plan accordingly. Hope for the best, plan for the worst. As Dwight D. Eisenhower, a man who knew friction like anyone, once said: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
Putin did not plan for Ukrainian resistance, did not plan for Zelenskyy’s defiance or Ukrainian ambushes or their amazing courage and (it should be said) outstanding battle plan. He had a PLAN, but no PLANNING. He had no Plan B. He didn’t account for FRICTION.
You can tell this from his logistic organization. Logistics are crucial, vital, the lifeblood of war. Putin’s men are starving, demoralized, running out of ammunition and fuel. He failed to plan for a war he did not expect because he did not account for friction. The number of vehicles captured by the Ukrainian Army currently exceeds the number of vehicles that Ukraine has lost. Putin invaded on six different axes, all of which were supposed to take their objectives in a matter of days, all of which failed on Day 1 and stuck fast, out of supplies due to unexpected resistance. The “doom convoy” travelling to Kyiv has been stuck for almost three days because of unforeseen problems, lack of fuel, and sheer logjam. Putin’s starving, tired, unsupported troops are expected to take the fight to a stubborn, resilient foe.
I could go into Putin’s logistic failures. They’re the main reason I don’t think he'll take Kyiv. Not because I don’t know if he will, but because I don’t know if he CAN. Every army has a limit of advance, a limited reach governed by the extent of its supply lines. It’s easy to look at a map and underestimate the sheer size of Ukraine. Trucks have to travel miles and miles to deliver their supplies, and they’re usually getting shot up by drones or Javelin-wielding Ukrainians on the way. The supplies reaching Putin’s army amount to a trickle. The Russian Army’s logistics are largely dependent on the railroads, but their railheads are far away and their supply situation has completely collapsed. Latest U.S. intelligence estimates that almost 100,000 of Putin’s soldiers are currently starving due to the collapse of supply.
I feel sorry for them. I really do. I almost feel as much sympathy for the poor Russian conscripts as I do the Ukrainians. They are the epitome of Putin’s failure of leadership, failure of character and humanity. He gives not a shit for the lives of his men. They will die in the thousands due to his ruthless incompetence, and for nothing.
Clausewitz: “The war, that is the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s WILL has not been broken: in other words, so long as the enemy government and its allies have not been driven to ask for peace, or the population made to submit.”
That’s pretty straightforward. I doubt I need to translate it. How do I put this better? No one is defeated unless he considers himself so. Ask yourself, right now, whose WILL is stronger? The average Russian soldier, or the average Ukrainian soldier?
Looking at raw numbers, Russia outnumbers Ukraine in men, tanks and planes. Look at any map, look at the way the lines are drawn, and your obvious conclusion might be “Ukraine is screwed.” But these are lines on a map, numbers on a website. As Clausewitz said…the war on paper versus the real war.
This is a cardinal mistake so many folks make. It’s why Liberal Arts graduates are so essential to an army’s officer corps. Yeah, you need the STEM guys. You need the engineers, scientists, experts, technically proficient professionals. But you also need the people who understand HUMANS. That technology is operated by flesh and blood, that tank crews and pilots and infantry are flesh and blood, and they behave like human beings. And human beings go to war because of WILL.
Clausewitz: “Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces that give it life, and the two cannot be separated…Everyone tries to assess the spirit and temper of his own troops and of the enemy’s.”
Everyone, apparently, except Vladimir Putin.
I have made this point to a few people, and I will make it here: willpower, morale, determination matter in war. These are squishy, unquantifiable factors. You can’t tally these up on a scoreboard, measure these with a thermometer, or count these in a rack. Morale, courage, willpower are hard to gauge. And they can surprise you. Who would have thought the Russian voice of Paddington Bear would be the most impressive democratic war leader of the 21st Century a week ago?
But Clausewitz knew they were important. Moral force and will can make or break a war. They HAVE. The knowledge that you are on the right side, the enemy is on the wrong side, these things do matter. Material only matters so much. Yes, it is powerful and awful, but the people operating the material are flesh and blood.
Putin did not prepare his troops, morally or with any sort of willpower, for this war. They know they have been lied to by their leaders, ordered to attack a peaceful country and led to the slaughter. Russian morale is low, and guys…I’m not sure how they can fix that. What do you do to improve the Russian soldier’s morale at this juncture, when your justifications for the conflict were clearly lies, when they’re starving, tired, and afraid, far from home, unable to talk to their families, only wanting to get home?
The Russian soldiers are reacting. They are surrendering, abandoning vehicles, punching holes in their own fuel tanks. There are unconfirmed rumors of mutiny. They are panicking and fleeing across the border.
In contrast, the Ukrainian Army and people have received an outpouring of support from the world, have received weapons and ammunition, have been victimized and suffered together, have forged a national bond in the last week. Do you think they will consider themselves defeated anytime soon? Do you think THIS population will be made to submit, when they are confronting Russian tanks unarmed, when they are telling the Russian soldiers that sunflowers will rise from their corpses, when they chant slogans and wave flags even in towns that have been occupied? Even if their cities are ruined and their country is devastated, whose side is the moral force on?
Whose will do you think is stronger?
FIVE: THE CULMINATING POINT
Clausewitz talks about an army on the offensive. From his point of view, every attack is strongest when it begins. After that point, it is worn down due to that little thing called friction. Equipment breaks. Supplies run short. Troops die. Men get tired. The enemy strengthens. Distance becomes a factor. Time slips away. The longer an attack goes on, the less momentum it maintains.
Clausewitz: “The moment an invader enters enemy territory, the nature of the operational theater changes. It becomes hostile. It must be garrisoned, for the invader can control it only to the extent that he has done so; but this creates difficulties for the entire machine, which will inevitably lose effectiveness.”
“The invader moves away from his sources of supply, while the defender moves closer to his own. The danger threatening the defender will bring allies to his aid. Finally, the defender, being in greater danger, makes the greater effort, whereas the efforts of the victor slacken off.”
There is not going to be a “breakout” in Putin’s war. His logistic capabilities have been degraded to the point of ruin. He could push a column of tanks anywhere he wanted, but they would run out of fuel, be cut off, and Javelined into oblivion. His most successful day was the first day. It’s all downhill from here. An offensive is strongest when it begins; after that, it degrades over time just from sheer wear and tear.
I made this analogy to some friends earlier today. Ever seen Forged in Fire? The reality show where amateur and professional blacksmiths forge weapons to be tested in a competition? Maybe you have. Sometimes the bladesmith will make a weapon that is pretty, glittering, full of splendor and style. But as the judges use that weapon, it blunts. It wears. It bends. Maybe…it breaks. Putin's army is like that fancy blade. Shiny, cool, new...but fundamentally flawed. Poorly forged. Brittle, badly balanced. It's blunting fast, and Putin doesn't care, he's hacking harder and faster, trying to make this weapon KEEL. How long before his blade breaks?
If you go to a situation map of Ukraine right now and look at the lines on the map, you might assume that Russia is on the verge of victory. But this is misleading. The territories outlined on the map are not CONTROLLED. The Russian Army doesn’t CONTROL shit. They are spread out over a vast country, advancing from six different directions with a less than adequate force, trying to control hundreds of square miles of territory. Guerrillas and partisans abound in their rear areas. Even geolocation and reporting makes it clear that Russian convoys and supplies are being ambushed, documents being captured, within the supposed Russian-controlled zone.
Every mile the Russians move forward is a further burden on an already-strained supply column, another town or city they have to garrison and lock down, another loss of equipment and men. The very distance alone degrades the Russian Army, let alone the resistance degrading it further. No column of men or weapons leaving the Russian border will get to Kyiv in the same condition, because of friction, because of maintenance issues, supplies, combat, casualties. And the longer the war goes on, the worse it will get.
This is why I am not sure if Vladimir Putin can take Kyiv. Because his army is burning its strength away, losing time and energy and momentum, just getting to the city. I compare this to…Hitler marching to Moscow in 1941, or Stalingrad in 1942. You can get to the city. But can you take it?
This is what Clausewitz calls the culminating point. The point of no return. The point at which an offensive’s energy is utterly expended, it can go no further, it has exhausted itself and must rest. Have you ever lifted weights and reached muscle failure? Have you ever been working and experience brain freeze, and know you need a break? Have you ever been listening to your spouse talk, and get to a point where you say “Babe, I love you, but can you PLEASE find something to do?”
This is the culminating point. The point beyond which it is not only unwise, but DANGEROUS to go.
Clausewitz: “If one were to go beyond that point, it would not merely be a useless effort which could not add to success. It would in fact be a damaging one, which would lead to a reaction; and experience goes to show that such reactions usually have completely disproportionate effects.”
Knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. When to walk away….and when to run. When to put the weights down, step away from your work, or stop pushing or something will snap. The culminating point.
When will Vladimir Putin’s army reach its culminating point? When its degraded state proves too much? When the will and friction of modern war cause these poor, unmotivated conscripts to finally snap? When the tide turns?
Who knows if it will. Who knows who will win this war. But I think the culminating point will come, maybe sooner, maybe later, but it will come. When Russia is forced to leave Ukraine behind. Putin might take it, but he cannot hold it. He can occupy the whole country, but friction, will, his abandonment of his original objectives will wear his army down. Sooner or later, he will pass the point of no return.
Vladimir Putin has lost this war. He has failed to achieve his objectives. He has failed to account for the realities of modern conflict, hell, any conflict. He and his government are dead men walking. It only remains to be seen how much pain, horror, and suffering they inflict on the brave people of Ukraine before they are finally put down.
Slava Ukraini. That is all.