‘No Battle Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy’
Helmuth von Moltke
This blog argues that the Russian special military operation in Ukraine has entered a new phase that spells great danger for Ukraine and possibly the security of the world. President Putin cannot afford a defeat in Ukraine. As Russia has suffered reversals on the battlefield, President Putin is pushing Russian policy through the escalation choices he has available. The penultimate point of this escalation could be the use of nuclear weapons against Ukrainian targets. The endpoint could be global war.
Over the course of 7 days from 11-18 September 2022, Ukrainian forces were able to mount a series of successful counter-offences in the North-East of the state, recapturing large areas of territory. Russian forces were either unable or unwilling to hold this territory. We can be confident of this, because the conflict has mainly been about territory. From the second week of the conflict it was apparent that the Russian military was not enjoying the battlefield success it had hoped. Simultaneously, the Russian government was enjoying even less political success in justifying the operation internationally. An operation that had begun with the aim of regime change in Kiev was recast into the more modest objective of securing and then annexing territory in Eastern Ukraine. Given the current conditions, even these modest objectives do not seem attainable by Russia.
On 18 September 2022 President Putin spoke about the special military operation in Ukraine. Such statements are rare. One view is that President Putin is trying to keep the Ukrainians and their Western allies guessing as to his real intentions. There is some strategic sense in this and President Putin does not have a free media and well-informed electorate to worry about, so why bother? The other view is that things have gone so badly for Russia that President Putin does not have much in the way of good news to share. In his statement, President Putin tacitly acknowledged that Russian forces had been on the defensive, whilst restating what many suspected: short-term Russian losses would only lead to an expanded long-term effort. The most interesting direct quote was:
‘I remind you that the Russian Army isn’t fighting in its entirety… Only the professional army is fighting.’
The point was that reservists and conscripts had not been engaged. If this was intended as a boast, it did not work. The performance of the professional Russian military looks more and more feeble as the days go by. If the professionals have done so badly, the reservists and conscripts should do even worse. Adding them into the mix might increase available manpower, but modern wars are not won by manpower. They are won by technology and training, the two things the non-professional elements of a military lack. Increasing the manpower involved can even be counter-productive, as it means the professional military now have thousands of part-timers they have to worry about. In the US military, reservists are directly integrated into the structure of the full-time military, to the extent that there is almost no difference between them. A US Air Force Reservist might serve a 6-month tour in the Middle-East for example, before returning to their job as an airline pilot. This is not true in Russia, where a reservist is simply someone who has previously served as a conscript. A Russian reservist has not been engaged in any form of training to maintain their weapons proficiency or even their basic physical fitness. There must be a real concern they are more of a liability than a benefit.
The Russian government formally announced the call up of reservists on 21 September 2022. Conscripts are still not officially being sent to fight, restricting them to rear echelon supporting roles. However, there is credible evidence that Russian Private Military Contractors (PMC’s) like the Wagner Group have been trying to recruit convicted criminals to fight in Ukraine. These would technically be employees of Wagner rather than Russian military personnel. Yet the fact that they are prisoners of the Russian state and are being offered pardons by Wagner tells you how closely Wagner and the Russian state are linked: they are effectively the same entity. The Kremlin is anxious to avoid sending conscripts to fight as they naturally tend to die in larger numbers than professionals. The experience from campaigns in Afghanistan and Chechnya is that it is hard to control the reporting of conscript casualties and this produces negative publicity at home. There is some evidence to suggest that men of fighting age are leaving Russia to avoid being called up. It is very difficult to measure this, but it is hardly a new phenomenon anyway. Russian men have been trying to get out of military service for the last 30 years.
‘Escalation theory’ describes the process by which the level of violence employed in a political/military conflict increases. Historically the term has mostly been used to describe an irrational process, by which a small-scale conflict becomes a global one. A hypothetical example might be:
In 1970, some Palestinians throw stones at Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers in the West Bank. The IDF launches air strikes on Palestinian Liberation organisation (PLO) targets in Lebanon. The neighbouring Arab states hit targets in Israel. Ain international armed conflict breaks out, the superpowers intervene and global nuclear war ensues.
All of this results from a relatively minor incident. It sounds like the butterfly effect, but the key difference is that in escalation, humans are notionally in control of their individual decisions. What they are not in control of is the overall process, because it involves the actions and reactions of other parties. However, escalation can also be conscious and deliberate. One of the earliest and most influential US nuclear strategists, Herman Kahn, developed two important intellectual tools for thinking about escalation. The first, was his escalation ladder, which proposed 44 rungs of escalation. Ladder 1 was recognition of a low-level diplomatic crisis, whilst ladder 44 was a global nuclear war. Of the other ladders, from 26 onwards the events are pretty terrible, it’s just that 44 is the absolute worst they could possibly be. Moving up each rung on the ladder is something that a nuclear power has to do when considering the actions of their opponent. Kahn’s second intellectual breakthrough was the idea of escalation dominance, where one side has such superiority in military capability that the other side knows that any escalation will be pointless: it will still lead to defeat, just a more vicious and bloodier one. Kahn believed that it was in the interests of the US to ensure they enjoyed escalation dominance. The problem with this is that the pursuit of escalation dominance is in itself likely to lead to escalation, as both sides seek more and more military capability.
Kahn was optimistic that at the lower levels escalation could be conscious, but at the higher rungs it seemed more likely that things could get out of control. Rung 38 is a counterforce attack. A counterforce attack is a nuclear strike by State A on the nuclear forces of State B, with State B’s city’s being consciously avoided. But how would State B actually know that this was the intention? Since even a counterforce attack would still kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in State B, it seems unlikely that they would simply let this go. Rung 39 is a counter-city attack. This would be initiated by State B against the cities of State A. State A’s missile silos are now empty and State B has lost most of its arsenal. Thus, State B does not have any real choice at this point, since all it can do is attack State A’s cities. The important point is that attributing conscious choice and rationality to State B’s behaviour verges on the ridiculous. We have no way of knowing how a leader of State B would respond to such a situation, but it seems likely that anger would be a large part of their motivation. This is a flaw in the escalation ladder as an analogy: real ladders usually have rungs that are evenly spaced, whereas in escalation the rungs are much closer together the nearer the top.
The importance of not being earnest
The upshot of this is that escalation seems controllable at lower levels but more subject to emotion and irrationality at the higher levels. Both sides know this and it leads to a strange conclusion: the rational thing for each side to do is to appear to be willing to escalate and to be relaxed about the possibility of higher-level escalation. In other words, the rational choice is to appear irrational. President Trump acted this way in his war of words with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, although this appeared to have more to do with Trumps innate stupidity and egotism than any understanding of strategic theory. President Putin is not stupid and his constant references to nuclear use are part of his strategy of escalation.
Escalation is not desperation
The campaign in Ukraine is not going well for Russia and something has to change if it is going to be deemed a success. It would be easy to suggest that Plan A has failed and it’s time for Plan B, but we are way past that now. Plan A was the seemingly vague idea that limited use of force against Ukrainian military and civilian targets would cause a surrender. This did not happen and Russia wasted its technological edge in these piecemeal attacks. President Putin then announced that the operation was really about securing territory inhabited by pro-Russian allies in Eastern Ukraine. This could be called Plan B. Even that is now failing, as Ukrainian counter attacks have cut down the size of this Russian seized territory. Plan C is to escalate the conflict by calling up reservists whilst simultaneously announcing a series of referenda in the Russian-seized areas. These four areas will vote to join Russia. This will have no legal force, but it doesn’t have to since Putin does not really want these tiny slivers of land, he wants the pretext for further escalation that they provide. The calling up reservists is not a significant part of Plan C, but rather President Putin’s way of signaling that escalation will likely go on. The references to nuclear weapons are a reminder of the end point of escalation. Plan D is probably to proclaim that Russia itself is now under attack, as Ukraine seeks to recover its lost territory. This will be accompanied by a full national mobilization. Plans E, F etc are too far away to be worth considering in detail, but there are some brief comments at the end of this blog.
In democracies it is common to describe leaders like president Putin as mentally ill or just plain evil. We are allowed to describe our own leaders this way, so we extend this criticism to others. There is nothing really wrong with this. The problem is that our elected leaders use the same language to describe their counterparts. President Biden has referred to President Putin on at least two occasions as a ‘war criminal’. It is hard to know exactly what President Biden means, because one doubts that he has any real idea what he means, but the effect is the same. If a peaceful solution to this conflict is ever to be found, the peace deal will involve the two Presidents. Emotive but intellectually empty insults make this more difficult. President Putin is not acting irrationally. He has made huge errors in prosecuting the special military operation, but the logic of using the Russian military to enhance Russia’s global status is rational. President Putin, to borrow a phrase from President Trump, wants to Make Russia Great Again. One way to measure a state’s power is by four metrics: economic, diplomatic, cultural and military. Russia is not very good at the first three. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet Union and USA were able to avoid this, because they had other means of competition through which each side could continue to try to dominate the world. This would include things like supporting different sides in armed conflicts throughout the world, signing political and military alliances and competing in science and technology and other prestige projects. The competition carried on for another thirty years before the Soviet Union disintegrated. The Russia of today has relatively little cultural and diplomatic influence. It does have some economic influence in terms of oil and gas resources, but this is being eroded as European customers switch to other sources. What Russia does have is military power. This is not to suggest that President Putin is desperate to use his military strength. He would rather rely on the threat. But the threat only works if it is occasionally carried out.
President Putin was acting rationally when he launched the special military operation in Ukraine. He is acting rationally when he escalates the conflict. Once it was clear that the fighting would take longer than a couple of weeks, everything President Putin has done since then has been predictable. It has not been necessarily sensible or effective, but it has been predictable. This suggests that we might be able to predict what will happen next, i.e. in Plans E +. It is unlikely that the recent mobilization will make any difference to the performance of the Russian military. It is not designed to do this. It is designed to signal another level of escalation and to increase President Putin’s domestic support. The imminent annexation of Ukrainian territory will provides President Putin with something he can claim as a victory. It also means that he can claim that Russian territory itself is under attack. A full-scale mobilization may follow. NATO will probably respond to all of this by sticking doggedly to its plan to provide arms to Ukraine but not to intervene directly. The conflict will continue for many more months and possibly years with Russia making marginal gains. The elephant in the room is the potential Russian use of low yield nuclear weapons. This depends on three factors which we can only speculate about:
First, how long will President Putin allow the conflict to go on for? He is basing part of his strategy on the observation that Western democracies eventually get tired of conflicts and give up. The global economic disruption caused by the current conflict is part of this. On the one hand, the West did not give up on Afghanistan for twenty years, On the other hand, Afghanistan did not cause people in Berlin to be unable to take a hot shower in December. Afghanistan was both literally and metaphorically far away. Ukraine is not. Russia cannot allow the special military operation in Ukraine to become the kind off ‘forever war’ that the West got into. President Putin can avoid this by continuing to emphasize territorial gains, claiming these as a victory and ceasing offensive operations.
Second, how seriously does President Putin accept the taboo against use of Weapons of Mass Destruction? In an odd reversal of history, in the First Cold War (1945-90) it was NATO that argued nuclear weapons could be used on the battlefield without triggering a full nuclear exchange. Soviet theory regarded this as ridiculous. Russian theory is obviously some form of continuation of Soviet theory so one would hope the same logic applies today. Nuclear use is also taken very seriously by China, one of Russia’s few real allies. China might one day have to fight the USA, most likely over Taiwan. It would want this conflict to be conventional – this is the reason it is building up its conventional forces whilst spending relatively little on nuclear weapons.
Third, to what extent are Russian strategic theory and the thoughts of President Putin the same thing? Are there voices in the Kremlin and the Russian military that have influence? It seems reasonable to suggest that Russian generals are mostly against any use of nuclear weapons. The question is both whether they can say so and whether they would refuse to carry out an order to use them. This would mean a military coup against President Putin. Several intelligence analysists have suggested a coup against President Putin might happen, but they have all been wrong so far. This seems to be one of the few realistic scenarios in which it might occur.
It is an unfortunate rule of politics, that it is usually the military who are most opposed to using violence. It is politicians who seem to think that the world can be changed by force.