In a classic military history book called The Causes of War by Geoffrey Blainey, there is a chapter titled “Aims and Arms.” The chapter contains a story of the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin’s plea with his fellow Bolsheviks to strike a peace treaty with the Germans in February 1918. Lenin observed that Russian forces had been badly crippled and demoralized and were not ready to continue the fight. Thus, he asked Leon Trotsky, who was then Russia’s “People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs” to seek a treaty. When the Bolshevik delegation failed to arrive to negotiate an agreement, Blainey describes how the Germans made a “maneuver along the Baltic and across the Ukrainian plains” and promptly forced the Bolshevik leaders to accept German peace terms which included surrendering “a vast area of their northwestern provinces and a strip of Caucasus” (Blainey 154-156). Lenin was right. The Russians were outmatched. But they either did not believe it or refused to accept the reality of their situation. Blainey uses this example to illustrate one of the principal causes of war, which occurs when one side believes that they have the power and strength to overcome the other. In this case, the Russians miscalculated their ability to win a war against the Germans. A little over a century later, and in the face of Western opposition, the Russians believe this time is different.
The Causes of War is on a short list of must-read military history books. The first chapter discusses the causes of peace. While this might seem odd, Blainey observes that in the course of human history, war is a near constant while periods of peace are the exception. This fact is readily observable in the 21st Century as America has been engaged in two major wars, one of which lasted twenty years. Blainey calls the first chapter “The Mystery of Peace.”
One of the theories behind peace is that warring nations become “exhausted” by war, and they seek to step back from conflict for some time. The most notable example of this was during the interwar period of World War I and World War II. During this time, France and Germany did everything to maintain peace despite the re-militarization of Germany after the Nazi party took over in 1933. One of the conclusions we can draw from this is that an aggressor nation might opportunistically look to take advantage of another nation’s “exhaustion” or at least perceived exhaustion. Within the larger context of Blainey’s thesis, war begins when one side believes that it has the advantage politically, economically, militarily, or in all these areas combined. Furthermore, war begins when the same side believes that their opponent lacks some advantage or does not have the will to oppose its efforts.
In the larger context of U.S. and Russian geopolitical tensions, the recent United States withdrawal from Afghanistan followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine has its own historic parallel in Cold War history. In 1975, North Vietnamese Communist forces launched an offensive that led to the fall of Saigon and the evacuation of all American personnel from Vietnam. America was war weary after the eight years of armed conflict in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973. Nearly four years after the fall of Saigon, the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan in a war that lasted ten years. If the four-year period seems too long to draw the connection, then consider a closer event. In the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which brought Ayatollah Khomeini from exile and into power, the U.S. embassy in Tehran was attacked by a mob of Iranians, who were angry at the U.S. for backing the recently deposed Shah. The storming of the U.S. Embassy led to 52 Americans taken hostage for 444 days beginning on November 4, 1979. No more than two months later, the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan began on December 24, 1979. Considering the timeline from when American forces left Afghanistan and when the Russian military buildup along the border of Ukraine began the events are not too dissimilar. Losing a pro-U.S. government in Iran was a tremendous blow to the United States during the Cold War, and the Soviets looked to capitalize on the situation.
In the macro picture these events appear to bolster much of Blainey’s thesis about the causes of war. There is a push and pull that exists between warring nations. One side will strike when the other appears weak and vice versa. If this seems like an isolated event, then consider more data. The Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989. This was the same year that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Less than a year later, Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein and launched an invasion of Kuwait. After the invasion in August 1990, the United States was able to assemble a coalition of nations to launch Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm as part of the Gulf War. Within the larger scope of geopolitics, the United States was able to launch a war as its chief geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union, was badly damaged. Indeed, the Soviet Union would eventually fall in 1991.
As a counterpoint, one could argue that the connection between a weak Soviet Union and an emboldened United States seems farfetched in the context of the Gulf War. A critic of this view might contend that the United States’ opposition to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait would have been inevitable and even historically predictable. However, the opposite is the case. The United States had spent years providing Iraq with material support as it launched a war against Iran from 1980 to 1988. In fact, a strong argument can be made that one of the reasons Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait is that he reasonably believed that the United States would not oppose it. This also reinforces Blainey’s point about the causes of war. Saddam Hussein launched a war against Iran in 1980 after the Iranian Revolution in which Iran’s military had undergone a series of purges as the Islamic regime began standing up the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Saddam calculated that a post-revolutionary Iran was in a state of disarray and that their abundance of oilfields could be procured by force. In short, he believed that he had the upper hand. Several years later, he believed that he had the ability to do in Kuwait what he failed to do in Iran. But, this time, America did not support Iraq. And, again, Iraq paid the price militarily.
Nevertheless, we see the logic of what caused each conflict in all these scenarios to include Iraq’s aggression against Iran and Kuwait. One side believes that they have some advantage and looks to act on it. So, the question naturally becomes what prevents war and sets the conditions for peace. The short summary of Blainey’s book is that what prevents war is deterrence. The aggressor must be convinced that their aggression will fail. Now it might be the case that the aggressor does not know that their actions will fail. Perhaps they have bad information or do not understand the full consequences of their aggression. This happens all the time. The United States did not begin the war in Afghanistan in 2001 believing that what happened in August 2021 would be the case. The point is that one side believes they can prevail in war and sees a path to do just that.
As a result, the aggressor’s opponent has the responsibility to convince the aggressor that their belief is wrong. Obviously, the aggressor should be convinced of this fact before their tanks rumble across the border of a neighboring country. This is where we find ourselves today as the world watches Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, has been accused of being crazy, illogical, and a war criminal. All those things may be true. However, they miss the point about what has led Putin to determine that a war is appropriate and even winnable. Putin believes that the West does not have the will or the ability to oppose him. Sanctions were not and have not been a proper deterrent thus far. The problem with sanctions is that they are only one component in the larger framework of a geopolitical conflict. When one country is committed to war, deterrence must encompass a much more robust response than sanctions. After all the aggressor has decided that there is tremendous economic opportunity through an “acquisition” by force.
As we put the current geopolitical crisis into focus, we need to return to the “will” as part of an understanding of war. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s book, On War, remains as relevant today as it was when Clausewitz was reflecting on the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. Clausewitz explains war as an extension of politics by violent means. Furthermore, war is a violent clash of opposing wills with each one trying to impose itself on the other. This is not an outdated theory. In fact, the United States Marine Corps’ foundational doctrine, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1: Warfighting, is based on the same conclusions that Clausewitz observed in the early 19th Century. An entire branch of the U.S. military has established its core ethos on the theory that war is both political and a violent clash of opposing wills.
For years, there have been debates over whether war is changing. Is technology and advanced weaponry making war obsolete? Is cyberspace changing war? Is artificial intelligence changing it? Will the metaverse change it? These questions are recycled generation after generation. Ultimately, the side that believes that one particularly technology is “changing war” is proved wrong. One of the most notable cases of this occurred in Israel’s 2006 military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israeli Defense Forces had developed the doctrine of Effects Based Operations (EBO), which relied on superior air power. However, overreliance on one “superior” technology like airpower can often and does frequently hinder one sides ability to appreciate the full spectrum of conflict. Israel paid a price for their overreliance on one specific area of conflict, which was air superiority. At the same time, the West needs to seriously consider if our overreliance on economic strength as a tool of military diplomacy is also flawed. If we think that economic interdependence and globalization will make war obsolete in 2022, then one should recognize that even these arguments were made before the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the beginning of World War I.
The answer is that nothing will change the character of war. Any reliance on a set of doctrines or a broad heuristic about how the world is supposed to work in the 21st Century is in error. As observed in the previous examples and from Blainey’s exploration of the causes of war, a war will begin when one side believes that they have the advantage and has the will to act on that belief. Conversely, if one side believes it has no advantage and possesses no will to fight than it will be conquered and subjugated by the stronger side. In writing The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides first observed this condition and wrote about the siege of Melos that the “strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” A powerful statement and one that still illustrates the thinking of world leaders to this day. The justification of “might makes right” might be abhorrent to American and Western people, but other nations do not find this abhorrent. In fact, they find it reasonable and perfectly natural. The question is what we do about it assuming we do anything at all.
At this time, the will to oppose Russia has come down to sanctions and economic leverage. However, sanctions and the threat of sanctions have not been proper deterrents. As a point of historic fact, it is not clear that sanctions have ever been strong deterrents. The United States imposed sanctions on Iraq throughout the 1990s. However, sanctions did little to achieve America’s true goal which was the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. This goal was completed in 2003 and it was done through military force not sanctions. Critics of American foreign policy have viewed American sanctions against Iraq as being more destructive to the Iraqi people than to Saddam’s regime. One of these critics included the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who cited U.S. sanctions against Iraq as one of several reasons for declaring war against the United States in August 1996. This is not to suggest that the U.S. was wrong or is wrong today for its use of sanctions. Nor is it to suggest that the critiques of a dead terrorist deserve serious reflection. No, the only relevant question is whether sanctions are the most proper solution to preventing war and preventing others (to include terrorist groups) from declaring one. Whether it is Russia in the 2020s or al-Qaeda in 1996, the answer historically has been a resounding no. This is to say nothing about the continued nuclear ambitions of Iran or the belligerence of North Korea. In fact, the acceleration of financial technology to include cryptocurrencies continually blunts many of the effects of sanctions and has forced adversaries to innovate at a faster pace than we are often willing to admit.
As we consider the present political and military situation, Russia as the aggressor seemed initially motivated by the desire to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. It looked as if that goal may have been achieved through the threat of war. However, Russia either believes or had already concluded that the threat of war was not enough to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Furthermore, they either believed or have now determined that the goal is really to control Ukraine and re-absorb it within the Russian sphere of influence. It might be the case that the former goal simply metastasized into the latter. Perhaps as over 100,000 troops assembled on Ukraine’s border, Russia determined they really could push further. In the macro context, Russia’s aggression has as much to do with Ukraine as it does with its opposition to Western Europe. Ukraine is just a part of that larger strategic framework. Insofar as that is the case, Russia’s actions should fail. They should fail because they are economically and militarily outmatched when compared with the United States and NATO nations. So, while their actions should fail, it remains to be seen if they will. Since war is a violent conflict of opposing wills, it necessitates that one side must have the will to fight or suffer the consequences of inaction. Thus, if Russia’s ambitions do run beyond merely seizing Ukraine, then Western Europe, NATO, and America must determine when and under what conditions they will fight with military means if necessary. If NATO nations are serious about upholding Article 5, then Vladimir Putin must be convinced that the retaliation will be more vigorous than additional sanctions.
In the meantime, Russia must deal with the military reality in terms of the actual operations and tactics of war. The near-term question will be one of Ukrainian citizens willingness to fight. Even if they are conventionally outmatched, that does not mean that they will not defend themselves and the situation won’t dissolve into an insurgency. If it does, then Russia’s record of human rights is abysmal whether it is the indiscriminate use of land mines in Afghanistan or the fire bombing of Grozny in Chechnya during the 1990s. Russia does not believe in precision fire weapons. They believe in area fire weapons, and it does not take much imagination to figure out which one causes the most collateral damage.
In America, we have come to realize that the easiest part of war is often the initial invasion. The hardest part is what comes next when the leadership is deposed, and the army throws off their uniforms to blend in with the population. It remains to be seen if Russia has fully thought through this second part of the war. As of present writing, they have not yet accomplished the first part. Several open-source intelligence reports indicate that Ukrainians are putting up stiffer resistance than expected. One of the realities of military operations is that the defense is often considered the stronger form of warfare. The offense relies on speed and momentum. If these things stall, then Russia could find themselves in a precarious position. Furthermore, Russia may have severely miscalculated the West’s reaction and will awake a renewed sense of defiance from nations like Germany. U.S. military leaders are frequently schooled in the idea that the best plan rarely survives first contact because “the enemy always gets a vote.” Russia may soon learn this truth the hard way. If they didn’t know it already, they may soon realize that they have a lot more enemies than friends.
(* This essay was written on Saturday, 2/26/2022, on the third day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine)
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