Collections: How the Weak Can Win – A Primer on Protracted War

Thanks to our volunteer narrator, this post is now available in audio format.

This week, in an effort to fill in some of the theoretical basis for thinking about how weaker powers think about fighting against or defending themselves from stronger powers, I’m going to give you all a basic 101-level survey of the theory of protracted war (also called People’s War), which tends to be one of the main frameworks military thinkers – both in powerful countries and weaker ones – use to think about strategies for this kind of conflict.

Of course the context here is the on-going1 conflict in Ukraine, where a weaker power (Ukraine) is fighting for its independence from the unprovoked aggression of a stronger power (Russia). So at the end, I will say a few very general words about what I think the theory we discuss means for the conflict in Ukraine, the approach the Ukrainian military is taking, and some of the ways they may evolve their defense as Russian forces continue their assault.

But first, and I want to emphasize this very clearly, perhaps more than most kinds of war, protracted war is very much shaped by local conditions and so has to be highly modified to fit those conditions. So do not treat this as a model for operations but as a framework for thinking about what the weaker power is trying to accomplish and how they can accomplish that despite being weaker. This is a ‘way of thinking’ that has to be molded to fit the local population, local politics, local terrain and the relative capabilities of the belligerents (as well as, as we’ll see, changing technology).

And once again before we get started, a reminder that the conflict in Ukraine is not notional or theoretical but very real and is causing very real suffering, including displacing large numbers of Ukrainians as refugees, both within Ukraine and beyond its borders. If you want to help, consider donating to Ukrainian aid organizations like Razom for Ukraine or to the Ukrainian Red Cross. As we’re going to see this week, there is unfortunately a high likelihood that this war will continue for some time and so both Ukrainian refugees forced from their country and Ukrainians still under threat in Ukraine will need international support to provide food, medical supplies and other essentials.

On with our topic: how do you win a war against a powerful, industrialized enemy when you are not a powerful, industrialized state?

Mao’s Theory of Protracted War

The foundation for most modern thinking about this topic begins with Mao Zedong’s2 theorizing about what he called ‘protracted people’s war‘ in a work entitled – conveniently enough – On Protracted War (1938), though while the Chinese Communist Party would tend to subsequently represent the ideas there are a singular work of Mao’s genius, in practice he was hardly the sole thinker involved. The reason we start with Mao is that his subsequent success in China (though complicated by other factors) contributed to subsequent movements fighting ‘wars of national liberation’ consciously modeled their efforts off of this theoretical foundation.

The situation for the Chinese Communists in 1938 was a difficult one. The Chinese Red Army has set up a base of power in the early 1930s in Jiangxi province in South-Eastern China, but in 1934 had been forced by Kuomintang Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek to retreat, eventually rebasing over 5,000 miles away (they’re not able to straight-line the march) in Shaanxi in China’s mountainous north in what became known as The Long March. Consequently, no one could be under any illusions of the relative power of the Chiang’s nationalist forces and the Chinese Red Army. And then, to make things worse, in 1937, Japan had invaded China (the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was a major part of WWII), beating back the Nationalist armies which had already shown themselves to be stronger than the Communists. So now Mao has to beat two armies, both of which have shown themselves to be much stronger than he is (though in the immediate term, Mao and Chiang formed a ‘United Front’ against Japan, though tensions remained high and both sides expected to resume hostilities the moment the Japanese threat was gone). Moreover, Mao’s side lacks not only the tools of war, but the industrial capacity to build the tools of war – and the previous century of Chinese history had shown in stark terms how difficult a situation a non-industrial force faced in squaring off against industrial firepower.

Via Wikipedia, an overview of the Long March (1934/5). When looking at this, it is important to keep in mind that most of China’s population is concentrated closer to the coasts.

That’s the context for the theory.

What Mao observed was that a “war of quick decision” would be one that the Red Army would simply lose. Because he was weaker, there was no way to win fast, so trying to fight a ‘fast’ war would just mean losing. Consequently, a slow war – a protracted war – was necessary. But that imposes problems – in a ‘war of quick decision’ the route to victory was fairly clear: destroy enemy armed forces and seize territory to deny them the resources to raise new forces. Classic Clausewitzian (drink!) stuff. But of course the Red Army couldn’t do that in 1938 (they’d just lose), so they needed to plan another potential route to victory to coordinate their actions. That is, they need a strategic framework – remember that strategy is the level of military analysis where we think about what our end goals should be and what methods we can employ to actually reach those goals (so that we are not just blindly lashing out but in fact making concrete progress towards a desired end-state).

Mao understands this route as consisting of three distinct phases, which he imagines will happen in order as a progression and also consisting of three types of warfare, all of which happen in different degrees and for different purposes in each phase. We can deal with the types of warfare first:

  • Positional Warfare is traditional conventional warfare, attempting to take and hold territory. This is going to be done generally by the regular forces of the Red Army.
  • Mobile Warfare consists of fast-moving attacks, ‘hit-and-run,’ performed by the regular forces of the Red Army, typically on the flanks of advancing enemy forces.
  • Guerrilla Warfare consists of operations of sabotage, assassination and raids on poorly defended targets, performed by irregular forces (that is, not the Red Army), organized in the area of enemy ‘control.’

The first phase of this strategy is the enemy strategic offensive (or the ‘strategic defensive’ from the perspective of Mao). Because the enemy is stronger and pursuing a conventional victory through territorial control, they will attack, advancing through territory. In this first phase, trying to match the enemy in positional warfare is foolish – again, you just lose. Instead, the Red Army trades space for time, falling back to buy time for the enemy offensive to weaken rather than meeting it at its strongest, a concept you may recall from our discussions of defense in depth. The focus in this phase is on mobile warfare, striking at the enemy’s flanks but falling back before their main advances. Positional warfare is only used in defense of the mountain bases (where terrain is favorable) and only after the difficulties of long advances (and stretched logistics) have weakened the attacker. Mobile warfare is supplemented by guerrilla operations in rear areas in this phase, but falling back is also a key opportunity to leave behind organizers for guerrillas in the occupied zones that, in theory at least, support the retreating Red Army (we’ll come back to this).

Eventually, due to friction (drink!) any attack is going to run out of steam and bog down; the mobile warfare of the first phase is meant to accelerate this, of course. That creates a second phase, ‘strategic stalemate’ where the enemy, having taken a lot of territory, is trying to secure their control of it and build new forces for new offensives, but is also stretched thin trying to hold and control all of that newly seized territory. Guerrilla attacks in this phase take much greater importance, preventing the enemy from securing their rear areas and gradually weakening them, while at the same time sustaining support by testifying to the continued existence of the Red Army. Crucially, even as the enemy gets weaker, one of the things Mao imagines for this phase is that guerrilla operations create opportunities to steal military materiel from the enemy so that the factories of the industrialized foe serve to supply the Red Army – safely secure in its mountain bases – so that it becomes stronger. At the same time (we’ll come back to this), in this phase capable recruits are also be filtered out of the occupied areas to join the Red Army, growing its strength.

Finally in the third stage, the counter-offensive, when the process of weakening the enemy through guerrilla attacks and strengthening the Red Army through stolen supplies, new recruits and international support (Mao imagines the last element to be crucial and in the event it very much was), the Red Army can shift to positional warfare again, pushing forward to recapture lost territory in conventional campaigns.

Through all of this, Mao stresses the importance of the political struggle as well. For the guerrillas to succeed, they must “live among the people as fish in the sea.” That is, the population – and in the China of this era that meant generally the rural population – becomes the covering terrain that allows the guerrillas to operate in enemy controlled areas. In order for that to work, popular support – or at least popular acquiescence (a village that doesn’t report you because it supports you works the same way as a village that doesn’t report you because it hates Chiang or a village that doesn’t report you because it knows that it will face violence reprisals if it does; the key is that you aren’t reported) – is required. As a result both retreating Red Army forces in Phase I need to prepare lost areas politically as they retreat and then once they are gone the guerrilla forces need to engage in political action. Because Mao is working with a technological base in which regular people have relatively little access to radio or television, a lot of the agitation here is imagined to be pretty face-to-face, or based on print technology (leaflets, etc), so the guerrillas need to be in the communities in order to do the political work.

Guerrilla actions in the second phase also serve a crucial political purpose: they testify to the continued existence and effectiveness of the Red Army. After all, it is very important, during the period when the main body of Communist forces are essentially avoiding direct contact with the enemy that they not give the impression that they are defeated or have given up in order to sustain will and give everyone the hope of eventual victory. Everyone there of course also includes the main body of the army holed up in its mountain bases – they too need to know that the cause is still active and that there is a route to eventual victory.

Fundamentally, the goal here is to make the war about mobilizing people rather than about mobilizing industry, thus transforming a war focused on firepower (which you lose) into a war about will – in the Clausewitzian (drink! – folks, I hope you all brought more than one drink for this…) sense – which can be won, albeit only slowly, as the slow trickle of casualties and defeats in Phase II steadily degrades enemy will, leading to their weakness and eventual collapse in Phase III.

I should note that Mao is very open that this protracted way of war would be likely to inflict a lot of damage on the country and a lot of suffering on the people. Casualties, especially among the guerrillas, are likely to be high and the guerrillas own activities would be likely to produce repressive policies from the occupiers (not that either Chiang’s Nationalists of the Imperial Japanese Army – or Mao’s Communists – needed much inducement to engage in brutal repression). Mao acknowledges those costs but is largely unconcerned by them, as indeed he would later as the ruler of a unified China be unconcerned about his man-made famine and repression killing millions. But it is important to note that this is a strategic framework which is forced to accept, by virtue of accepting a long war, that there will be a lot of collateral damage.

Now there is a historical irony here: in the event, Mao’s Red Army ended up not doing a whole lot of this. The great majority of the fighting against Japan in China was positional warfare by Chiang’s Nationalists; Mao’s Red Army achieved very little (except preparing the ground for their eventual resumption of war against Chiang) and in the event, Japan was defeated not in China but by the United States. Japanese forces in China, even at the end of the war, were still in a relatively strong position compared to Chinese forces (Nationalist or Communist) despite the substantial degradation of the Japanese war economy under the pressure of American bombing and submarine warfare. But the war with Japan left Chiang’s Nationalists fatally weakened and demoralized, so when Mao and Chiang resumed hostilities, the former with Soviet support, Mao was able to shift almost immediately to Phase III, skipping much of the theory and still win.

Via Wikipedia, a map of Communist base areas at the end of WWII, overlaid with areas of Japanese occupation. Consequently when the Nationalist government ‘reclaimed’ much of this territory, it was already supportive of, or infiltrated by, the Communists.

Nevertheless, Mao’s apparent tremendous success gave his theory of protracted war incredible cachet, leading it to be adapted with modifications (and variations in success) to all sorts of similar wars, particularly but not exclusively by communist-aligned groups.

Adapting the Theory

As I noted at the outset, this sort of theory has to be heavily adapted to work in different places. We can get a sense of how those adaptations can work by looking, briefly, at a few of them. One of the most important of these cases to study is Vietnam.

The primary architect of Vietnam’s strategy, initially against French colonial forces and then later against the United States and the US backed South Vietnamese (Republic of Vietnam or RVN) government was Võ Nguyên Giáp.

Via Wikipedia, a map of French Indochina in 1933. It seems unlikely that French rule here could have survived the general anti-colonialist trends of the post-war years, but French military failure also served to both vividly demonstrate the vulnerability of previously ‘unbeatable’ European armies and also discredit French rule.

Giáp was facing a different set of challenges in Vietnam facing either France or the United States which required the framework of protracted war to be modified. First, it must have been immediately apparent that it would never be possible for a Vietnamese-based army to match the conventional military capability of its enemies, pound-for-pound. Mao could imagine that at some point the Red Army would be able to win an all-out, head-on-head fight with the Nationalists, but the gap between French and American capabilities and Vietnamese Communist capabilities was so much wider.

At the same time, trading space for time wasn’t going to be much of an option either. China, of course, is a very large country, with many regions that are both vast, difficult to move in, and sparsely populated. It was thus possible for Mao to have his bases in places where Nationalist armies literally could not reach. That was never going to be possible in Vietnam, a country in which almost the entire landmass is within 200 miles of the coast (most of it is far, far less than that) and which is about 4% the size of China.

Via Wikipedia, a map showing the partition of French Indochina after the 1954 Geneva Conference.

So the theory is going to have to be adjusted, but the basic groundwork – protract the war, focus on will rather than firepower, grind your enemy down slowly and proceed in phases – remains.

I’m going to need to simplify here, but Giáp makes several key alterations to Mao’s model of protracted war. First, even more than Mao, the political element in the struggle was emphasized as part of the strategy, raised to equality as a concern with the military side and fused with the military operation; together they were termed dau tranh, roughly “the struggle.” Those political activities were divided into three main components. Action among one’s own people consisted of propaganda and motivation designed to reinforce the will of the populace that supported the effort and to gain recruits. Then, action among the enemy people – here meaning Vietnamese who were under the control of the French colonial government or South Vietnam and not yet recruited into the struggle – a mix of propaganda and violent action to gain converts and create dissension. Finally, action against the enemy military, which consisted of what we might define as terroristic violence used as message-sending to negatively impact enemy morale and to encourage Vietnamese who supported the opposition to stop doing so for their own safety.

Part of the reason the political element of this strategy was so important was that Giáp knew that casualty ratios, especially among guerrilla forces – on which, as we’ll see, Giáp would have to rely more heavily – would be very unfavorable. Thus effective recruitment and strong support among the populace was essential not merely to conceal guerrilla forces but also to replace the expected severe losses that came with fighting at such a dramatic disadvantage in industrial firepower.

That concern in turn shaped force-structure. Giáp theorized an essentially three-tier system of force structure. At the bottom were the ‘popular troops,’ essentially politically agitated peasants. Lightly armed, minimally trained but with a lot of local knowledge about enemy dispositions, who exactly supports the enemy and the local terrain, these troops could both accomplish a lot of the political objectives and provide information as well as functioning as local guerrillas in their own villages. Casualties among popular troops were expected to be high as they were likely to ‘absorb’ reprisals from the enemy for guerrilla actions. Experienced veterans of these popular troops could then be recruited up into the ‘regional troops,’ trained more who could now be deployed away from their home villages as full-time guerrillas, and in larger groups. While popular troops were expected to take heavy casualties, regional troops were carefully husbanded for important operations or used to organize new units of popular troops. Collectively these two groups are what are often known in the United States at the Viet Cong, though historians tend to prefer their own name for themselves, the National Liberation Front (Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam, “National Liberation Front for South Vietnam) or NLF. Finally, once the French were forced to leave and Giáp had a territorial base he could operate from in North Vietnam, there were conventional forces, the regular army – the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) – which would build up and wait for that third-phase transition to conventional warfare.

The greater focus on the structure of courses operating in enemy territory reflected Giáp’s adjustment of how the first phase of the protracted war would be fought. Since he had no mountain bases to fall back to, the first phase relied much more on political operations in territory controlled by the enemy and guerrilla operations, once again using the local supportive population as the cover to allow guerrillas and political agitators (generally the same folks, cadres drawn from the regional troops to organize more popular troops) to move undetected. Guerrilla operations would compel the less-casualty-tolerant enemy to concentrate their forces out of a desire for force preservation, creating the second phase strategic stalemate and also clearing territory in which larger mobile forces could be brought together to engage in mobile warfare, eventually culminating in a shift in the third phase to conventional warfare using the regional and regular troops.

Via Wikipedia, a map of areas of ‘turmoil’ which is to say guerrilla activity by the NLF, from 1957 to 1960.

Finally, unlike Mao, who could envision (and achieve) a situation where he pushed the Nationalists out of the territories they used to recruit and supply their armies, the Vietnamese Communists had no hope (or desire) to directly attack France or the United States. Indeed, doing so would have been wildly counter-productive as it likely would have fortified French or American will to continue the conflict.

That limitation would, however, demand substantial flexibility in how the Vietnamese Communists moved through the three phases of protracted war. This was not something realized ahead of time, but something learned through painful lessons. Leadership in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV = North Vietnam) was a lot more split than among Mao’s post-Long-March Chinese Communist Party; another important figure, Lê Duẩn, who became general secretary in 1960, advocated for a strategy of “general offensive” paired with a “general uprising” – essentially jumping straight to the third phase. The effort to implement that strategy in 1964 nearly overran the South, with ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam – the army of South Vietnam) being defeated by PAVN and NLF forces at the Battles of Bình Giã and Đồng Xoài (Dec. 1964 and June 1965, respectively), but this served to bring the United States more fully into the war – a tactical and operational victory that produced a massive strategic setback.

Lê Duẩn did it again in 1968 with the Tet Offensive, attempting a general uprising which, in an operational sense, mostly served to reveal NLF and PAVN formations, exposing them to US and ARVN firepower and thus to severe casualties, though politically and thus strategically the offensive ended up being a success because it undermined American will to continue the fight. American leaders had told the American public that the DRV and the NLF were largely defeated, broken forces – the sudden show of strength exposed those statements as lies, degrading support at home. Nevertheless, in the immediate term, the Tet Offensive’s failure on the ground nearly destroyed the NLF and forced the DRV to back down the phase-ladder to recover. Lê Duẩn actually did it again in 1972 with the Eastern Offensive when American ground troops were effectively gone, exposing his forces to American airpower and getting smashed up for his troubles.

It is difficult to see Lê Duẩn’s strategic impatience as much more than a series of blunders – but crucially Giáp’s framework allowed for recovery from these sorts of defeats. In each case, the NLF and PAVN forces were compelled to do something Mao’s model hadn’t really envisaged, which was to transition back down the phase system, dropping back to phase II or even phase I in response to failed transitions to phase III. By moving more flexibly between the phases (while retaining a focus on the conditions of eventual strategic victory), the DRV could recover from such blunders. I think Wayne Lee3 actually puts it quite well that whereas Mao’s plan relied on “many small victories” adding up to a large victory (without the quick decision of a single large victory), Giáp’s more flexible framework could survive many small defeats on the road to an eventual strategic victory when the will of the enemy to continue the conflict was exhausted.

Of course that focus on will relied on the assumption that the weaker force ‘wants to win more’ than the stronger one. Which is of course not always true and it seems worth noting here again that most insurgencies fail. In the absence of robust popular support, efforts to use this or similar frameworks (such as Che Guevara’s foquismo, which to be frank I generally find as a less compelling, less capable variant of these ideas) often fail quite badly (as, indeed, Che Guevara’s own efforts failed in the Congo and in Bolivia). Governments faced by insurgencies are often able to justify their use of force based on the violent actions of guerrillas, thus preserving their own will. At the same time, it is much easier to convince a foreign force that occupying a country is no longer worth it than to convince a state with any meaningful base of support to abolish itself. Protracted war is thus far, far from an unbeatable strategy.

The strategy pursued by the Taliban in Afghanistan has followed similar lines, with the mountains of the Hindu Kush on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border serving as the equivalent of Mao’s mountain bases. The Taliban practiced a propaganda strategy not too dissimilar from Giáp’s, using terroristic violence and targeted assassinations to persuade (by the threat of violence) the population to support them or at least remain neutral while at the same time those acts – often dramatic and publicized after the fact – served as proof to members that the organization was making progress (think ‘testify to the continued existence of the Red Army’). The use by the Taliban of modern media to do their propaganda work both in country and abroad is a notable technological adaptation of the model (something that of course was also used very heavily by ISIS).

Via Wikipedia, a map depicting the situation in Afghanistan in August, 2021. The areas in red were areas controlled by the Afghan Government, while the areas in white were controlled by the Taliban or its allies. In practice, the Taliban strategy had reduced government control over most of the country to isolated islands which often had to be resupplied by air due to the danger of ground routes through what was effectively Taliban territory.

Because the Taliban couldn’t really target American industrial might – as Giáp couldn’t – American will was focused on instead. Modern insurgencies also often use their attacks to try to lure their more powerful opponents into applying excessive firepower, thereby doing their propaganda for them (on this, read W. Morgan, The Hardest Place (2021) for just how easy it is for a Big Firepower military with lots of powerful air support to fall into this trap again and again. Also, if you read it with an eye towards the three phases of protracted war, you will find all three without much difficulty). At the same time, the Taliban clearly accepted that this would be a protracted, slow war but concluded they were more willing to stick it out than the United States was, despite a stunningly lopsided unfavorable casualty ratio. And then of course, at the end, once the United States was gone, they shifted to phase III and waged a successful conventional campaign of territorial control against the fatally weakened Afghan government.

One thing that is very striking in all of these examples was the importance of outside support. While Mao mentions outside support, he envisages most of the equipment of the reinforced Red Army as coming from equipment taken from the enemy. But in practice, in all of these cases, outside support, particularly the provision of weapons and safe bases, was crucial for the success of the protracted war strategy; getting weapons and equipment from the enemy was never as effective as having a foreign sponsor who could provide them. That, of course, imposes an additional political dimension to a protracted war: the need to maintain foreign support either by ideological conformity or through active propaganda on the world stage or both. Again, that’s in Mao’s original theory, but it is not emphasized to nearly the degree of prominence that it tends to hold in actual efforts at protracted war.

Boiling Down the Theory

What I hope these different examples show clearly is how the strategy of protracted war has to be adapted for local circumstances and new communications technologies and the ways in which it can be so adapted. But before we talk about how the framework might apply to the current conflict in Ukraine (the one which resulted from Russia’s unprovoked, lawless invasion), I want to summarize the basic features that connect these different kinds of protracted war.

First, the party trying to win a protracted war accepts that they are unable to win a “war of quick decision” – because protracted war tends to be so destructive, if you have a decent shot at winning a war of quick decision, you take it. I do want to stress this – no power resorts to insurgency or protracted war by choice; they do it out of necessity. This is a strategy of the weak. Next, the goal of protracted war is to change the center of gravity of the conflict from a question of industrial and military might to a question of will – to make it about mobilizing people rather than industry or firepower. The longer the war can be protracted, the more opportunities will be provided to degrade enemy will and to reinforce friendly will (through propaganda, recruitment, etc.).

Those concerns produce the ‘phase’ pattern where the war proceeds – ideally – in stages, precisely because the weaker party cannot try for a direct victory at the outset. In the first phase, it is assumes the stronger party will try to use their strength to force that war of quick decision (that they win). In response, the defender has to find ways to avoid the superior firepower of the stronger party, often by trading space for time or by using the supportive population as covering terrain or both. The goal of this phase is not to win but to stall out the attacker’s advance so that the war can be protracted; not losing counts as success early in a protracted war.

That success produces a period of strategic stalemate which enables the weaker party to continue to degrade the will of their enemy, all while building their own strength through recruitment and through equipment supplied by outside powers (which often requires a political effort directed at securing that outside support). Finally, once enemy will is sufficiently degraded and their foreign partners have been made to withdraw (through that same erosion of will), the originally weaker side can shift to conventional ‘positional’ warfare, achieving its aims.

This is the basic pattern that ties together different sorts of protracted war: protraction, the focus on will, the consequent importance of the political effort alongside the military effort, and the succession of phases.

(For those who want more detail on this and also more of a sense of how protracted war, insurgency and terrorism interrelate as strategies of the weak, when I cover this topic in the military history survey, the textbook I use is W. Lee, Waging War: Conflict, Culture and Innovation in World History (2016). Chapter 14 covers these approaches and the responses to them and includes a more expensive bibliography of further reading. Mao’s On Protracted War can be found translated online. Many of Giáp’s writings on military theory are translated and gathered together in R. Stetler (ed.), The Military Art of People’s War: Selected Writings of General Vo Nguyen Giap (1970).)

Implications for Ukraine

Of course the reason for discussing this now is that I think that this framework bears on how to understand the pathways that Ukraine may have to victory or at least limiting the objectives the Russian Armed Forces can achieve. Fundamentally, Ukraine faces many of the same constraints that led to the use of protracted war. Despite scoring many smaller victories in the opening days of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian army has little hope in the forseeable future of being able to fight and defeat the Russian army in ‘open battle’ outside of urban areas. While the Ukraine has done a stunning job contesting the air, there is no question that Russia has the advantage in airpower and in fires4 more generally. If Ukraine attempted to maneuver in large formations in the open on the offensive (the way Russia is currently doing) it seems almost certain that the Russian superiority in fires would quickly extract a terrible toll. Ukraine also has no direct 5 way of striking at the Russian means of waging war – the industrial base that produces and maintains Russian firepower.

Thus, in a “war of quick decision” it seems very likely – even given so far the surprising success and tremendous heroism of the Ukrainians – that Ukraine would lose. To win, Ukraine has to protract the war, working on the assumption that they ‘want to win more’ than Russia does (be that Russia defined as Vladimir Putin, or as his major supporters, or as the soldiers on the front line themselves; breaking the will of any of these three might be enough to compel Russia to terminate hostilities). Thus the Ukrainian efforts in the war need to be focused as much on will – both reinforcing their own will and degrading the will of the enemy – as on battlefield victories.

Yet the Ukrainian situation is also different. Ukraine is a complete state and thus has access to some significant modern industrialized firepower. Through international actors, they have access to even more. The terrain is also different too. Ukraine does not have jungles (it does have some mountains), but rather is mostly fairly flat and open, divided by one very large river (and many small ones). While Ukraine is a very large country, there would normally be little doubt that Russian forces could project power from one end to the other (although this may need qualification given Russian logistics failures, but note that no part of Ukraine is very far from a potential Russian logistics base, be it in Russia, Crimea or Belarus). Terrain is not going to stop Russian forces in the absence of effective resistance for very long.6 The Ukrainian army thus cannot retreat forever into functionally impassable terrain the way Mao’s army could.

Via Twitter, this is Nathan Ruser’s Ukraine Daily Brief Map for March 3, 2022. Ruser’s daily brief – also on substack – is a good way to get a handle on what seems to be happening from all of the confusing information, though of course caveats about the fog of war here are necessary.
Red zones indicate areas of Russian or separatist control, red lines indicate Russian advances. I prefer Ruser’s map here because it expresses a truth about the current situation, which is that Russia is not so much expanding areas of control as they are driving lines of movement into Ukraine. We haven’t seen yet Russian forces begin to administer areas they’ve ‘taken’ or secure gains.

Nevertheless, much of the model of protracted war applies. We are fairly clearly in the first phase – the enemy’s strategic offensive. Russia advances everywhere – in some places faster, in many places much slower. Going by the theory of protracted war, the Ukrainian aim ought not to be to force a decisive battle at any one point, but rather to exhaust the Russian advance, while preserving as much of their forces as possible. In our theory, that means working to accelerate the breakdown of the Russian offensive which allows the transition from phase I to phase II.

There is a lot of fog of war here but given what we can see, you can just about make out the outlines of that kind of phase I strategy in practice. Ukrainian forces so far have generally fallen back to force engagements in urban areas where the built up terrain provides cover from Russian firepower. Urban warfare trends to soak up tremendous amounts of soldiers and materiel, so forcing the Russian army into a series of difficult sieges is likely to be an effective way to exhaust their offensive more rapidly. At the same time, in the South, where the terrain is less favorable, Ukrainian units have generally withdrawn. It seems notable that Ukrainian forces in Kherson inflicted losses on the Russian advance but seem to have withdrawn from the city before the Russians could encircle it or deliver a crushing final assault (but note the contrast in the North where Kharkiv and Kyiv are more strongly held, in part one assumes because they are likely to be more defensible). At the same time, where the Ukrainians have counter-attacked, the strikes tend to be not into the heads of Russian advances but into the flanks of large convoys and look designed to slow or prevent the encirclement of major cities to further bog down the Russian advance – something fairly easy to classify as ‘mobile warfare’ in Mao’s model.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian attacks appear to be prioritizing targets of opportunity, especially Russian logistics. Cargo trucks like the Ural-4320, -43206, and the KamAZ 6×6 make up a high proportion of confirmed Russian vehicle losses; most of the footage of drone strikes (using the Bayraktar TB2 Turkish drone) also seem to be on rear echelon units or units still moving into the combat zone. In many ways this seems like a modern application of the mobile warfare Mao envisaged in the first phase, using drones, indirect fires and infantry with man-portable weapons (that can be moved off-road or hidden) to inflict damage on the ‘tail’ of the Russian army, rather than its teeth.

The potential for urban sieges, while horrifying from a humanitarian perspective, also offers the potential for the Ukrainians to speed the transition to phase II (strategic stalemate) while they still hold much of the country. If Russian advances bog down into a long series of sieges of major cities (Kyiv and Kharkiv, but also potentially Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia) that may essentially create the conditions of the strategic stalemate, where the Russian advance is stopped as Russian forces attempt to pound these cities into submission – a task which, as we’ve seen in conflicts in Syria and Iraq – can take months or even years. Meanwhile, though I doubt the Ukrainians will see the issue this way, Russian frustration at not being able to take these cities is already luring them into the over-application of force trap we just discussed: indiscriminate Russian fires into civilian areas may both harden Ukrainian resolve and galvanize world opinion.

I do want to be very clear here: the War in Ukraine may end up transitioning into either a series of urban sieges, or an insurgency (either over the whole country or, as now seems more likely, in rear areas behind the Russian front lines). Both kinds of fighting raise the likelihood of increased destruction and civilian casualties; protracted war, because it is protracted, is typically very destructive and precisely because civilians often become the covering terrain for the defenders, they are often targeted with repression or violence. Russian forces have typically responded to urban sieges with indiscriminate shelling and have also generally responded to insurgency with repression and violence. So I want to be clear, I fear the transition to this kind of fighting and I hope that it isn’t necessary, but I also suspect that warfare of this sort may be the only road that leads to eventual Ukrainian victory. It is also frankly utterly backwards to suggest that Ukraine ought to just roll over so that Russia does not commit war crimes and human rights violations; Russia should obey the laws of armed conflict and it is not Ukraine’s responsibility to make things easy for them so they don’t get frustrated and do some war crimes in the midst of their illegal and unprovoked invasion. It is of course Russia that could avoid all of this suffering by not continuing an unprovoked invasion into another country. If they weren’t there, they wouldn’t be there.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that the Ukrainians are waging a protracted war is exactly is the attention to the information war, to a much greater degree and far more initial success than Russia. As with the political strategies of dau tranh, the Ukrainians have different messages to different groups: they need to harden Ukrainian resolve, they need to try to galvanize world opinion, they need to weaken Russian resolve. Managing those different messages can be difficult – advertising Russian casualties, for instance, might lower morale on the front lines, but could harden resolve at home and might backfire with the international community (the Ukrainian solution seems to have been to focus on destroyed equipment to stress enemy losses and living Russian prisoners who are shown to be well treated; it’s a savvy strategy). Nevertheless, Ukraine has showed tremendous skill in managing their messaging, while Russia has been caught completely flatfooted.

Drone warfare also provides an interesting opportunity in this context, and we’ve seen the Ukrainians using it for tactical, operational and strategic effects. The tactical effect is obvious: armed drones can inflict damage. Operationally, as noted, drone strikes have tended to target units in transit and logistics, ‘interdiction strikes,’ which make it more difficult for Russian forces to move rapidly. Strategically, Ukraine is using drones where another force might have used terroristic violence – a strategy which, because Ukraine needs global support, they cannot use openly – to testify to the continued existence and effectiveness of the Blue-and-Yellow Army. If, as I fear, the war becomes a series of sieges, this use of drones is likely to become more important – Ukrainian soldiers and civilians being shelled inside of besieged cities are going to want to know that they are striking back somehow. Drone footage of strikes against expensive Russian military equipment – including potentially the very artillery shelling the cities – can mitigate the ‘will-damage’ as it were, of these sieges. This of course dovetails with the information war and explains why, for instance, there is already a catchy Ukrainian song7 praising their drone of choice, the Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 (a UCAV, “unmanned combat aerial vehicle” which already proved its considerable effectiveness in the Azerbaijan-Amernian war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020).

Finally, it is precisely in a context of a protracted war that the expensive, stiff sanctions that much of the rest of the world has placed on Russia matter. Putin, I suspect, hoped that he could win this war quickly, after which he could present the sanctions – which I also very strongly suspect he thought would be far weaker than they have been – as useless and counter-productive, damaging the economies of NATO member states. But the longer Ukraine can protract the war, the longer those sanctions have time to degrade not only the will, but also the military capacity of Russia. In this sense, Ukraine actually can, indirectly, through world opinion, strike at the industrial base which powers the Russian war effort. Consequently, since both Ukrainian war-making capabilities (due to foreign weapon donations) and Russian war-making capabilities (due to the crippling effects of sanctions) in the long-run depend on international will and support, Ukraine has to wage their war with a lot of attention to global opinion; Russia had to do this too and it is fair to say they failed before they knew they needed to care. The longer the war is protracted, the more that global opinion will matter, as the sanctions and imported javelins and Bayraktar TB2s bite deeper.

Protracted war also poses risks and costs, however. The costs I’ve hinted at several times but let’s be explicit: precisely because the war is protracted, the damage to civilian infrastructure, the disruption to civilian life and the loss of civilian life is likely to be higher. This is a strategy that aims to make the war about mobilizing people rather than mobilizing industry and firepower and when people are your center of gravity, then that is where the enemy will try to strike. Consequently, we may see efforts – even at a low probability of success – for Ukraine to try to engage in early positional warfare.

Moreover, a strategy of protracted war is going to demand that the Ukrainians preserve their army and leadership, even if it means giving up territory and even if it means leaving civilians, for a time, under a Russian occupation that may – as the violence escalates – become increasingly brutal and repressive. A state or a people only resorts to protracted war because they have no other options; this is a strategy of the weak – and Ukraine is, compared to Russia, still the weaker party. Preserving the leadership core of the Ukrainian state and some part of the army is going to be essential for continued resistance if Russian forces continue pushing forward as they have been.

Preserving that core is in turn going to in turn pose terrible choices on Ukraine’s leaders. On the one hand, they want to stand with their country, but on the other hand at least some part of the government needs to survive to coordinate resistance and provide something for it to rally around; this problem will get especially acute if the encirclement of Kyiv is completed. Meanwhile, Ukrainian armed forces are eventually going to have to withdraw in some areas – particularly from positions along the line of contact in the Donbas – to avoid being either encircled or forced into a conventional battle of ‘quick decision.’ Retreating from contact always entails casualties but also political costs as territory is left to the enemy, but in a protracted war, it is unavoidable.

In conclusion, a protracted war in Ukraine is a terrible prospect, but it may be the only route the Ukrainians have that ends in victory if Putin’s invasion continues, as still seems likely. From my own position, it looks like the early Ukrainian successes have put them in a fairly strong position should the war become protracted as they look likely to hold much of their country, have galvanized world opinion, and have difficult-to-assault urban centers to use as defensive bulwarks. At the same time, as the Russian Armed Forces respond to this strategy by increasingly shelling and bombing civilian centers, the level of civilian casualties and collateral damage are likely to rise and the very nature of protracted war means that those tragedies are unlikely to stop any time soon.

I wish I had better news, but hopefully this theory overview will help to understand how the conflict in Ukraine may evolve and what victory may look like for Ukraine. Next week we’re going to instead turn to another question that has been burning up social media – nuclear weapons and how nuclear deterrence works.

  1. as I write this; I dearly hope, reader from the future, that when you read this, Ukraine is free, independent and at peace
  2. In case it needs saying, I’m not idolizing Mao here. His theory is important for reasons we’ll discuss, even if Mao himself was an abominable human being and the ideology which he fought for was also fundamentally bankrupt and mostly just inflicted additional unnecessary suffering on the Chinese people.
  3. Work cited below
  4. Artillery, airstrikes, cruise missiles, etc.
  5. Important word! See below
  6. And before anyone rushes into the comments to note the 40-mile-long convoy and other dramatic Russian logistics failures, do not that the Ukrainians are in fact doing quite a lot to ‘help’ those failures along, destroying key bridges, blocking roads and denying key crossroads that are within urban centers. Unobstructed, Russian soldiers in a truck could drive across the whole of Ukraine in about two days, with time to get a good night’s sleep somewhere on the Dnieper in the middle. Of course they are not unobstructed and that is the key.
  7. Tell me that won’t be stuck in your head for the next hour. Also notice how it is something that isn’t too difficult to sing along to (if you speak Ukrainian)? I wonder if that is intentional – something that Ukrainians can both listen to but literally sing along with to keep their spirits up as they shelter from Russian shelling.

340 thoughts on “Collections: How the Weak Can Win – A Primer on Protracted War

    1. Yeah, opted to post this one early because it seemed to be sorely needed. If I can get the next post done before next Friday, I’ll do the same. I don’t intend to make a habit of it, but with events moving as fast as they are and people really looking for clarity in understanding, it seemed silly to wait.

  1. Gee I was worried while reading you were going to just going to credit Mao following his own strategising or talk all Giap mythos, but you didn’t. Everything on the Vietnam War needs to have Le Duan at the centre. Its like talking about Soviet Russia without Stalin. Did you read Lien-Hang Nguyen?

  2. As an American with no training in military history or exposure to Mao’s theories, my first impression is that his thesis also very accurately describes the American Revolutionary War. So much Revolutionary history seems to consist of Washington’s focus on maintaining an army in being, somewhere, and just making sure it continued to exist, while both the British and in many cases impatient members of his own Continental Congress kept trying to force a decisive battle. And of course you have a lot of early raids on undermanned British forts early in the war, the colonists moving more through the frontier since the British had command of the seas and the ability to rapidly move marines around, and then the shift back to major battles once the French were committed.

    1. The Force in Being is an important point – it only has to be strong enough to be one place, but to defend against it requires the opposition to be strong enough everywhere.

      1. See: Battle of Trenton. The British basically gave up Pennsylvania except for Philadelphia itself because of it.

    2. To an extent. It doesn’t however conform perfectly to the model, since really the war was two wars in two theaters, the north 1775-79 and the south 1780-81. The latter more closely resembles “protracted war,” even if paradoxically it was much shorter.
      Washington thought in conventional terms, and while he certainly understood the necessity of maintaining a Force in Being, he also was determined to go on the offensive, usually with bad to catastrophic results (Quebec, Brandywine, Germantown, to an extent Monmouth). However, he was able to establish a Phase II stalemate which persuaded Clinton to look for a different theater, one where Phase II was very much in play. If anyone understood Mao’s theory before Mao, it was Nathaniel Greene.

      1. Worth noting that Washington also launched one successful offensive (Boston) quite early in the war, in a manner that really has no place in protracted war theory unless one believes that the war is nearly over, which in 1775-6 it clearly was not.

        I think the key takeaway here is that protracted war is not some radical reinvention of military strategy, but rather an extrapolation from what capable positional warriors do when they are losing. Trading space for time, conserving strength for the future, and building political support at home and abroad are all common elements of successful recoveries by conventional forces.

        1. I think the argument is there’s no reason you can’t flip to phase III if local conditions allow for it. The key would be recognizing that you have to go back to phase I when conditions change.

        2. Doctrine isn’t dogma, or shouldn’t be. By fortune of war, Ethan Allan and Henry Knox gave Washington enough heavy artillery to win a positional battle against the British, to take one city at the outset of the war and hold it for the duration (or make it extremely expensive to retake, if the British insisted). If an opportunity like that knocks, your answer shouldn’t be “doctrine forbids!”

      2. Witness that the Battle of Cowpens was not only Morgan’s masterful strategy on the battlefield, but Greene’s large scale strategy of splitting his forces (inferior to the British in the field) exactly in half, and going in different directions, so that both were menaces. When the British split their forces and send the larger bunch after him, he fled, and Morgan got to face the smaller bunch.

    3. Gen. Charles Lee advocated a more prolonged strategy, but Washington rejected his advice and sought out conventional battles (some of the time).

    4. Note that Mao didn’t create his theory of protracted war in a vacuum. Mao had done a certain amount of study of other (successful and unsuccessful) guerilla wars before him, and they had studied other guerilla wars before them, and so on. If you go far enough back up the chain, I imagine you’ll find people who did indeed examine the American Revolution in an attempt to learn lessons (both in the sense of “how to do” and “how not to do”) protracted warfare.

      1. And with enough documentation, you could probably trace Mao’s train of sources studying sources at least to Fabian fighting Hannibal, which strikes me as a rather unusual war to apply Mao’s lens to.

        1. Mao would probably draw more on Chinese military traditions.

          The Western tradition goes back to Rome and Greece. The Chinese tradition goes back to the Warring States period about 100 years earlier.

          Mao was an educated guy who took pride in being very well read. He also had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t regarded as a leading public intellectual the way someone like Hu Shi or Chen Duxiu was.

    5. And in the southern colonies where, for the most part a significant army in being couldn’t be maintained, you had more guerilla action like those of Francis Marion (aka The Swamp Fox) and his men in South Carolina.

    6. There were people in Europe at the time who described it as a war after the Chinese style: lose a battle every month until you win the war. (Whether it was intended as such or not.)

  3. My own extremely amateur read on the situation also concluded that the only way for Ukraine to win was to bog down Russian forces as much as possible, so it’s nice to see that I had the basics right.

    I’d be really interested to see any good analysis on what happened with the air war, though, if you know of any. Despite paying enough attention to know that the Russian military is a bit of a paper bear, it’s still utterly shocking to me that any of the Ukrainian air force is still airborne a week into this war.

    1. It seems Russia was unwilling or unable to commit enough cruise missiles to destroy Ukraine’s air force or the infastructure necessary to support it. Also, Ukraine successfully dispersed their mobile SAMs to keep them from being taken out by missiles, which is probably keeping Russia cautious about using its own planes.

      1. A third aspect, and this very much goes back to the “international support” part of the protracted war theory is that Ukraine has the benefit of effectively untouchable search radar: NATO has been continuously flying AWACS aircraft near the border, frequently with their transponders on for all the world to see. The data from these, in turn, is being sent to the Ukrainian ministry of defense, so they can focus on actually dispatching aircraft to intercept, if they want to do that, and they only need to transmit from their SAM batteries when acquiring a target.

      2. The pictures I recall seeing from the first-day missile strikes on Ukrainian airfields seem to show a sufficient number of cruise missiles but them being mostly near-misses – landing next to the airstrips and close to the buildings, doing some damage but leaving key hardware and infrastructure usable.

        For precision munitions, precision matters, and for one reason or another (quality or EW countermeasures?) the precision apparently was not there.

        1. Or it was intended to disable them only temporarily and put them into own use fast and cheap

          1. This does not appear to explain striking grass or field next to airport.

  4. Thanks so much for the deep dive into Mao. My exposure to his doctrines is mostly through Galula, who focuses more on “phase II” — and on its practical application as he saw it in use rather than on any theoretical ideal.

    I particularly liked his comparison to Clausewitz. As opposed to conventional inter-state war being foreign policy conducted by other means, he describes this kind of war (“revolutionary war” in his lingo, he’s very insistent on that Mao term) as domestic politics by other means.

    1. The Clausewitz comparison is especially good since both the strategic and the tactical level get mirrored, in opposite directions. Through all history up to Clausewitz’s time, field battles were won/lost mostly by morale/cohesion (i.e. will), while the overall war was “physical” (who can deliver sieges better, and control more area). Whereas with industrial-era weaponry, even if limited to small arms, Petain’s “le feu tue” is fully in force at the low level, but some wars can be decided by will.

      The other parts of this 2×2 are also filled. WW2 is the obvious example of will not being significant at either level. (Which is almost funny in some way, since the one thing that Hitler was famously good at was propaganda/encouragement. In an era where generals have a staff to manage logistics, recon, etc. for them — I assume he couldn’t get those right himself — he could have been successful and would have produced pinnacles of the “general’s speech” genre. Equally, he could have been a famously good (or at least inspiring) guerrilla leader, again, with secretaries to manage materiel.) Ordinary politics — or as is nowadays commonly called, culture war — while hopefully not involving actual violence, is the final quadrant.

      1. I would say that will was very important in WWII! It’s just that, since everyone was fighting a war of existential survival, everyone’s will was essentially ‘maxed out’. It would have been a quite different war if anyone’s will to keep fighting had failed before their physical capacity to keep fighting was destroyed- e.g. if Britain panicked and tried to negotiate a peace after the Fall of France. And I don’t think it’s coincidence that Germany finally surrendered only after Hitler died!

      2. Will was pretty significant at the strategic level in WW2, it’s just that everyone had a lot of will. Though it should be noted that the Pacific Theater was ended by the failure of Japanese will, albiet brought about by the realization that they were completely outmatched on the physical. Also, Japan’s strategy relied on breaking the United State’s will to get a quick surrender leaving Japan in control of the east Pacific; it was not successful.

  5. Regarding will to win, attempting an imperial or quasi-imperial conquest with unhappy conscripts has frequently shown poor results. Conquest requires either professionals motivated by patriotism or mercenaries motivated by gain.

    1. Unhappy conscripts, sure. But the ancient Romans, Carthaginians, and others conquered or dominated huge areas using militia armies, motivated by plunder, gloryseeking, and patriotism. In large part they took foraged onsite and thus saved their homelands the costs of supplying them, something which is much less viable in modern industrial warfare.

      1. “unhappy” is probably an important part here, the armies you describe would almost certainly be quite happy to fight for the reason you describe.

    2. I read somewhere that Putin threatened to punish anti-war protestors by conscripting them. Ridiculous if true!

      1. Conscripting your criminals in dire need is one need, however, it’s something entirely else to give assault rifles to those of your political radicals who have already demonstrated that they’re willing to take up some personal sacrifice for the cause (by protesting with a clear expectation that they will definitely be arrested), that’s just begging for “blue-on-blue” violence in the worst possible moment.

        1. Depending if those are true pacifists or against an unjust war, i would not like to be a leader of those forces except i wanted also to defect

        2. I think you misunderstand how the use of conscription would play out in this case. The biggest difference between basic training and a gulag is that basic ends. Don’t expect that there’s any intention protestors will make it to deployment.

        3. This is well within Russian tradition. The Soviets made sure to recruit children of dissidents, Kerensky armed the Bolsheviks (well, in that case, because he worried about a military coup), and the Czar also recruited from his opponents. Why? Well, Russian way of war doesn’t care that much about morale. This was a combination of trying to get their loyalty (hope the military will ‘straighten’ them out), punishment (well, if they die one less problem) and deterrence (don’t make waves or you’ll be conscripted too).

      2. If that’s true, that’s just yet another way in which Putin has shown a complete failure to learn the lessons of history. As I recall, Germany tried something similar to fix their manpower problems in 1918 and it did not work at all…

  6. It is a tragedy that the Ukranians are suffering and dying for the West’s continual appeasement of Putin. Garry Kasparov predicted pretty much all of this. Unfortunately no politicians seemed to take him seriously. Some of them were too busy pocketing cash that Putin stole from the Russian people.

    Slava Ukraini!

    1. Garry Kasparov is not the easiest person to take seriously on subjects other than chess. It’s not like he’s the only Cassandra out there, either.

      In fact, anyone paying attention knew what Putin’s MO is since 2008 and if anyone didn’t twig at that point, 2014 pretty much confirmed it. The shooting down of MH17, the Litvinenko and Skripal poisonings – we’ve all known what Putin is for a long time now. Kasparov, Navalny, Saakashvili, Berezovsky, they have all sung the same song and they’ve all been right – and there are indications that, even if it took a long time to do so, NATO *has* listened. Dr Devereaux mentioned in a previous post that western intelligence has been pretty much on the money as regards its predictions for this war. NATO has beefed up its forces in eastern Europe as a deterrent, as experts were saying it should have done years ago.

      It’s also apparent of course that Ukraine itself has been paying attention and is determined not to be a pushover again. It has so far done as well as could possibly have been expected at holding up the Russian advance, building international support, and mobilising the people in defence of the country, which speaks to a level of preparedness rather than complacent surprise.

      There have been cracks, of course. Britain has taken far too much Russian money, and four years of chaotic stoogery in the White House didn’t help anything. But fundamentally the problem is that knowing what Putin is going to do doesn’t help if you can’t stop him from doing it. Ukraine was an – perhaps the – obvious target for Putin and not one that NATO could ever realistically defend directly, or at least not without escalating the war unacceptably in terms of the risk it would pose to human survival.

      So I don’t think it’s a case of nobody seeing this coming. It’s a case of everyone (or at least enough people) seeing this coming but not having any reasonable means of stopping it, just hoping that Putin wasn’t crazy enough to actually do it. Could the west have handled it better? Possibly. But they haven’t totally mishandled it either, and nor have the Ukrainians. This war happened because Putin wanted it to, whatever the cost.

  7. Ukraine also has no direct[efn_note]Important word! See below[/efn_note] way of striking at the Russian means of waging war

    Something seems to have gone wrong with the formatting here?

  8. I don’t think Ukraine should just roll over and surrender. Not that that’s never an option, it depends on so many factors but mostly on whether victory is at all possible, whether resistance achieves anything, what the enemy’s plans for you after your defeat are, and others. Take Denmark in WW2 as an extreme example – I can’t fault them for surrendering so fast after just some minor skirmishes, even though their case was just, but perhaps too desperate to fight for. Ukraine has much better prospects of eventual victory, and a surrender might well have drastic consequences for its future and quite possibly (very likely) for its independence and for the well-being and freedom of its citizens, which makes fighting on morally justified, in my opinion.

    But it can be a tricky question. Maybe it would be interesting to discuss how surrender was perceived through history? Like at what point it was considered that enough of a fight had been put up to allow for an honourable surrender if no relief was forthcoming, or what kind of odds were considered acceptable, or at what point resistance was seen more as folly than as heroism in different times, different contexts and different cultures.

    1. The recent series on fortifications is basically a proxy for this, if you hadn’t seen it already.

    2. Denmark faced a fairly unique situation with regards to its surrender. Firstly, they were vastly outmanned and outclassed by the German military. They had territory very unsuited to protracted war and very vulnerable to rapid tank warfare which the Germans excelled at. They also had little interest to the Germans beyond strategic needs for an invasion of Norway. By surrendering (very) rapidly, they were able to extract political concessions from the Germans, who frankly couldn’t care less as long as they got their invasion route and Denmark stayed out of the way.
      With Ukraine, the nation itself is the prize that Putin wants. The only surrender her would accept would be one where he ends up in control, either directly through annexation or more likely through a puppet ruler. Neither would be likely to be unopposed by the populace, but surrender would rob the populace of their military and much of their international support.

  9. That’s the popular narrative of the Revolutionary War, but I’m not sure how well it matches the facts. The first two years of the war involve a great deal of normal positional warfare, sometimes successful (Boston, Saratoga) and sometimes not (Brooklyn). The siege of Boston, in particular, is a successful effort to capture a major city with a large garrison and supporting naval force, which is really not something that fits into the protracted war model unless the war is nearly over.

    1. The key, I think, to understanding Washington’s strategy is that he was a talented amateur. Early on he thought in terms of conventional positional warfare, but when that didn’t work he adjusted, being smart enough to learn from experience.

      1. He had also some competent teacers and helpers like from Steuben who finished AFAIK in Valley Forge what other insructors especially the french started

  10. While it’s not relevant to the immediate situation, I’d be interested in a follow-up about preindustrial protracted war. Say an enemy has marched in, reduced all the fortresses and defeated the field armies, then installed garrisons. What might the local population do?

    1. Typos!

      impact enemy moral and to encourage Vietnamese
      impact enemy morale and to encourage Vietnamese

      Of course that focus on will relied on the assumption
      Of course that focus on will rely on the assumption

      direct[efn_note]Important word! See below[/efn_note] way
      ^^ some kind of formatting error ^^

      1. Finally in the third stage, the counter-offensive, when the process of weakening the enemy through guerrilla attacks and strengthening the Red Army through stolen supplies, new recruits and international support (Mao imagines the last element to be crucial and in the event it very much was), the Red Army can shift to positional warfare again, pushing forward to recapture lost territory in conventional campaigns.
        When the process was what? Should it say “was advanced enough” or something after the parenthetical aside?

        (not that either Chiang’s Nationalists of the Imperial Japanese Army – or Mao’s Communists – needed much inducement to engage in brutal repression).
        or the Imperial Japanese Army

        dramatic Russian logistics failures, do not that the Ukrainians are in fact doing quite a lot
        not -> note

    2. Concentrate the remaining forces and launch surprise attacks on the individual garrisons, as at Trenton on Christmas.

    3. Depends to some extent on the pre-war situation. If you’re looking at a feudal organization with serfs, then the serfs are unlikely to give the enemy a lot of grief.
      This is especially true when your typical serf is not “French”, but rather lives in the “barony of Mont-Pleine” and has heard there’s a king who lives in a place called “Paris”, but has never been more than 10 miles from his hut.

      1. It took the Normans years to suppress English insurgent resistance after the defeat of the English Army at Hastings in 1066 (noted examples including Hereward the Wake, Eadric the Wild and the Silvatici, as well as raiding by King Harold’s sons based in Ireland). Measures included building around 500 fortified bases across the length of the country, curfews, forcing men into small groups collectively responsible for each others behavior, and fining any community where a body was found murdered, unless the community could prove the body was English.

        1. That was in large part because those Saxon commoners who weren’t thralls (slaves) were free men, not serfs. Manorial feudalism with serfdom was introduced into England by the Normans.

        2. There was a big difference in terms of organisational structure between England and France in the 11th century. England was a much more centralised and unitary kingdom, and was also more of a recognisable “nation-state” (albeit still some way off the paradigm) than the fragmented, manorial-feudal kingdom of France: there was linguistic and cultural diversity, of course, but not to anything like the same scale. Indeed, English royal power in 1066 was not far off its medieval apogee while France’s was not far off its nadir (Henry I and Philip I being notoriously weak kings).

          And part of the English resistance was not just of the “spontaneous reaction against foreign invasion” type but motivated by the William’s moves to reform English administration and make it more like his French territories, and importing a new class of nobility who spoke a foreign language and governed in an unfamiliar and unwelcome way, which in turn had a knock-on effect on the actual lives of the people rather than just replacing one distant king with another.

          English rebels also had foreign backers or at least inspiration. As you say, the Godwinsons were operating from Ireland. Edgar – probably in the eyes of some still the rightful king – was in Scotland throughout William’s reign periodically stirring up trouble with the backing of his Scottish relatives-by-marriage. Sweyn II of Denmark was rattling the sabre throughout the first ten years of Norman rule and was organising an invasion when he died, which was likely a motivation to those who looked back to the good old days under the Danish dynasty and in particular those who were still functionally Danish in some respect. It is difficult to know how truly spontaneous and “national” the English uprisings were.

      2. Eh, that sort of depends. They might not care about the king, or even that their new lord has a different name, but they might very well care when the new lord starts changing stuff around. Medieval peasantry could be a belligerent lot and quite keen on protecting their traditional rights (either via litigation or revolt) and they could be mobilized by various nobles for proto-nationalist purposes when neccessary (see: Most of the history of 1400’s Sweden)

  11. I’m very curious (in part because I know so little about it) about Ukranian efforts to undermine Russian morale, especially Russian morale in Russia proper among civilians and members of Putin’s government. One of the other reasons, not mentioned in the article that Mao was so successful was the sharp divisions within Chiang’s government, which a lot of the time resembled some vassalage structure out of medieval times than a modern nation-state. Groups like the Sichuan Clique were virtually independent actors within the context of the 2nd Sino-Japanese war, and Mao definitely would try to maneuver between cracks in that political structure. I’m sure the Ukranians would like to do similar things, but I’m not sure how or in what form that would take.

    1. > I’m very curious (in part because I know so little about it) about Ukranian efforts to undermine Russian morale, especially Russian morale in Russia proper among civilians and members of Putin’s government.

      Against Putin’s government, sanctions and confiscations of property outside Russia.

      Against Russians in Russia:
      – hacktivism, including website defacement, airing war zone videos on Russian television, displaying insults on electric car charging stations, etc
      – broadcasting videos of war crimes on civilan population, as many Russians feel a sense of relationship with Ukrainians
      – broadcasting videos of surrendered Russian soldiers,
      – offering to free any captive Russian soldier on the condition that his mother personally collects him from Kyiv,
      – they made a deal with Red Cross to transport bodies of Russian soldiers to Russia,
      – there’s a website where Russian families can check if their sons (soldiers) are dead,
      – posting photos of war damage as “reviews” of Russian landmarks on Google Maps, notably the Red Square. Google has recently disabled the feature in Russia,
      – boasting about killing of important military targets, such as the highest ranking Russian commander, or the 1st Armored (something something) at Kharkiv. The tanks in the spotlight at parades. Common Russians cherish their army as much as other nations cherish famous sportsmen.

    2. Ukrainian soldiers also take smartphones from killed Russians and spam all their contacts with war zone information, photos(and we can guess, propaganda).

      Source: podcast with a former Polish spymaster.

  12. I’m curious if Mao’s theories of protracted war, and especially his emphasis on the political element of ‘will’, directly contributed to his disastrous economic and social engineering policies.

    A lot of Mao’s later failures seem to stem from (brutal indifference to human suffering aside) a belief that ‘human will’ can substitute for all manner of things, like knowledge of agriculture, or developing a proper industrialised base.

    (As a more speculative aside, I’ve also found it striking how some intellectuals who have lived through that period have consequently developed a very bleak, brutalised view of human nature. Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem series feels to me to be a deeply nihilistic reading of humanity.)

  13. That’s a map I made of 1954 Indochina’s partition! Neat to see it get used elsewhere.

    Depressing stuff, though. One possible outcome of the war which isn’t discussed too much is “Putin leaves Ukraine a smoking pile of rubble and a failed state, then leaves.” Urban warfare sucks as Grozny proved, so I could definitely see a world where Putin decides to not attempt to take cities, but merely level & starve them.

    Also, spelling nitpicks:
    * “1972 with the Eastern Offensive” – pretty sure you mean “Easter Offensive.”
    * “known at the Viet Cong” – “as” not “at.”

    1. That is possible, but that is the lose-lose outcome – while obviously devastating for Ukraine, it fails to achieve the strategic objectives of Russia and leaves them strictly worse off than the status quo right before the war declaration. Perhaps it might be that Putin eventually considers that as the most acceptable outcome, but that certainly is not a desirable outcome for him even now. For example, in the absence of better options, it would probably be preferable for Putin to get a negotiated withdrawal that gets some concessions (lifting sanctions and some aspects of ‘saving face’) in exchange for avoiding this.

      1. I think that outcome is dependent on whether a truly protracted conflict becomes an existential threat to Putin’s regime. At the moment that doesn’t seem to be the case, although our view of what’s happening in Russian politics is obscured at the best of times.

      2. I assume the minimal concession Putin might accept beyond the status quo ante would be formal recognition of L/DPR independence, along with the lifting of war-time sanctions. I can’t imagine him leaving without at least that much.

        But on the other end of it, I don’t see that being acceptable for the Ukrainian government without either a truly massive reparations package in exchange or a very long, costly war to make that sacrifice palatable. And let’s be honest, the latter is far more likely.

  14. I think one of your footnotes might be displaying incorrectly (the [efn_note]) Important word!

  15. Speaking of the propaganda purpose of the ‘Bayraktar’ song, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the video you linked, the final ‘Bayraktar!’ (the one that is coming to get ‘Russia’s new tsar’, according to the lyrics), has been replaced with a video of Ukrainians singing.

    1. They’re not just singing; they’re at worship.
      I took that one to mean “We wish we could drone strike Putin, but we can’t, so we’re praying instead.”

        1. Thanks for the correction! (sadly, I can’t edit)

          It felt like a hymn to me, so I can see how that got me confused.

  16. drink! – folks, I hope you all brought more than one drink for this

    Am drinking carbonated water, so should be fine. I really need to pee though….

    (I also like how after this sentence, Clausewitz doesn’t get mentioned again. Or maybe just once that I missed.)

    The comparison I thought of for the first past of the war was Iran Iraq war: An invader with more heavy equipment tries to grab territory a weak looking invadee, but the attack for various reason moves slowly, fails to fully defeat the enemy air force, and the invadee seems to be very angry at the invasion. Possible problems come from a leader of the invader who is too powerful and hasn’t gotten accurate information/has not hired the right people to do all of this well. Destroying cities to try and discourage/break the will of the invaded country is being used both places, though it looks like more destructively by Russia and earlier in the war.

    Of course, the analogy breaks down as the war goes on, since this time the invader has more people/is a bigger overall country than the invaded, meaning The fight will still be a tough one in Ukraine as described in this post. So writing about Guerilla warfare is useful.

    I hadn’t heard the exact models spelled out before, though had seen the general patterns and ideas for how these sorts of wars went. Is a useful post.

  17. Applying this framework in Ukraine feels like a square peg in a round hole. Every day Ukraine gets better armed while Russian capabilities degrade. If Ukraine survives the first Russian offensive they will win this war in a conventional fashion by building up conventional strength. Public support is always important but the crux of the question is going to be conventional Russian staying power, logistics and army cohesion.

    1. The situation is the Ukraine is getting lots of light weapons (anti-tank rockets, guns, and various other supplies), but has lost a bigger fraction of its heavier stuff and had less to begin with. The estimates I’ve seen of army size are about the same, Russia has more people if it needs to recruit/draft, but it may not be able to since morale/desire to fight is less, plus they have to cover more terrain. Estimates of casualties are similar for both sides (Russia and Ukraine have both put out numbers saying the other is losing a lot more people, but outside estimates seem to say similar amounts for both sides)

      Ukraine is also getting advanced on still, even if very slowly and with Russia being very sloppy, at least in the first part of the war.

      So the prediction of “Ukraine needs to fight the war described here” is based on Russia having more of the big machines + possibly more people.

      1. I was going to say that Ukraine has recently received 70 (seventy) fighter planes from Bulgaria, Poland and Slovakia. Unfortunately, reputable sources(including Politico) say the statements have been retracted. EU doesn’t have enough funds to do that, plus Russia started playing the nuclear threat card the same day.

        1. I don’t think its the money. How many EU states have available fighters that Ukraine could maintain and fly? Only the former Warsaw Pact countries. Who probably think they have a use for their own air force at the moment.

          1. I forgot to mention the countries were supposed to receive other (American!) planes in exchange. The topic of giving planes to Ukraine just came back as Zelensky keeps nagging NATO countries about it. There a few issues to solve – they need suitable airfields on Ukrainian soil, they need to saturate the area with AA defences, and they need pilots. For pilots a loophole was proposed – grant Ukrainian citizenship to veteran(retired?) pilots.

          2. That Loophole has depending on other kaws a high price for the pilots, losing their own citicenship

      2. Russia having those machines in Russia is irrelevant since they will never be operated in Ukraine. Russia is already straining itself to operate what they have and it’s obvious as hell their maintenance situation is a dumpster fire.

        1. Even in the Ukrainian region, Russia has more such equipment to use (Its what is destroying cities at the moment, if Ukraine had equipment to match, they’d be fighting a completely standard war and this post would be a lot less relevant.)

    2. “Every day Ukraine gets better armed while Russian capabilities degrade. If Ukraine survives the first Russian offensive they will win this war in a conventional fashion by building up conventional strength.”

      Even if we accept this statement at face value, creating this scenario is in fact precisely the purpose of Phases I and II in the Prolonged War model.

      1. “Even if we accept this statement at face value, creating this scenario is in fact precisely the purpose of Phases I and II in the Prolonged War model.”

        But not achieved through the method. Ukraine isn’t letting poorly equipped partisans fight well equipped Russian troops. It’s not guerrilla warfare. They are waging an extremely conventional war, the exact kind that Bret said they couldn’t wage, and then letting the Russians exhaust themselves.

        Saying that they have the same end goal is trivial. If all it takes is having the same end goal then you could say that the pacific theatre of WWII and the hoplite battles of greece are the same, after all the goal is to remove the enemy ability to block your force from occupying their polity.

        1. It’s not exactly the standard guerilla war described in the post, but it does seem to rely a ton on ambushes and a fighting style similar to how such partisans would fight, with a lot of the fighters living as civilians until very recently.

          So not technically guerillas (maybe, might be some people who could be called that.), but similar enough to be useful. Plus, is Russia grabs a lot more territory, this is how they will fight.

  18. No mention of Fabius? Although we don’t think of Rome as weak in theory, in practice it was after it’s losses at Trebia and Lake Tresimene (sp?).

    Can you draw a line between Fabius and Mao? Weirder things have happened. . .

  19. In discussions of this type of warfare (particularly in regard to the Taliban), an issue that comes up often is failure to distinguish combatants from non-combatants, which I’m given to understand violates the law of war — and I can certainly see moral problems with.

    But from this description…it sounds like that’s a feature not a bug. Are there good resources addressing protracted war from a law-of-war or general war ethics perspective?

    It’s an area where I find myself saying “that’s bad” when groups I don’t like are doing it, but justifying it when groups I like are doing it, and some grounding would be helpful in sorting through the ambiguities.

    1. One possible heuristic here might be “does the occupying force at least attempt to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants?”

    2. It’s definitely a feature not a bug. (there is the unspoken assumption here that the “laws of war” are written by strong powers,to jusfiy they kind of warfare they are good at)

  20. “So I want to be clear, I fear the transition to this kind of fighting and I hope that it isn’t necessary, but I also suspect that warfare of this sort may be the only road that leads to eventual Ukrainian victory.”

    What would it take for you to reconsider the trade-off here? Does there exist a point where yes, the Ukrainian state should just give up for humanitarian reasons? In other blog posts you stress the importance of distinguishing the interests of a State vs the Human Beings living in that state. I feel it is missing here.

    If you consider this cost-benefit analysis purely from a human-welfare perspective, then Ukraine (government or otherwise) should indeed roll over, if they do the calculus and find that the human toll of living a few decades under Putin is still better than the human toll of years of insurgency. I am very concerned that this does not seem like something most people talk about. Even among those who normally claim to care for human welfare above state priorities.

    Personally, I think the Ukrainian state is the “good guy” and Putin’s state the “bad guys” in this conflict. But that doesn’t mean I think literally any amount of human suffering would justify preserving the good guys here. There is a limit.

    Indeed, many people have already implicitly drawn a line for that limit. Those are the ones who understand nuclear deterrence and have NOT called for NATO to join the war. Usually they lecture those more emotional souls (many Ukrainians) about how NATO has its hands tied in terms of something like a no-fly-zone because of how modern systems work.

    What that is actually saying is that the suffering of the Ukrainians is NOT worth starting WW3 over and risking the lives of every human around the globe.

    So what I’m saying is that maybe at some point, preserving the dignity of the Ukrainian State and preventing the oppression of people living under Putin’s regime, as horrible as it may be, might NOT be worth the cost of very very terrible insurgency casualties.

    1. Well, this is not like: Ukraine surrenders, the human suffering stops. They will be under the Russian regime after all, and it is not nice at all.

      Plus, we must include the future consequences. For example, let assume Ukraine surrender right now. The war is over. Gradually, the sanctions from the entire World will be reduced or lifted, because nobody wants to pay for the war already lost. The Russia economy recovers a bit, and after a few years we hear about separatists in Lithuania…

      1. I know you guys mean well, but I feel like this comment and some other sibling comments are not sincerely engaging with what I said. Rather, they think only far enough to reach a justification for the pre-existing conclusion and then analyze no further.

        I already mentioned in the original comment that we are not weighing between [suffering caused by insurgency] and [no suffering]. I already wrote that the actual choice is between [suffering caused by insurgency] and [suffering caused by non-insurgency, mainly living under Putin’s regime].

        So Putin’s regime is “not nice at all”. Agreed. But then again fighting a decades long insurgency is not nice at all either. Which one is the lesser evil?

        My point is that it seems like this should be a question worth analyzing, but too many people have a foregone conclusion that they should fight a just war no matter how much suffering it causes.

        Also, you are absolutely correct that we need to consider ALL the consequences, including indirect long term game-theoretic ones. Yes we need to consider how surrender would incentivize future actors. However your example is just bad. Lithuania is part of NATO and not subject to the same relevant conditions. Maybe you could argue for Moldova.

        1. Individuals have agency here. The state may surrender, but the locals may not. Or the state may urge them to continue to fight, but they don’t. In practice, some fraction will hold out (as various Ukrainian groups did for some years after WWII), and the occupiers will react with violence. How many? I don’t know.

        2. There isn’t any metric that permits an objective comparison of these various kinds of suffering, and certainly not between different people. It would be an individual decision. For myself, faced with this choice, I would think, “well, you are old, obviously you would rather die free than live your few miserable remaining years as a slave.” Then again, history and my recollection of my own youth don’t suggest that young men are more likely to surrender.

          Possibly if I were a woman I would have a different answer? Difficult to know since that is not something of which I have personal experience.

        3. > Lithuania is part of NATO and not subject to the same relevant conditions.

          Well, I will stay with Lithuania for two reasons:

          First, as Russia showed it well, you do not have to make a conventional war upon a country to make you strong influence there. That’s why I said about separatists, not supported by Russia officially. I doubt NATO will intervene in apparently local riots, especially when USA will have problems elsewhere. Putin really can bide his time, and in Lithuania there is already a significant Russian minority to “defend”.

          Secondly, look at the Putin official agenda: he regrets the USSR fall and openly says about redefining the Cold War result as a western countries win. In my opinion, that means he has Baltic countries on his list, regardless if its NATO or not.

          1. And do you think the other NATO and EU members will sit on ther thumbs, till the US will act

    2. I think in this case Ukrainian state very much aligns with the will of the people.

      Thorough history, people living in the region of current Ukraine have been oppressed by West(Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, later Poland) and East(Moscow, USSR, Russia). This ranged from destruction of unitarian churches, bans on speaking the language, admission to schools, portraying them as bloodthirsty and stupid in books, to full scale genocide(Holodomor- starvation by the millions). I’m not blowing this out of proportion – Eastern Europe literally was between the two most genocidal totalitarian regimes, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Now Putin openly speaks about bringing the latter back. And – although this may be Ukrainian propaganda – there’s rumor that Russia wants to install Yanukovych back in office. The comically corrupt president that was successfully deposed through peaceful protests(all the violence was state initiated). If they did that, that would be exceedingly demoralizing and humiliating to Ukrainians – but knowing Russian means, sounds very plausible.

      The bottom line: Ukrainians couldn’t expect anything close to respectful treatment if they capitulated. At best, they would be persistently gaslighted and ruled by a combination of corrupt politicians, mafia, and FSB. The best specialists would be poached and taken away to work in industries and labs deep inside Russia. Convoys of white “humanitarian aid” trucks would arrive mostly empty, and leave loaded, just like they did in Donbas.

      1. Indeed if we expect more Holodomors under Putin then I think that insurgency would be the lesser evil.

        One little nitpick though, I don’t think the Ukrainian State is aligning its interests with the people who wanna leave, because they banned males 18-60 from leaving. I think this is clearly wrong as the state is forcing these men to suffer for the state against their wills.

        1. I almost forgot. Yes, I agree with this, although my opinion that there should be mandatory military service for women as well(in most countries) is not popular. The argument women use is typically “but women give birth!”. According to this logic, it’s normal for men to act as cannon fodder. Second class citizens.

    3. Disagree strongly.
      Defeat carries a higher price than continuing to fight. It is to be avoided at all costs.

      1. You might or might not be right, I am simply interested in seeing actual analyses of the costs of human suffering of either choice, rather than people saying Ukrainians should fight to the death because it’s a just cause and throwing cost-analysis out the window.

        1. I want to add one further troubling element to this analysis which makes me think Ukraine is likely to err on the side of accepting a humanitarian catastrophe by continuing the struggle. That element has to do with NATO priorities, which are to use Ukraine as a means to destroy Putin’s military capability and eventually his government. A protracted war would eventually do it. When Ukraine throws its brave citizens into the jaws of Putin’s war machine, that serves our (NATO’s) geopolitical interest, even when it doesn’t serve theirs. We can supply them indefinitely with weapons for conducting a painful insurgency, and they will eventually break Russia, just like the Mujahedeen broke the Soviets. Of course, Afghanistan didn’t exactly benefit from that bloody “win.” Ukraine might end up as this decade’s Afghanistan.

          1. Basically every actor that has power or influence in this decision is NOT aligned with humanitarian interests.

            The Ukrainian state cares more about its own existence than that of its citizens (like every state).

            The allied states care about weakening Russia over the welfare of human beings in Ukraine. The citizens in those allied states also easily fall into the “just war” mentality while suffering from the moral hazard of not bearing the consequences of direct violence.

            Local leaders are gonna be biased too. Humans in general are susceptible to tribalism and the “fuck you I’m taking you down with me” mentality, which while theoretically fair as an individual decision, often manifests as coercing members of the group who don’t share those same values. Dire circumstances will inevitably breed extremism.

            If there exist any individuals whose personal values are served by avoiding the protracted war, they would certainly be under-represented in the decision-making circle.

          2. Lekhaka
            March 6, 2022 at 2:01 am

            So tel me how would surrender serve the interest of the ukrainian people better?

          3. Replying to ThoDan:

            I’m not saying surrender is better, because I really don’t have enough information to judge, nor should I be trusted to make this judgement because I’m not personally in that situation.

            I’m saying there’s a danger of systemic bias here because the decision makers’ interests are not aligned with those who would suffer. So the potential for the wrong political decision is a real risk.

            It’s like saying that a dictatorship is worse because the leadership’s interest is not aligned with the citizens. It’s not a criticism of any specific dictatorship policy, but rather that the incentive structure is prone to failure.

        2. Problem with this logic is the way it develops a metagame. If people just rolled over when it was smart to do so then *bring the aggressor becomes a smarter move*.

          It’s not just about Ukraine or Lithuania or any given set of humans. The human to of suffering saved by keeping violence costly always wins.

          Nobody discusses these questions not because they’re not difficult or insightful but because they’re impossible to answer and even if we could, we would have to keep fighting anyway, game theory.

          1. Well by the metagame line of reasoning, NATO should risk WWIII and counter-invade, or else we will end up with full proliferation.

            Hopefully Putin looses long term, but what will be the lesson to other places interested in acquiring nuclear weapons? You get to make the opening moves with impunity?

            I don’t want WWIII, maybe there is some way to just hold the currently uncontested Lviv area. Ukraine being so flat and open is very worrisome, and trying to make a limited “no fly zone” in currently uncontested areas might be a way to make it less of an overt escalation, while giving Ukraine some metaphorical “mountains”.

            Of course, if Ukraine can get enough planes to do this itself that’s even better. Just hard decisions about conserving the new materiel to make sure an enclave remains held vs using it to go on the offensive right away.

      2. Would the Japanese and German people have been better off had they fought guerrilla insurgencies post 1945? Or were they better off short and long term having been conquered and occupied with their governments reorganized and their societies transformed by the former?

          1. Japan’s state and army still existed, and an invasion of the home islands was expected to be costly enough we’re still issuing Purple Hearts created for the planned invasion. The outcome on a military level wasn’t in any serious doubt assuming the US (and USSR) had the political will to take those casualties, though, even before the atomic bombing.

          2. The Japanese did intend to fight while their army and state still existed. The decision to surrender was made later, when they were faced with the destruction of every single city with no power to respond. In that situation, clearly surrender would be the right alternative no matter how you expected the conqueror to treat you. But that isn’t the Ukrainian situation.

      3. Show me,
        give me a analysis and mathematic proof that this so with no exception.
        If not then you left the terrain of just war and went into advocating an unjust war

    4. > Does there exist a point where yes, the Ukrainian state should just give up for humanitarian reasons?

      The more general problem is that if you consider this point as valid, then you would surrender against sufficiently oppressive enemy.

      As result, it encourages enemies to be as oppressive as possible.

      I suspect that general human reaction to this “fuck you, I will take you down with me”.

      1. I think there is an argument here from Augustinus if the expected suffering is to great a cost, if you cannot expect to succeed than the ethical choice would be to surrender

      2. Generally, I think it’s valid if the humanitarian cost of fighting significantly outweighs the humanitarian cost of surrendering. This has been a factor throughout human history, and discussed in the series on fortification. The besieger would generally promise to treat the defenders and the civilians they were defending well if the defenders surrendered, while if the attacker had to storm the defenses they’d generally devastate the city in retaliation. Generally the attackers would keep their word in case of a surrender, because if they didn’t the next city would go down fighting. So it incentivizes maximizing the contrast between the two outcomes. For the defenders, it incentivizes being as hard a target as possible; the more time and casualties it would take the attackers to overwhelm them, the better a deal the attackers will offer.

        So if Russia a) plausibly threatened that if Kyiv resisted they’d burn it to the ground and slaughter the entire population, and b) plausibly promised that if Kyiv surrendered it’d be left unharmed and retain its government with a fair degree of independence, and Ukraine couldn’t hold Kyiv, a surrender would make sense.

        Since a) is bad, we have attempted to construct a system of norms backed by a combination of economic sanctions from third parties and a promise of reciprocity (we also won’t inflict more devastation than necessary) in which people do not intentionally target civilians, allow humanitarian aid, do not shoot medics, permit international observers to confirm compliance, and do not employ weapons or tactics that inflict excessively high collateral damage, restricting themselves to means that accomplish their objectives with as few casualties as possible. To further back these norms, we promise not to exploit them; hospitals are not targets and we will not use them for military purposes.

        This system is not as successful as we would like, which our host discusses in the chemical weapons post in collections.

        1. “plausibly promised that if Kyiv surrendered it’d be left unharmed ”

          What Russian government of the last century has kept a promise to treat people well?

          1. And here this highlights a strategic failure in recent Russian foreign policy. If no-one will trust you when you say you will leave places unharmed (for whatever degree of ‘unharmed’ is important to states and the population you’re coercing), people will fight tooth and nail believing that resistance is the better of two evils.

      3. > “The more general problem is that if you consider this point as valid, then you would surrender against sufficiently oppressive enemy.”

        No, it’s actually the opposite. If you expect the invader’s occupation to cause more suffering than the insurgency, then you would rationally choose insurgency.

        It encourages the invader to be less brutal in occupation and more brutal in fighting the protracted war. Which may or may not be a good thing. But I think that’s something worth analyzing instead of using knee-jerk reactions.

        As mentioned in another comment sibling to this one, basically all siege surrenders in history had to make this decision at one point. And some of them, from hindsight, clearly were not the best choices in terms of minimizing human suffering.

        A more concrete example: I think it is totally inhumane for the Ukrainian government to ban males 18-60 from seeking refuge in other countries. They’re forcing people to suffer for the benefit of the state against their will.

    5. I get your point, but I think part of the issue is in the murkiness of the future once you have surrendered and the risks in doing so. Early capitulation puts you entirely at the mercy of the faction you’re surrendering to, and trades away some of the few advantages you do have. In order for this to be a viable option you have to be thoroughly reassured that the victor will hold their word and not abuse their newfound power now that you’re defenceless, which boils down to reputation.

      I think it’s fair to say that the current Russian state, and the preceding Soviet Union, have not done very well at cultivating that sort of reputation among any of their neighbours.

  21. The political dimension of war does not get the attention it deserves. A precursor to the post WWII wars of liberation was the Irish war of independence. Sinn Fein was, of course, completely inferior to the forces of the British Empire, and Ireland is small and mostly open country. Michael Collins’ solution was to concentrate on intelligence – identify and neutralise British sources of information – and set up a shadow state, while using force and terror against the civil functionaries of the state. There were IRA courts, and IRA taxes, and IRA police, while police or tax collectors or judges sympathetic to the British were beaten up or forced to leave (and sometimes killed). The Jewish movement in Palestine took extensive notes – and many of Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories are directed at quashing any repeat.The point was to make it impossible to govern without extreme violence. In some ways the governments in exile in WWII (Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands) followed a similar course. How far this applies to the current situation is, of course, difficult to say, but it’s not hard to envisage a situation where a hostile Ukrainian populace makes Russian (or Russian puppet) governance ineffective.

    1. The post-Reconstruction (or “redeemer”) governments in the American South in some respects constitute another example of this sort of resistance. Still, I’m not sure that this kind of resistance works against a state which is not a liberal democracy.

      1. There are other factors. Britain was not only coping with the aftermath of WWI but wanted an end to Irish nationalist disruption of their domestic politics, so settled for the Free State. The Jewish movement had international sympathy and again a war-weary British state. Ukrainian resistance will have international sympathy, allies on its borders and the leverage of sanctions. Enough? Who knows?

  22. A perspective on the Russian home front: my ex is Russian, and of the generation whose brothers & boyfriends didn’t come back from Afghanistan. Her friends who are switched on & internationally connected are now (a) pissed off at losing their jobs, but understand that it’s the cost of doing business, but (b) terrified of the same thing happening to their sons.

    Her mother, otoh, doesn’t use the internet and still believes what she hears on TV, that the brave Russian boys are defending their compatriots in the Donbass from Ukrainian oppression.

  23. Re Turkish drones, it’s interesting to see Erdogan leaping on the opportunity to position himself as being on the side of the good guys – and gain an export sales bonanza for Turkish industry.

    Will Selçuk Bayraktar be the Mikhail Kalashnikov of the 21st century?

    1. Erdogan has been butting heads with Putin for quite a while, partially in Syria, and there was the entire Azerbajani/Armenian war where they backed different sides.

  24. One point you could have mentioned is the relative stakes for the different sides. Long wars are often necessary because it is simply impossible politically for one side to give way. To take two further examples, the Algerian War lasted so long because the French political and military class saw the loss of part of their national territory (as it than was) as an existential crisis so soon after 1940. Likewise, the Northern Ireland conflict lasted so long because the British simply could not “withdraw” as demanded because that would have provoked a civil war.
    By contrast, the war in Ukraine isn’t “about” anything, and the Ukrainian government has no real war aims. Presumably, the non-Russian speaking majority in Ukraine would like the Russians to go, but that’s about it. The current Russian assumption for the length of the campaign is fifteen days (ie we are half the way through) after which they will presumably spend a few weeks consolidating before leaving. I wouldn’t exclude a few nationalist fanatics from waging a guerrilla war against their own government for giving too much away in the inevitable peace negotiations, but that’s about it.

    The main Russian demands, that the country be neutral, that it shouldn’t act as a forward base for NATO, that the extreme nationalists be removed from government, and that the war against Russian separatists in the Donbass should be terminated, should not be controversial, given that Zelensky was elected on a platform of normalisation of relations with Russia, which would have included most of that. Which leads to a second point, that in considering the “long war” you have to look at who is in control of what. The Algerian War lasted as long as it did because the Army was largely in control on the ground, and towards the end began to be a separate political actor (they effectively overthrew the government own 1958). By contrast, the Portuguese colonial wars only ended after the military itself staged a coup in 1974. So in Ukraine, Zelensky, in spite of his good intentions, is clearly not the master in his own house. The extreme nationalists, with only very limited support in the country, are in very powerful positions in the administration, and their paramilitary units like the Azov Battalion (check out their flesh-crawling videos) are effectively outside government control. Moreover, OSCE monitors in the Donbass registered a sharp increase in artillery attacks against Russian-speaking areas in the last few days before the invasion. Whether this was a prelude to a major attack we don’t know, but it’s not rational that Zelensky would have ordered it at such a sensitive moment, so we must assume that part of the Army (if it was them) has its own agenda also, unless the attacks were carried out by the nationalists. Finally, of course, Zelensky has been egged on at every turn by the West, whose spokesmen and official talking heads are on record as hoping and intending that the Russians will be bogged down in a long war. That seems unlikely, but if it happens it will be an external power (in this case the West) which for totally irrational reasons wants the war to continue, rather than because either Ukrainians or Russians want it.

    1. > By contrast, the war in Ukraine isn’t “about” anything, and the Ukrainian government has no real war aims.

      [citation needed]

      The aim seems quite clear: get invading army where it belongs AKA not in Ukraine.

      > should not be controversial

      Have you missed the part of destruction of Ukraine as an independent state (“demilitarization”)? And implied plan for cultural destruction (see rant by Putin how Ukraine is a fake country)

    2. The Donbas Artillery strikes sound like a Russian false flag operation, what better way to justify seizing the oil reserves of Ukrain than protecting ethnic Russians? Not to mention Ukrain was only considering NATO because of growing Russian aggression and backing anti-government terrorists.

      Also the Ukrainian war is explicitly about Ukranian ethnic and national identity, which is a very big motivator.

    3. Yeah… national survival is generally considered a war goal. Practically war goal zero.

    4. So let me get this straight:

      The war to keep Algeria was *more* existential for the French military class, than the war to defend Ukraine is for the Ukrainian government?


    5. As someone noted in the last thread, it’s quite a compliment to Bret that Russian agents think his blog is important enough to be a forum for their propaganda efforts. (Or maybe it’s that they think we readers are of the American policy-making class. Sorry to disappoint, comrade.)

      1. The world would be a better place if the US policymaking class were reading Brets blog.

    6. Rational analysis is not allowed, vile Putin lackey—or do I mean running dog? /sarc

      I think the 15 day schedule is shot and they will be up to 20 at least. Clearly Russia hit tougher resistance in the first couple of days than was expected. Still Kyiv must be sweating that 65km long convoy.

      I am impressed by how fast the West has gotten the sanctions running. I imagine Moscow anticipated most of them but the speed must be surprising.

  25. With all the tanks and IFV’s Ukranian farmers have found abandoned in the fields It seems Russia has been having some serious logistic and moral issues at the front line. This would certainly have an effect in a war of wills as even professional soldiers need ammo and fuel to keep fighting.

    Also another good propoganda video for ukraine:

    It mocks several blunderous air-born assualts by Russian Paratroopers.

    1. Video itself appears to be russian propaganda video, with subtitles an Ukrainian mockery. What about sound? Is it russian original being mocked, or is it also replaced from the original?

      1. I asked also on YT: answer is that subtitles are mocking, audio+video are being mocked.

  26. Thanks for the article it was very insightful!! It is important to emphasize that asymmetrical warfare does not always work. History is littered with failed gurilla movements – The palestinians, Tamils, FARC . Also I don’t find law to be a useful concept when it comes to inter-nation conflict. There is no mutually held adjudicator that can enforce contracts. Was Japan delcaring war on USA any less “lawful” than the USA declaring war on IRAQ?

  27. When you talk about nuclear deterrence next week will you also give your thoughts on the insanity that is nuclear utilization target selection? Could systems like the Iron Dome in Israel get advanced enough to change the way countries look at traditional deterrence? Do you think a future great power war could see use of tactical nuclear weapons? It’s obvious that an all-out countervalue attack is suicide, and any nuclear attack on an enemy’s populace is almost guaranteed to escalate an exchange, which leads me to believe that even limited countervalue attacks would only be carried out by a country facing imminent regime change or otherwise left with nothing to lose. But what if a great power feels its deterrent nuclear force is in danger of being destroyed: might a limited tactical counterforce strike seem rational in the moment? In such a scenario, would it follow to go all-in on countervalue strikes in response?

  28. Am I the only one who thinks a decisive defeat of Russia ‘s invasion NOW would be better for all concerned than a protracted Resistance with it’s casualties and damage? Of course that would require a direct military confrontation between NATO, for which read US, and Russia which everybody on this side seems to agree must be avoided at all costs. No wonder Putin feels free to do as he likes.
    As you will all recall the run up to WWII involved a series of aggressions by Hitler and retreats by the other European nations who made it clear they would do anything, including throwing small nation states into Hitler’s maw to avoid war.
    Appeasement didn’t work. There’s no reason to believe it will work today. Contrary to my expectations sanctions do seem to be hurting Russia, a good start IMO but I doubt sanctions will win a war anymore than air power will. A negotiated peace with a determined expansionist also seems to me to be a mistake. Remember Chamberlain ‘s piece of paper that was supposed to guarantee Peace in our Time.
    Maybe I’m being led astray by my natural belligerence but it also seems to me that we’ve handed the initiative to Putin. We are reacting to him rather than making him react to us, isn’t that bad tactics?

    1. > Am I the only one who thinks a decisive defeat of Russia ‘s invasion NOW would be better for all concerned than a protracted Resistance with it’s casualties and damage?

      That would requires NATO intervention against Russia which raises risks of nuclear war.

      1. So? The nuclear deterrent is supposed to work both ways. You think Putin wants a full nuclear exchange? You think his supporters do? Why do we always back down?

        1. Well, we don’t always back down. For instance, Putin demanded NATO withdraw all forces in Eastern Europe and NATO just ignored him. Neither side wants a nuclear war, so they back down when they believe the other side would actually start one.

          1. We need to make Putin believe we will escalate if he uses nukes. Unfortunately I don’t think we can because we’ve already telegraphed submission.

          2. Almost nothing is more dangerous than the idea that if Our Leaders are Firm and Strong and Resolute, the enemy will back down rather than face our might. The last two World Wars both came out of that attitude; let’s not make it a hat trick.

          3. World war II was a consequence of WWI which was caused by German overreaching and treaty obligations. Hitler was encouraged and enabled by the repeated yielding of France and England to his demands. Weakness does not guarantee Peace. Far from it. Submission encourages further aggression.

        2. In principle, I agree. They had it coming. Putin, and the Putin Factory that is Russian Federation.

          We don’t have a proof he’s sane and rational anymore. He’s been recently watching the video with the last moments of Kaddafi(the Libyan dictator), over, over and over. His strategy is to stay in power until he dies, otherwise even Russian courts will get him. What if the speculations about ‘covid brain fog’ or ‘roid rage are true?

          Even sane people can be pushed to the extremes if they somehow rationalize it. No one is willing to increase the chance of a nuclear war based on a feeling. Or count on people next to him that refuse to hand him a nuclear suitcase. Sounds awful lot like Russian Roulette, or game theory.

      2. Your Judgement is based on typical american rightwing bias and hindsight but ignores the kontext and facts
        btw IIRC the US did less than France or GB

    2. No, i think the at least vast majority think it sould better never have been started

      Then please tell me with what forces should france and the UK stopped the Wehrmacht

      and while you`re at it how you would `ve justified to your people a war
      for reamarment, the remilitarization of the rhineland or the anschluss`?

      About a month after Hitler broke the treaty of munich
      the british under Chamberlain instituted the draft.

      And a hint
      In cause WWIII goes nuclear, the US will not be safe out of reach behind their oceans

      1. Maybe the forces they put in the field in 1939? Remember all they did was delay war.
        Huh? The Rhineland was a clear breech of treaty.
        Exactly.crawking to Hitler didn’t prevent war. It just let him get bigger before we took him on.
        I know that. I also know that Russia is not out of the reach of NATO or the US.

        1. The Brits had not the draft at this time,
          IIRC on the march to Norway a Unit od Royal Marines got their rifles short before going to sea.

          Yes it was a clear breach of a treaty,
          Was that treatyworth a war?
          could you justify that?

          1. Yes. That’s the whole point of treaties. We had a treaty to defend The Ukraine, it’s about deterring aggression. Sometimes you have to act or the deterrent doesn’t work. Or you can just surrender unconditionally and let the aggressor walk all over you.

          2. Roxanna,

            If you’re referring to the Budapest Memorandum, I believe we expressly didn’t promise to defend Ukraine (also, it’s not a treaty). According to Wikipedia, we promised to:

            Respect Belarusian, Kazakh and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in the existing borders.
            Refrain from the threat or the use of force against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.
            Refrain from using economic pressure on Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine to influence their politics.
            Seek immediate Security Council action to provide assistance to Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine if they “should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used”.
            Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Belarus, Kazakhstan or Ukraine.
            Consult with one another if questions arise regarding those commitments.

            Russia made similar promises, which it is clearly in breech of, but we did not promise to defend them. Unlike, say Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

    3. Because there’s a serious risk that could make things worse.

      To be clear, this is the detonation of one of Russia’s 46 most powerful missiles*, on what’s almost certainly one of their targets. Putin has placed his nuclear forces on alert to signal that yes, he will in fact go nuclear if NATO intervenes in a direct war, and that threat is credible. I am not by any means happy about that fact, but it exists and means NATO directly intervening is not on the table.

      However, Russiahas an equally good reason to avoid attacking NATO. That’s one of the US’s sub-launched tridents; they’ve got fourteen subs with twenty each.

      Our host is planning to cover this in more detail next week, but basically both sides believe, probably correctly, that if the other side is losing a conventional war, they will commence using nuclear weapons.Probably starting with a tactical nuclear weapon on forces in the field, but there’s a considerable probability this will turn into a strategic nuclear exchange. Does Putin believe the US might employ tactical nuclear weapons in defense of NATO? Well, we’ve got twenty tactical nukes sitting in Turkey for that very purpose, and there’s American troops in Estonia with more on the way. The Soviet Union believed this threat enough to not invade Europe despite general belief they could win a conventional war.

      *it’s 10 500-800 kiloton warheads, I’m treating it as one 5-megaton warhead because the casualties projection does not work for multiple detonations.

      1. Whoops, copied the same link three times. The latter two were supposed to be 2275kt on Moscow and 50kt on Kyiv

    4. Got a comment apparently locked in the filter, probably from the links to Nukemap, but to summarize Putin has essentially threatened to use nukes if NATO intervenes and this threat is credible. However, NATO has a standing threat to use nukes if they’re invaded and losing, and this threat is also credible. To make it more credible, NATO is increasing its garrisons in the countries bordering Ukraine.

    5. “it also seems to me that we’ve handed the initiative to Putin”

      – not really, no. We speak of avoidance of direct NATO vs. Russia conflict as if that was a new thing, but it’s not. The exact same considerations prevented major NATO vs. Warsaw Pact conflict ever since both sides accumulated enough nuclear weapons. In essence, the initiative has been dropped decades ago, and nobody dares pick it up.

      Mind you, it did not stop those two alliances competing through proxy wars, because they could both maintain plausible deniability of the “we’re not fighting each other, we’re just supporting someone fighting against someone supported by the other guys” sort. (I note that both Russia and NATO use the same cover now: one ostensibly supporting people’s republics, the other ostensibly supporting Ukraine.) But in reality these were all very much NATO vs. Warsaw Pact wars, in which both superpowers were happily egging on their local allies to fight the other superpower’s local allies to the last Angolan/Afghan/etc. War in Ukraine follows along the same lines, just close enough to Russia that it does not need to rely on local allies to do most of the fighting.

    6. Roxana: yes, I would prefer it if Putin was stopped in Ukraine. No, I don’t think that starting a shooting war between NATO and Russia is the way to do it. I’m getting increasingly concerned by the flood of people drawing one-to-one parallels between the late 1930s and the present situation, and using this simplistic comparison to advocate for war.

      First, the West’s current stance does not at all fit the definition of ‘appeasement’. At Munich in 1938, Western powers publicly consented to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in the hope that this goodwill gesture would satisfy Hitler’s ambitions. In 2022, the West has vocally condemned all of Putin’s actions, flooded Ukraine with weapons, chucked Russia out of every major sporting and cultural event worldwide, and unleashed economic sanctions so severe that the Moscow Stock Exchange dare not even open lest it collapse entirely. To pretend that anything short of actual war is ‘backing down’ is a misguided false dichotomy.

      Second, the claim that we must fight Putin now in Ukraine or end up fighting him later closer to home rests on a whole pile of unproven assumptions. Given that (on preliminary evidence) the present war looks like it’s going to be extremely costly for Russia and may even end in defeat, it’s not clear that Moscow will have the means to march on westwards afterwards. Furthermore, do we even know that it is planning to? I’m not naive about Putin; clearly he’s a monster who’s willing to do terrible things for power. But some people seem to be assuming that just because there are certain similarities between his behaviour and Hitler’s (i.e. they are both autocrats who have launched campaigns of armed revanchism), Putin must therefore also have inherited a Hitlerian desire for world domination at any cost. Putin is a belligerent national chauvinist, but even if you take his most bombastic speeches at their word, he’s never given any indication that he regards Russians as a master race whose conquest and extermination of lesser peoples is inevitable. Is averting a hypothetical future conflict worth starting WW3 right now?

      Third, as others have already pointed out, in 1938 there was no danger of civilisation-ending nuclear annihilation. Note that I’m not saying that because Russia has nukes we must give in to its every demand; we should be steadfast in refusing to give up on Ukraine, and make clear our willingness to defend NATO territory. However, there are ways to responsibly manage confrontations with a hostile nuclear power, and they involve laying down clear red lines in advance, communicating clearly, and avoiding situations where escalation could easily spiral out of control. Publicly ruling out military intervention, and then suddenly changing our minds and going in guns blazing, would be pretty much a textbook example of how NOT to go about this. It’s true that Putin probably doesn’t want a full nuclear exchange any more than we do, but in the chaotic environment of a missile war where a moment’s hesitation could have massive consequences, there are plenty of scenarios in which panicked decisions or faulty second-guessing could accidentally cause Armageddon.

      Finally, I’ll just note that historians really need to fight hard against the temptation to say ‘this situation has a few similarities with historical event X, so whatever solution worked back then must be the right one now’. Wars are not science experiments where all complicating variables have been stripped away to allow neatly replicable results. So look at WW2 for parallels, yes, but also consider the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq War, and a hundred other conflicts…. and don’t forget to consider all the many, many factors that make the present crisis unique and unpredictable. There is something nightmarish in the way that Hitler’s legacy so overshadows us that we seem to be incapable of encountering any enemy without seeing them as the Führer reborn (this is as true of the Russians as it is of the West; hence the Kremlin’s fixation on ‘denazifying’ Ukraine and evoking the spirit of the Great Patriotic War). It would be a hideous irony if, by allowing their obsession with exorcising his ghost to lead them into mutual obliteration, the Allied powers gave Hitler the last laugh after all.

      1. Putin may not be after world domination but he is certainly after recreating the Russian empire. Is this something we want? Will we sacrifice the Baltic states , Georgia and so on?

        1. The Baltic states are part of NATO; they are covered by our existing security guarantees, and we already have troops stationed there. If we make clear in advance that we have the means and will to defend them, then I believe that Putin – who is presumably recalibrating his assumptions about Western ‘decadence’ following the unified response to his attack and European rearmament – will be deterred from making a move. Georgia is a more difficult case. For now, I believe the best thing we can do is to make the Ukrainian war as painful an experience for Putin as possible, so that Russia’s capacity and appetite for further aggression is curtailed. If, despite this, he goes on to make threats against Georgia, at that time we will have to make a decision about whether to commit ourselves to its defence.

          I get that these are hard choices, and the logic is at times paradoxical. Ultimately, on some level, successful deterrence of a nuclear-armed opponent requires them to believe that there are circumstances in which we will use our own weapons, even though there are basically no scenarios in which it would be worth it. However, the responsible way to frame those threats involves clearly-delineated commitments, advance warnings, and projecting consistent resolve. Blundering into a war at the first opportunity, in contradiction of what we said a week ago, is not the way to go.

          1. I’d repeat one thing from my previous comments: Please, do not assume that being in NATO makes you 100% save from Russia. Of course, you probably avoid direct war which is nice, but there are other ways: for example, there is significant Russian minority in Lithuania. Will NATO intervene in apparently local riots in Baltic countries? I think there could be situations it won’t.

          2. Adam Obuchowicz
            <<<Will NATO intervene in apparently local riots in Baltic countries? I think there could be situations it won’t.<<<

            I think that would be the Mission of EU police forces

        2. Or even Finland, which was once part of the Tsar’s empire and which Stalin attempted to reconquer along with the Baltics and eastern Poland. Nor is revanchist imperialism Putin’s only plausible goal. It’s been claimed that economics is the ultimate cause of all war; in this case it could be a desire for the modern version of plunder: installing pro-Russian cronies who will expand what might be termed authoritarian kleptocracy, the spoils system that keeps Putin and his allies rich and in power.

  29. Do the borders with supportive countries to the west of Ukraine, such as Poland, act as mountainous impenetrable terrain for the purpose of the long war or are they an entirely different thing?

    1. For the NATO countries, that basically depends on whether they’re willing to host the Ukrainian resistance. I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t try very hard to crack down on it, somewhat less sure they’d station Patriot batteries around a compound flying the Ukrainian flag. The Taliban used Pakistan in that manner to great effect; while Pakistan was opposed to the Taliban they weren’t willing to let US ground forces in* (they did host drone bases but I’m not sure they struck within Pakistan) and were not particularly successful in rooting out the Taliban themselves.

      *The Bin Laden raid occurred without their official permission and they were not particularly happy about it, at least in public.

    2. It was briefly considered to let Ukrainian pilots to use Polish airfields (when there was talk about giving Ukraine 70 fighter planes from Poland+Slovakia+Bulgaria). Polish president said they decided against it.

      No reason was given, but it’s easy to see why. If fighter jets started in Poland and attacked Russian targets, it would be obvious to shoot Polish airfields.

      1. I’m pretty sure that if – say – Poland lets the Ukrainian airforce fly missions from Poland, by the conventions of war that makes Poland a party to the war and a legitimate target for Russian attacks. F. x. Russia would be justified in attacking those airfields – or indeed anything else to degrade the Polish ability to wage war. Furthermore, since Poland would’ve taken the first aggressive action (supporting sorties against Russia), Russia striking back would technically not oblige NATO members to respond (though of course, nothing says they wouldn’t either).

        Basically I’m agreeing with you.

  30. At the risk of sounding facetious:

    Russia: Aggressive Expansion is just a number. I declare War with no Casus Belli on Ukraine.

    All Europe and most major nations beyond: Embargo.
    All Europe and most major nations beyond: Subsidies to Ukraine.
    All Europe and most major nations beyond: Sow discontent.
    All Europe and most major nations beyond: Sabotage Reputation.
    NATO: Form Coalition against Russian aggression.

    Russia: I saw that going differently in my mind. (

    1. I actually think “Putin playing EU4 irl” is a great analytical model.

      It explains why he’s willing to do something that might have negative expected strategic value.

      Because if this were a game, the player controlling Russia would try this risky strategy multiple times and save-scum whenever he fails. The reasoning is that the entire EU4 campaign would be nearly unplayable if you don’t take that first step of annexing Ukraine.

      Of course there is no save-scumming irl, but then you must realize that save-scumming is only a mindset. For some people, it manifests as the “do, or die trying” mentality. Putin and the oligarchs might be of the mindset that yes, taking such risks might backfire, but if they do nothing then the Russian empire will erode anyway, so might as well give it a try. Basically, as soon as you get into the mindset of empire-building (such as in an EU4 game), the invasion makes sense.

      1. I think Putin and whatever advisors he listens to had fully bought into a theory that says “the West is in terminal decline” and figured this might be the final kick to cause the whole rotten edifice to collapse.

        Only it didn’t turn out that way. If you’d asked me two weeks ago if the West would’ve reacted as it did I would’ve thought you were excessively optimistic. Yet here we are.

      2. Never played any of those Paradox games, but Civilization 2 is the similar analogy I thought of. the invasion feels kind of like a game where I build a ton of units and attack whoever is nearby because my cities have built most of what they can and I want to control the continent. Fighting style looks similar also, just send units at cities until they run out, and keep building more. (Civ 2 military tactics weren’t all that complicated so this is about what you could do) “Conquer stuff because there isn’t much else exciting to do” could well be what Putin is thinking, even though in real life there are a lot of exciting things to do and actual combat is a lot more destructive than some icons in a map.

  31. I admit that I was quite jarred by Mao getting quoted as an expert on some topic.

    It was like getting otherwise good article, with Hitler being repeatedly credited as expert on something.

    1. I didn’t get the sense he was crediting Mao, more that he started from there as the background. Brett pointed out pretty clearly that Mao didn’t originate the full framework, that reality even in China differed significantly from his theory, etc.

    2. I also have a footnote (It’s footnote 2) where I address this point pretty explicitly.

      Mao was a terrible human being. But for the reasons outlined here, his thinking on this kind of warfare has been incredibly formative in how protracted wars are waged.

      It is unfortunately the case that not all good ideas are had by good people and not all terrible people only have terrible ideas.

      1. At least part of my suprise was because I was unaware that Mao succeeded at anything worth doing.

        1. I tend to leave the judgement to those most affected. From my acquaintance, there is a good deal of respect for Mao in China (‘he united the country’; ‘he expelled the foreigners’; he started us on the road to modernity’), along with ‘he made some big mistakes’. Odd to me, but if you see the issue as a contrast between Mao and Chiang, most Chinese seem to go for Mao.

          1. Well, those most affected are dead. If Hitler had defeated Stalin and had the wit not to declare war on the US, how might he be remembered today by the German-speaking inhabitants of the northern European continent?

          2. Well most Chinese today have been subjected to a lifetime of propaganda as to the effectiveness and importance of Mao… so yeah, many take that point of view. And those who don’t – and there are many, I know a fair number personally – don’t always express that opinion widely for a variety of reasons.

          3. “Odd to me, but if you see the issue as a contrast between Mao and Chiang, most Chinese seem to go for Mao.”

            Starting with the admission and acknowledgement that Mao was absolutely awful, it still isn’t hard to be better than Chiang.

          4. Chiang did nothing like the Great Leap Forward or the cultural revolution. It is hard to claim that Chiang was worse than Mao. If Mao had died in 1956, he would have, but not as it turned out. Also, compare the province held by Chiang and his successors (Taiwan), and compare its history the last 70 years with the Peoples Republic

          5. Trying to reply to Micael Gustavsson, but the nesting doesn’t seem to allow for a direct reply.

            The lesser level of damage that Chiang did relative to Mao had absolutely nothing to do with will or levels of acceptable brutality in governance and a lot to do with Chiang having a far less capable and organized political apparatus to work through. And he still managed to very directly kill millions of his own people while at it. Chiang absolutely tried to do things similar to the Cultural Revolution with his 1925 purges at Whampoa, the White Terror of 1927, encouraging the activities of the Blue Shirts. The 1943 grain confiscations have clear parallels to what Stalin was doing in Ukraine during the Holodomor.

            Chiang was, for all effective purposes, a Fascist of a style very similar to Mussolini. His differences from Mao had a lot to do with overall levels of competence, not anything about his will or respecting of political norms. And at least Mao could destroy oppositional political forces. Chiang did stuff like the Central Plains War and somehow managed to fail to break the power bases of the Guangxi Clique even after defeating their armies in battle. My read on a alternate world where Chiang somehow defeats Mao is one where low level civil war goes on in China even as he “rules”, and collapses back into a Warlord Period after his death. Which is probably worse than what Mao did, with the acknowledgement that Mao’s reign was truly disastrous.

            Also, Chiang’s rule in Taiwan was awful. The White Terror was continued, and managed to kill a bit over 1% of the Taiwanese population by 1954. Taiwan only started doing well after he died.

          6. Adam is right in the above comments. If Chiang didn’t commit any Great Leap Forwards, it was only because he was not in a position to do so. Of the many things he did do, I think this one hasn’t been mentioned yet: he intentionally broke the dikes on the Yellow River to try to stall the Japanese invasion, knowing it would cause civilian casualties. Between half a million to a million died directly due to the flood. Who knows how many died from longer term effects such as being displaced and homeless during a war.


          7. Thanks for for thoughtful and informed counter arguments regarding Mao and Chiang from both of you. I will consider them.

      2. I think this sidesteps the issue a little bit. Military doctrine and strategic choices don’t exist in vacuum. As you have written in previous blog posts, the way a country fights their war reflects their peacetime society. So consider this doctrine built on “will”. Guess who also built their ideology on such idea? Mao didn’t have monopoly on the extreme doctrinal focus on “triumph of the will”.

        And it can be questioned if it is a good idea to engage and try win a protracted war, or credit all the ways a weaker party may attempt fight a stronger military opponent to Mao and his framework.

        For example, the description of the mobile phase reminds me of how Finland defended against Soviet Union in Winter War 1939-1940: take advantage of terrain; use light mobile troops to attack the enemy flanks, and if the opportunity arises, encircle the enemy; in general, disrupt their logistics. I am very skeptical Finnish officers knew who Mao was nor had read his work written in 1938. And the framework doesn’t exactly match, either. It was more of combination of positional and mobile war. Moreover, modern system of mechanized/motorized warfare is more “mobile” than “positional” than WW2 era warfare, and it is without question that both Ukraine and Russia fight a modern war, not WW2. (No horse-based logistics.)

        But more importantly, Finnish Winter War was not followed a guerilla campaign or “people’s war”. Finland sued for peace when it became apparent they wouldn’t soon have ability to wage conventional war against USSR and international situation provided a diplomatic opening.

        Of course, Ukraine 2022 is not the same situation than Finland did in 1939, but it quite callous to pretend the only framework worth looking at is Mao’s playbook, because the one thing that stands out from your description of Maoist warfare is not trading space for time, it is trading people for time.

        1. P.S. Some analysts have described the initial phase Russian campaign as it unfolded a Russian attempt to wage an American war (like Gulf War), but forgetting they don’t have the US air power, military-industrial complex nor compatible doctrine.

          It is equally maddening to observe Western pundits in turn try to encourage Ukraine to fight their war as per the American interpretation of the US enemies’ strategy during the Cold War, forgetting that here in the West, we are supposedly duty-bound to international law and ethical standards written for protection of non-combatants.

          When Mao wrote his treatise, it was his own countrymen whose lives he intended to sacrifice; Americans’ seem to be already cheering for sacrificing the lives of some other foreign people in an insurgency that has not even begun yet. (According to all indications, the Ukrainian military is still an organized, conventional fighting force.)

  32. Putin’s maneuver here also seems similar to the Bay of Pigs invasion. Both were invasions of nearby, weaker countries to prevent them from joining a rival geopolitical sphere after a popular uprising. Both were driven by kleptocrats trying to reclaim their old spoils, and a popular “we will be hailed as liberators” myth. Both almost immediately stepped on logistics rakes. Both backfired catastrophically, uniting the region against the aggressor nation and driving the defending nation closer to the aggressor’s enemies.

    So what allowed Kennedy’s America to abandon the invasion when things when south, while everyone basically agreed Putin was doomed to double down after the blitz fell apart? Is it that Kennedy could tell the mob and the Batistists to kick rocks, while Putin is more enmeshed in his own organized crime and oligarchy? Is it that the costs of invading as a republic were much higher, so Putin can silence domestic disapproval that would have doomed Kennedy? Is Putin just too much of a egotistical thug to admit failure, while Kennedy was simply a more competent statesman?

    1. Scale and commitment are different here. Bay of Pigs was 1,500 strong, relatively few of whom were U.S. government personnel, making it politically possible for Kennedy to back off of the operation once it was clear it was going to fail without being accused of abandoning U.S. troops.

      Putin, by contrast, has committed the bulk of his standing combat formations and a large number of conscripts (total Russian strength committed approaches 200,000) and announced the invasion himself. There’s no deniability, so he takes all of the political blowback of failure.

      Kennedy gambled his pocket-change and lost it. Putin gambled the mortgage – he can’t afford to fold.

    2. Here is where the American form of government. The Bay of Pigs was an Eisenhower project that Kennedy inherited, so he had no attachment to it at all beyond humoring the career military and CIA officers backing it.

    3. “Both were invasions of nearby, weaker countries to prevent them from joining a rival geopolitical sphere after a popular uprising. Both were driven by kleptocrats trying to reclaim their old spoils, and a popular “we will be hailed as liberators” myth. Both almost immediately stepped on logistics rakes. Both backfired catastrophically, uniting the region against the aggressor nation and driving the defending nation closer to the aggressor’s enemies.”

      I hardly know where to begin with this farrago.of factual codswallop save that to observe that it could only emerge from whatever college dorm still hangs up Che posters.

  33. Bret, I have not yet begun to try to read the rapidly increasing number of comments, and you may have done some editing in the meanwhile. But here is a list of what I noticed as I red through this post:

    ideas there are a singular > there as a
    Moreover, Mao’s side lacks > lacked
    Mao understands … he imagines will happen … [odd change in tense]
    and also consisting of > and also as consisting
    face violence reprisals > violent
    Nationalists of the Imperial > or the
    facing a different . . . facing either France > [2 facings is confusing…could you edit for clarity?]
    in the United States at the Viet Cong > as the
    a more expensive bibliography > expansive
    or at least limiting the > at least what limiting
    While the Ukraine has done > [delete article the]
    war is exactly is the attention > [delete first instance of
    core is in turn going to in turn pose > [delete one instance of in turn]

  34. I apologize if this ends up as a double post, but my first attempt appears to have been eaten, maybe by the volume of traffic.

    Bret, I have not yet begun to try to read all the responses, but here is my belated list of possible edits for your post.

    ideas there are a singular > there as a
    Moreover, Mao’s side lacks > lacked
    Mao understands … he imagines will happen … [odd switch in tenses?]
    and also consisting of > and also as consisting
    face violence reprisals > violent
    Nationalists of the Imperial > or the
    facing a different . . . facing either France > [2 facings is confusing…could you edit for clarity?]
    in the United States at the Viet Cong > as the
    a more expensive bibliography > expansive
    or at least limiting the > at least what limiting
    While the Ukraine has done > [delete article the]
    war is exactly is the attention > [delete first instance of
    core is in turn going to in turn pose > [delete one instance of in turn]

  35. Has there ever been an insurgency with an ample supply of man-portable infrared homing missiles? The Javelin, as a fire-and-forget weapon, seems like a huge improvement from an insurgents’ point of view over the TOW, a guided weapon, because you could hide immediately after the missile leaves the launcher. And the TOW itself already had a massive advantage in effective range over unguided rockets like the RPG-7, a more traditional staple of late 20th century insurgencies. ISIS reportedly captured some TOWs but I’ve never heard of any evidence of such weapons—much Javelins or their Russian/Chinese analogs—from being deliberately provided to insurgents.

    All that has me wondering if this conflict could play out a bit differently than past insurgencies, in ways very unfavorable to Russia. (Not that we haven’t already had some significant surprises in terms of Russian incompetence.)

    1. It probably means the guerillas can kill more tanks, so Russia probably uses tactics that rely less on tanks, more on dismounted infantry. I don’t think it changes the overall strategic picture much.

      1. But it’s not just tanks, it’s light armor, artillery, etc. Sure it’s an expensive way to kill an armored car but with Russia’s economy cratering and Ukraine getting backing from the wealthiest nation on the planet, that’s tolerable. That means Russia isn’t just “relying less on tanks”, it means your entire army is moving via utility vehicles not intended to go anywhere near a real fight.

        (Also, in my first comment I should have said infrared homing missiles *designed to attack ground targets*. I know about the Stinger but IIUC its guidance system isn’t designed to track anything on the ground, and the warhead is definitely too wimpy to penetrate even light armor.)

        1. It probably means Russian infantry deploys from their vehicles further away from where they’re going and Ukraine is able to ambush them more often and more successfully. But I don’t think it fundamentally alters the nature of the conflict, it’s just a way the international support is manifesting. While probably better than TOWs, if the international community sent enough TOWs the Ukrainians could effectively deny Russian armored operations in areas with concealed firing positions.

          1. Having lots of fire-and-forget antitank missiles against an enemy that relies heavily on their advantage in fighting vehicles, while also having those vehicles spend a lot of time bogged down due to maintenance and fuel supply problems… It doesn’t necessary prevent a protracted war from turning into a “war of wills,” but it does make it much more costly for the enemy to fight their way forward in ‘Phase I’ of the protracted war, possibly to the point where they start running out of equipment and firepower before driving you back to remote fastnesses

            There comes a point at which your guerilla warfare tactics are so effective that the enemy can’t actually overrun and occupy your territory, because they never manage to settle things down and set up a civilian administration, the convoys never stop getting ambushed, and the losses of heavy equipment keep racking up, forcing them to fight your soldiers rifle-to-rifle, which is much, much more favorable than the usual sort of fighting you see in a protracted war.

      2. It changes things significantly if formerly it was a force of armor and mechanized infantry vs. foot infantry/partisans, and now it’s foot soldiers vs. foot soldiers. Similarly “death from the sky” has been devastating to ground forces as far back as the Spanish Civil War; the ability of MANPADs to reduce the threat to infantry is a game changer. Especially in a war where the attacker may regard his infantry as cannon fodder but losing expensive and difficult to replace air and armor hurts.

  36. Our host be covering nuclear deterrence next week, but in this case the problem is basically that Putin totally knows that if he goes nuclear we probably escalate, but maybe he destroys an armored division with a nuke and we make peace as long as he keeps his demands limited. And losing a conventional war with NATO has high odds of him ending up dead; even if NATO stops at the borders of Ukraine he’s going to be very unpopular with his people and his army, and he’s reportedly repeatedly watched video from Libya of what happens when you’re a dictator who is unpopular with your people and your army. Then there’s the possibility some radar system in Russia malfunctions and someone bursts in the door in the middle of the night to tell Putin there’s ICBMs inbound on Moscow, they strike in ten minutes, the nuclear forces are ready, do we fire? DO WE FIRE? Same for Biden. Note that a radar system reporting nonexistent ICBMs inbound has happened on multiple occasions.

    Ultimately, the problem is that I’m pretty sure at this point we can’t convince Putin we’re willing to risk a nuclear war over Ukraine without actually risking a nuclear war over Ukraine. If we do anything short of sending the 101st airborne to relieve Kyiv, he probably thinks we’re bluffing, at least about being willing to escalate. But we’re not signaling submission regarding Europe as a whole; we’re signaling we’ll risk nuclear war over NATO countries by sending reinforcements. We wouldn’t open the war using nukes, but if events spiraled in Putin’s favor we might.

    In theory we could have deployed enough troops into Ukraine to make Putin believe we’d commit to a conventional war, and probably retaliate if he makes it a nuclear one. I’m not sure it would have been possible to get the necessary public and legislative support to do that, and it’d have been dicey because Putin might think it was preparations for an attack. He lied about his preparations, he might think we were lying about ours.

  37. Why hasn’t this strategy allowed the Palestinians to escape from Israeli oppression so far?

    1. Because Israeli will remains intact, in part because of the perceived existential nature of the threat. For Israelis who believe that the end goal of the Palestinians is the destruction of the Israeli state (or something amounting to that), that maximal objective justifies Israeli persistence. The bigger your demands, the harder this strategy is to accomplish. Imagine how much more Ukraine would need to do if their goal was, say, regime change in Moscow (it isn’t) compared to the easier objective of “get the Russians out of our country.”

      In practice, I think that the Palestinians at times have not been realistic about the goals they could achieve and have sacrificed the possible in pursuit of the impossible. That is not a defense of Israeli policy, of course, which has its own flaws in my view.

      1. Right, blame it on the Palestinians. I find it odd how your positions on modern politics always seem to coincidentally align with the mainstream US foreign policy establishment (and the lobbies which influence them). Now Israel “must” occupy the West Bank and put Gaza under perpetual siege because of its “existential threat”, despite Israel’s overwhelming preponderance in military might? I didn’t know olive farmers inspired such fear!

        The whole talking point about Palestinians seeking the “destruction of the Israeli state” is the standard excuse of cherry-picking the views of a small minority of hardliners (who are not even in control) and using that to justify the oppression of the entire Palestinian populace. I expected better from you, Bret.

        Israel has been unwilling to countenance the formation of ANY viable Palestinian state. Total Palestinian demilitarization used to be Israel’s opening demand (along with Israeli control of Palestinian airspace), although nowadays it is unwilling to stop there. Whose demands are unrealistic?

        If Israel were interested in a sustainable peace, then why would it be continuing to expand settlements in Palestinian land? Does this placement of settlers directly into Palestinian land improve Israel’s security situation and mitigate this “existential threat”? A threat which (conveniently) requires ethnic cleansing to resolve? Palestinians asking for equal treatment as human beings is “not realistic”?

        In any case, we can easily turn this reasoning around to conclude that this protracted strategy will in fact do Ukraine no good. Russia does regard the expansion of NATO as an existential threat. This has been articulated by every single Russian leader since Gorbachev. Putin has carefully mentioned it to every US leader for 25 years. That you dismissed this belief without carefully studying it is foolish, but also irrelevant; the Russians decide what constitutes an existential threat for them, and they have been very consistent about what their red lines are. In the face of this, the US demand that NATO be allowed to expand more is unrealistic.

        You are making the same mistake that you attribute to the Russians: underestimating the resolve of your foe.

        1. As for Russia and its risks – I did not say that Russian fear of NATO was non-existent, I said that it did not explain the maximalist aims Putin has. If his fear was NATO expansion, simply holding the Donbas achieved the goal of preventing that, as NATO will not admit a member-state with an active territorial dispute, neither will the EU (though Putin’s own blunder here may have changed that latter calculus, but EU candidacy is not EU membership – ask the Turks).

          But a country’s red lines and what they can actually achieve are different. Communist expansion in South-East Asia was an American redline and a communist Cuba was once regarded as an existential threat, but in the event the ability and will to prevent those outcomes did not exist. I do not doubt the existence of Putin’s red line, but his ability to enforce it is a different matter. He appears to be in the process of demonstrating that enforcing that red line comes with crippling, unsustainable costs for Russia. And remember this part – the big, sweeping overland campaign to seize cities – this may well be the *easy* part for Putin, compared to facing continued Ukrainian resistance *if* he overruns the country.

          So I have a moral view here – democracy is good, Ukraine should be able to decide what alliances it is in, Putin is bad. And then I have a separate rational calculation I am doing. That rational calculation is increasingly shifting towards the conclusion that Putin has blundered in Ukraine on a colossal scale of the sort that books will be written and classes taught on.

          As for Israel/Palestine:

          I don’t have a ‘foe’ in the Israel-Palestine conflict. I am trying to be realistic about what routes remain to try to end the conflict.

          It is the case that the Palestinians have not managed to achieve their objectives. Instead, since the early 1990s, their position – in terms of international support and also the concrete opportunities to achieve their political objectives – have gotten materially worse. Efforts to use force to improve that position have largely backfired, in particular with the shift to ‘rocket war’ in 2006 and beyond seeming to harden rather than degrade Israeli resolve and alienate rather than appeal to the international community.

          Yes it is, of course, also the case that Israel has shifted to pursuing a more maximalist set of objectives which are likely to prolong the conflict. I think that is bad, because of the human cost involved, but as a pure calculation Israel stands a good chance now of achieving their goals. It is possible to regard an actor’s actions as morally wrong but also likely to succeed and that it how I view the current Israeli strategy around settlements. Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons functionally precludes intervention against them by any of the regional powers. Sanctions and economic isolation are unlikely to convince Israel to abolish itself (but might force lesser concessions) but would require the Palestinians to galvanize world opinion, a thing you generally cannot do while one of your leadership elements (Hamas in Gaza) occasionally lobs unguided rockets at civilian centers.

          It’s important here sometimes to separate the moral element (what I want to happen) from the rational or logical calculation. In the rational calculation, the Palestinian bargaining position was much stronger in the 1990s and is now much, much weaker: they are less able to inflict real damage, the damage they can inflict comes with higher political costs, and they have fewer friends and allies. In that context, it is hard not to see the refusal to accept the deal offered by Israel in 2000 (or make literally any counter-offer at all) as a tremendous blunder. It is a blunder that, as blunders of that magnitude are want in international politics, appears to have cost the Palestinians their state, possibly for a very long time.

          That doesn’t make me happy, far from it. It means continued tension and conflict. But that’s my read of the situation as a pure calculation. I’m not going to tell you I think the Palestinians are likely to succeed just to make you feel better; they’re not likely to succeed, they have made substantial strategic errors and at the present moment it looks like those errors will cost them dearly. The weaker side cannot usually afford to make so many mistakes.

          1. Honestly you’re embarrassing. yourself re: Palestine. Your “just stating the facts” pose is exactly the same rhetorical strategy Putin apologists are using right now to argue Ukraine and the west more generally should roll over in the face of Russian aggression. You can say that it is “utterly backwards to suggest that Ukraine ought to just roll over so that Russia does not commit war crimes and human rights violations”, or you could hold that Palestinians should have let Israel have a little illegal annexation as a treat in exchange for not adding further war-crimes to the several decades worth of war crimes they’d already committed at that point, but you can’t have it both ways.

          2. Re. Cuba, the whole Missile Crisis was over the fact that Cuba _had_ become an existential threat, not only to the USA but also potentially as a base from which military forces could support positional war against the governments of Latin America. The backchannel deal was that the USA would not try to invade and conquer Cuba if Cuba never again hosted strategic assets of the Soviet Union. This deescalated the situation to a contest of attempted assassination versus Cuban support for guerilla wars. From the USA point of view it helped that Cuba did not share a land border with the rest of Latin America, reducing its potential to be the “North Vietnam” of central America. Long story short, Cuba was an existential risk until steps were taken to remedy that.

            Re. Palestine, I’ve sometimes speculated that the whole Palestinian struggle has become institutionalized: the leaders have no realistic plan to ever restore what they consider to be the proper full boundaries of Palestine, so they’ve settled for a state of permanent enmity- in effect vowing to remain in Stage 1 forever rather than make peace with “the Zionist Entity”.

          3. Michael, you’re missing a key part of the backchannel deal which was that the US would remove its missiles from Turkey, which were Khrushchev’s original inspiration for putting missiles in Cuba in the first place. In any case, the Bay of Pigs is what convinced Castro to accept the missiles; it was not motivated by fear of nuclear missiles in Cuba!

          4. Correct me if I’m mistaken but I’d always heard that removing missiles from Turkey was more of a face-saving sop than an actual strategic concession, because they were obsolete and in any event replaceable by Thor IRBMs based in Britain and by US ICBMs and missile subs. To the extent it was a strategic concession it was an informal agreement not to have minimum-warning time weapons aimed at each other, which both agreed were destabilizing.

            As far as Cuba goes, the argument could be made that Bay of Pigs was more a case of the US believing it could remove Castro via longstanding practice in “Banana Republic” intervention; and that it was only after that that Cuba became viewed as an existential threat. When the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, some analysts posited that the entire Cuban revolution had been a Soviet plan from the beginning to gain forward missile bases. This belief in a monolithic conspiratorial global Marxist agenda was responsible for a lot of USA strategy failure.

          5. In fact, I think you are not separating the moral and the rational aspects of this discussion as well as you believe you are. And I think this is part of what is leading you to incorrect rational calculations.

            By “foe” I am referring to Russia, not Israel/Palestine. I will set aside Israel/Palestine for a separate post and consider here just the situation in Ukraine. I will also set aside moral considerations and attempt a rational analysis.

            First, some terminology. Your use of the phrase “redline” is clearly out of sync with mine. There is no rational basis to believe that communist governments in SE Asia threatened the existence of the US. Similarly, Cuba had no capacity to threaten the US and everyone knew it. The fact that the US pulled out of SE Asia due to domestic public opposition and gave up on overthrowing Cuba after a few desultory attempts demonstrates that neither were, in fact, actual red lines. The US was clearly capable of investing much more military might if it desired.

            These examples are more accurately described as instances of geopolitical expansion. The US was trying to strengthen its geopolitical position relative to the USSR by pulling nations into its sphere of influence, or at least keeping them out of the Soviet one. This has been labeled “containment”. But the evidence suggests that the US would do this even if it already dominated most of the globe (see 1992 draft Defense Planning Guidance).

            So the US position in both SE Asia and Cuba was actually one of global strength rather than weakness. To call them red lines would be like calling Afghanistan a red line, or a (hypothetical) failure to bring Poland into NATO an American red line. These are not serious lines, and everybody knows it.

            The actual US red line was a nuclear-armed Cuba. Here the US response was dramatically different, and there were no signs of it being willing to back down until the missiles in Cuba had been removed. This is a far better example of what I term an “existential threat”, with the US reacting accordingly.

            We can expect a similar reaction if, say, Canada or Mexico made serious moves to ally themselves with China and open the possibility of a permanent Chinese military presence in North America. If the standard US assortment of sticks and carrots (including inciting a coup attempt) failed to arrest such a development, then I believe a US invasion of these countries would not be inconceivable. This is already explicitly outlined in what we call the “Monroe Doctrine” and its follow-up “Roosevelt Corollary”.

            Note that neither one of these policies is in any way remotely morally justifiable; they ruthlessly trample over the rights of Canadians or Mexicans (or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere) to choose their own path and ally with whoever they please. So be it. The US plainly does not recognize such rights when it conflicts with the (actual) red lines America sets for its own security.

            (I should add that, in practice, I believe the US today can reconcile itself with some hostile-aligned nations in South America. But Canada or Mexico is definitely out of the question.)

            Ukraine is to Russia what Canada or Mexico is to the US. It is an actual red line, meaning an existential threat.

            I think your undue emphasis on Putin has clouded your perception of this issue. He may call the shots today, but he did not invent this view. As I mentioned, every single Russian leader since the end of the Cold War has felt this way. The majority of the Russian political establishment feels this way. Much of the Russian populace who remember the 1990s feel their country was deliberately preyed upon by the US back then, and regard the US government (not necessarily individual Americans) as a mortal enemy. Even if Putin were replaced by another leader tomorrow, I believe that Russia would continue to hold this red line.

            Nations confronted with existential threats typically don’t lack for will. The Ukrainians certainly have it. But the Russians have it as well; they have been accumulating this will for three decades, as NATO has gradually approached closer and closer. The entire strategy of protracted war relies upon the idea of outlasting your enemy in terms of “will” (which is basically a euphemism for sacrificing the lives of your own, but I digress). This is why it works so well on the US in distant locations of the globe; these are not truly core American interests, and it shows in the way the US behaves there.

            But when both sides are full of resolve, the side with military preponderance will most likely win out. In this case, the only thing that a strategy of protracted war will accomplish is to drag the conflict out with horrendous loss of human life, but no expectation of receiving better peace terms at the end of it.

            The result will be a much bloodied Russia, for sure, but it will come at the price of a cataclysmically devastated Ukraine. The historical instances you cite demonstrate that the weaker side will suffer the vast majority of the casualties. No one doubts this would be the cause for Ukraine. And a more wounded Russia will likely impose much harsher peace terms than the ones it is demanding now; there is plenty of space for things to get worse for Ukraine.

            A rational calculation in the interests of Ukraine would conclude that eating a huge loss to your own people and nation does nothing to advance your interests if it is unlikely to even generate a better peace deal than the one you are facing now. Acting just to ruin a neighboring nation at any cost is not a winning or rational strategy.

            Thus, it makes sense for Zelensky to be willing to give concessions to Russia now, rather than waiting for the Russian terms to become worse. If he is banking on the Russians losing resolve and just giving up, then I think he is making a fatal mistake.

            (As a side note, I should mention that, as a rational calculation for the US, it might be beneficial to prolong the conflict in order to both poison relations between Ukraine and Russia as well as bleed the latter dry. Sure it will kill possibly millions of Ukrainians and destroy the country in the process. But Ukraine is not an essential US interest and Russia is a declared geopolitical rival, so those complaints are neither here nor there.)

            But I believe there is also good news (for everyone). I think the maximalist goals you ascribe to Putin are not at all serious. The man has a long track record of basing his decisions on rational calculations. He is well capable of understanding that emotional, aspirational desires are not the same as concrete attainable goals. I consider his speeches, along with his nuclear alertness move, as largely performative and should not be taken at face value.

            Reading between the lines, I think Putin has been careful to attune his demands to something that Ukraine can reasonably accept. Of course, I am not privy to the Kremlin’s thinking, so this can only be speculation. But similar terms have been reported through Russian news, and there seems to be no reason for the Kremlin to misrepresent these terms. Here is a rough sketch of what I think Russia can settle for:

            1) The key point is that Ukraine makes a commitment never to join the US sphere of influence (no matter how this sphere is rebranded). For sure, this includes never joining NATO. I am not familiar with the specifics of the EU, but certainly no stationing or large movement of Western troops into Ukraine will ever be acceptable. Military pacts (“defensive” or otherwise) are out, but economic ties might be negotiable.

            2) Crimea stays with Russia. Ukraine stops trying to choke off its water supply.

            3) Some level of disarmament for Ukraine. Perhaps just restricted to some elements of the Ukrainian air force or anti-air defense. In the most extreme case (losing a protracted war), this could mean strict size and technological limits on the Ukrainian military. This is to ensure that Russia can enforce the peace terms if it feels this to be necessary. Yes, by invading again.

            4) Far-right elements must be neutralized in some way, with possible options ranging from a (lenient) ban from political life to (at the extreme end) being handed over to Russia.

            5) In practice, for any deal to hold it must come with the lifting of sanctions as well as international recognition of Crimea as part of Russia. This clause is a bit complicated as Ukraine is not in a position to grant it directly.

            Aside from these, I think all other terms are flexible to the Russians. Zelensky can stay in power if they feel he will honor the terms; this will prevent (or at least minimize) any insurgency. His cooperation would certainly help to persuade the West to lift sanctions. Ruling Donbass is not essential to Russia and it can be returned to Ukraine, likely with some level of autonomy. In comparison, a protracted war might lead to the complete loss of Donbass and the replacement of Zelensky’s government with a pro-Russian one.

            Finally, I will add that Ukrainian resolve depends also on the perception of Russian war goals. If Russia were to aim at annexing Ukraine entirely, then I think the Ukrainians might be prepared to fight for a long time. But if Russia makes demands closer to enforced neutrality, then I think even Zelensky’s government will face serious internal opposition to prolonging the war past some point. In this case, ordinary Ukrainians may come to view Zelensky as being unreasonably obstinate.

          6. Palestine (and similar – eg the many US-Indian treaties and other colonial expansions against essentially helpless natives) highlights another important factor: the norms of the international community. When Prussia, Russia and Austria extinguished Poland it caused great unease: Poland was an established member of the European state system. Within 20 years it was resurrected as the Kingdom of Poland under Russian suzerainty – a pitiful compromise, but a compromise nevertheless, and a base for eventual Polish independence. When Britain extinguished Oudh, nobody stirred. Likewise when the US broke every Indian treaty ever made. Those were outsiders (and of an inferior race to boot). Ukraine is more in the Poland camp, Palestine in the Lakota one. Whatever mistakes they do or do not make, the Palestinians have almost no agency – unless they can attract world attention. So far, Israel has been much better at PR.

        2. > “I find it odd how your positions on modern politics always seem to coincidentally align with the mainstream US foreign policy establishment”

          Yes. I’m not a hater, I just really want Bret to be more persuasive by offering some instances of where his analysis deviates from mainstream US policy. There has to be some mistakes made by the West right?

          This is not whataboutism, it’s about signaling honesty. It’s really suspicious when you do a “rational analysis” and end up with the same conclusions as the mainstream people who don’t do such analyses.

          Like when Bret listed reasons why some separatist movements are justified and others aren’t…he used the reasoning that any oppressed people would be justified in separatism. Then every example he lists is coincidentally completely aligned with US policy (Uigurs, Kurds). He didn’t list Palestine, or say that Blacks in USA are oppressed and therefore deserve their own state.

          Look, I’m not a Russian troll, and I understand the bad-faith aspect of whataboutism. But this is getting to a point where it sounds like you’re preaching to the choir. As someone on the fence it’s not convincing to me that your points are so convenient for US hegemony.

          For the sake of actually convincing people to do the right thing in the world, you should prove good-faith by finding some non-mainstream examples to support your principles, to prove you have principles and not just rationalizing US policy.

          1. Regarding Palestine, Bret never claimed the Israeli position was morally justified, nor did he claim that the Palestinian people didn’t have a right to statehood. He just answere the question of why the Palestinians hadn’t succeeded in protracted war. And part of his explanation was that Israel, and here I take him to mean the Israeli public, felt the conflict to be existential. He never claimed that the Israelis were correct, but merely stated their perception. It was an explanation; what other explanation is there?

          2. 60guilders, I’m not saying he has to use that specific example of Blacks in the US. I’m saying that if there exists any example that fit his principles but contrary to US policy, he should say it. Do you actually think the US is 100% on the correct side of history and has zero examples of mistakes that Bret can point to as examples? It sounds like you just got triggered by skimming my comment and didn’t actually grapple with the idea seriously.

          3. Obviously both sides of a dispute can each have their share of egotism, hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance, and self-servingness. But this does not mean that all narratives are equal. In many cases one narrative is far less biased and the other far more so. Nor is it required that one side be perfect in order for an observer with no prior bias to conclude that one narrative is apparently a more accurate description of reality than the other. C.S. Lewis coined the term “Bulverism” to describe a form of ad hominem logical fallacy where one dismisses someone’s arguments on the basis of presuming that they have a self-serving motivation for taking that stance.

          4. @DanGer

            If Russia has so many ‘valid’ reasons to attack Ukraine, why do they resort to false flag operations? They start most of their wars that way. This is as extreme as it gets for justifying a war.

            Why do they lie so much? Lie about Ukrainian leaders (fascists, drug addicts), about war, about plans to attack, about ceasefire(they immediately break it and shoot civilians), lie to their citizens as well as people in other countries. They even lie to their soldiers just about as they’re going to be sent to war. Lie about the past, present and the future plans.


            What you’re doing is justifying their take on security dilemma. They “have to” conquer territories to feel safe, to move borders further. But then they “have to” move them even further to protect the newly conquered territories.

          5. @60guilders, I already expected people to accuse me of concern trolling, and hence provided a reasonable explanation in the original post. If you want to accuse me of concern trolling, you should address that. You didn’t. Who’s the troll?

            Believe it or not, sometimes people actually disagree with you, and are trying to discuss things. If you really think I’m a troll then what are you doing? Just counter trolling? That makes you no better than me even if I were a troll, so I think it’s fair for me to tell you to go fuck off.

          6. Michael Alan Hutson, the problem is that “Bulverism” as defined there is still a useful heuristic, like many things people like to dismiss as fallacies. Even the classic sunk-cost fallacy has its use as a heuristic, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved to have that hard-wired into human behavior.

            In this case, Bulverism is a useful heuristic, because in a world where there are plenty of adversarial actors, if you do not model people’s intentions, it is too easy to be tricked by someone who cherry picks their evidence. So if you don’t want someone to convince you into something against your own interests, you take into account what you believe their interests are.

            When someone’s conclusions are always suspiciously circling back to their nationalistic policy, it’s a red flag. It doesn’t mean that they must be logically wrong. It’s a red flag, and could be a false alarm, nothing more nothing less.

            So I’m proposing some suggestions, if Bret and others like him does not wish to raise people’s red flags unnecessarily.

            Personally, and this is neither here nor there, I’m politically pretty similar to Bret, so this is basically what I do when I’m trying to be convincing to strangers on the internet. If I make an argument about some principle, I think it is a good rhetorical choice to include examples that are both convenient and inconvenient so that it demonstrates my good faith. Again it has nothing to do with the object-level logic of the argument. But people are not persuaded purely on object-level logic due to above mentioned heuristics.

      2. While I do agree with the analysis in broad strokes, I would also add that circumstances outside of the control of the Palestinian leadership has significantly worseneed their situation: The Iraq war and the destabilization of the region that followed simply meant their supporters had more important things to concern themselves with (be it ISIS; the iranians, the syrian conflict, etc.) so that even the token support they had has largely evaporated.

  38. There is a lot of discussion regarding a Russian Victory.
    What are victory requirements for a Ukrainian Victory?
    Must Russia recognize Ukrainian borders from 2013?
    Or is there room for negotiations regarding: Crimea, Donetsk Oblast and Luhansk Oblast.

    Who sits at the negotiation table since Ukraine does not have control over any of the third party sanctions.
    What happens if a significant player (US or EU) decides that they want to extract from Russia before lifting sanctions? Who decides whether Russia is reconnected with SWIFT or any of the dozens of other international systems.

    These are very open ended questions. Anyone have a crystal ball on this?

    1. No crystal ball. A full end to the conflict will be difficult to negotiate.

      If I had to spitball an end-state that seems like it might be workable, I could see the terms:
      1) Putin gets Crimea, everyone agrees to recognize it.
      2) Donbas to Ukraine (Donbas to Russia is a non-starter, I think)
      3) Sanctions on Putin get lifted.
      4) West promises reconstruction aid to get Ukraine to agree to losing Crimea.
      5) Ukraine joins EU, but not NATO (EU has a mutual defense clause too, but again, this is face-saving for Putin).
      6) Ukraine agrees to disarm some of its far-right militias so that Putin can claim ‘denazification.’
      7) Current Ukrainian government and democratic system stays in power.
      8) All Russian troops withdraw from Ukraine

      That, in my mind, might be what a Ukrainian victory might look like, but spitballing like this rarely has much relationship with the actual reached end-state, which will depend a lot on conditions on the ground, the relative strength of the parties, the personalities involved, etc.

      1. International recognition of Russia’s take-over of Crimea is no small victory for Russia.

        Perhaps the destruction in Ukraine is a reasonable price for Russia to pay for it. If they are playing a convoluted long game.

      2. I think there is another face saving trick for Putin: Ukraine agrees to demilitarisation as it joins the EU… while promptly signing up for a new EU army.

        1. Probably Putin can’t sell that as demilitarization. Agreeing to not maintain a national army and limit foreign deployments while joining NATO (would require agreement on borders) might be a compromise but I think Ukraine is going to want at least a moderate national army and hold out for it if they’re in a good negotiating position.

      3. Pretty much what I have been mulling–not that either Bret nor I has any actual say–but how about substituting “internationally supervised referendum in Donbas on its status” for no. 2?

        1. If Russia does not conquer the whole of Ukraine, what I see happening is a pullback to the east and Putin declaring that Donetsk and Luhansk are now native Russian soil, and any attempt to reoccupy them will be taken as an attack on the Russian homeland. With the remainder of Ukraine probably joining NATO as a result.

          1. Both NATO and EU refuse entry to a country with disputed territory.

            Ukraine cannot join either until they resolve the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk territorial claims.

            Will Ukraine agree to formally give up these territories to join EU/NATO?

            They might.

            What happens with Western sanctions against Russia associated with both the invasion of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine if Ukraine formally agrees to give up these territories?

          2. In that scenario it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand Russia “wins” the war: it gains territorial concessions and sanctions are eventually dropped as the new borders become the status quo. On the other hand it’s not an unmitigated loss for Ukraine: the lost territories were almost more trouble than they were worth, and NATO/EU membership for Ukraine vastly strengthens its security. Possibly even Sweden and Finland are moved to join NATO as well and Russia is faced with a solid anti-Russian alliance against any further expansion westward.

          3. I think Russia only gets Ukraine to recognize its claims if it’s part of negotiations where Russia is in a strong position and they’ll be withdrawing from territory they’ve got substantial control over. If they’re forced to withdraw to their previous positions by military reversals Ukraine probably will feel well-positioned to continue to claim those areas even if nuclear weapons deter them from attempting to enforce those claims at the present moment.a

            That might well keep them out of NATO but put them in a Taiwan situation where the US gives signals sufficently clear to deter a Russian offensive but sufficently ambiguous Ukraine doesn’t take them to mean “if you go into Crimea we’ll have your back”.

            Or, well, Ukraine has nuclear reactors and the general principles of nuclear weapon design are on the internet. Going from reactors to weapons is not a quick or easy process, but it’s long been known that nuclear weapons deter conventional invasion and it’s just been proven Russia will invade a non-nuclear Ukraine. So if Ukraine doesn’t get external nuclear guarantees it’s going to set about getting internal ones. Since the major nuclear powers don’t want more nuclear powers I see that as likely to encourage some sort of compromise where they dismantle their nuclear program in exchange for some kind of guarantee by one of NATO’s nuclear powers even if not in the form of NATO membership per se.

      4. Ukraine will never accept losing Crimea for aid, and West can’t force the issue politically. Especially not in conditions that appear to invite further aggression.

        The only way one could get assent is if Ukraine gets in return security guarantees that stick – at least EU membership and probably that’s not enough and they’ll want NATO too. Unfortunately, any real security guarantee is a red line for Putin, and EU membership takes years anyway.

        1. Within Russia, Putin seems to claim this is a war to liberate the oppressed peoples of the Donbass. As long as Ukraine recognises their “independent republics” he can claim victory within Russia. Whether NATO thinks he has won is irrelevant.

      5. For purposes of comparison: “Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was demanding that Ukraine cease military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, and recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states.”

        It seems to me that Moscow is a faithless actor, which has already guaranteed Ukrainian borders and then invaded on three occasions. So the Ukrainians will require a guarantee from a power willing and able to deter Moscow.

        And that power can only be NATO.

        So the only way Moscow can get anything for a withdrawal is if NATO replaces it.

        1. At a minimum, if Ukraine does not join NATO it will institute a Finland-style mass civilian militia training program and stock up on thousands of MANPADs and portable anti-tank missiles.

          1. The EU is not a military power, let alone a nuclear power. So it cannot deter a military or nuclear power, such as Russia. There is a tool for every task, and that is not the task the EU is a tool for.

      6. This would actually be a very fair compromise solution. Although Donbas could turn out to be a point of contention.

    2. First of all Russian army must start retreating(literally!) for any negotiations to occur. Have you heard about the recent ceasefire in Mariupol and a smaller city, to provide humanitarian aid? It was violated by Russians almost immediately and is being used to advance armies. Russians prove time and again that they’re not trustworthy. How can you start making deals with someone like that?

      Source: Iryna Wereszczuk (Iryna Vereschuk) on 5th of March

  39. One interesting thing about Maoist-style protracted war is the emphasis on mobilization just not in terms of propaganda (though it helps) but in terms of disseminating strategy. Hence stuff like the easily memorized aphorisms to encapsulate the strategy. The idea being, since a lot of people will be cut off from active communication with the leadership, they need to be able to follow the strategy independently, which also acts as a kind of propaganda, since it ensures guerilla leaders cut off that there *is* a strategy and a “path to Victory”.

    A sergeant in a conventional military might not have to know the strategic aims his superiors are working for (though it certainly helps, especially morale) but someone working independently in enemy territory kinda has to; He has to know what he is supposed to do, even if he can’t communicate.

    ‘The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.’

      1. The rubric is everyone show know the intent two levels up and one down. So a sergeant should know his company commanders intent. In guerilla warfare the emphasis is on the political – every combatant should know the final aim, where they are in the current stage and, more important, the key dos and don’ts. The aim is to separate the active enemy from the bystanders, so who to treat well and who badly is crucial.

  40. RE: DanGers theory of russian goals:

    I think that’s actually something Putin might be willing to settle for, the problem is that (thus far at least) it’s a non-starter for the Ukrainian side. The trust that Russia would abide by any agreement with a demilitarized Ukraine is simply zero, so any demands for that is the equivalent of annihilation in the minds of the Ukrainian leadership (and a not insignificant number of people) the feeling is that the only thing that can defend Ukraine are either their own armed forces (with international support) or international security guarantees ala. NATO (preferably both)

    Basically, regardless of Putin’s actual aims, in practice it doesen’t really matter: Even the minimalist aims are unacceptable because the end result is indistinguishable.

    The only compromise I could see would be something like “Ukraine is demilitarized but gets a special security guarantee and NATO garrison” which of course would negate the entire Russian wish to keep NATO out of the country in the first place.

    1. I also find DanGer’s analysis, though persuasively presented, a bit lacking in parts. One thing that puzzles me is that, if Ukraine’s potential NATO membership is such a non-negotiable red line for Russia (and in his analysis, it is critical to Russia’s entire establishment and most of its population) and a source of unbreakable political will, why isn’t the Kremlin foregrounding this aspect in its own internal propaganda? Sure, Putin regularly mentions NATO encroachment as a rebuttal to Western criticism, but it doesn’t seem to be the main emphasis of his pitch to his people; instead of presenting the war as an existential struggle for survival between Russia and the West, Russian state TV primarily depicts the conflict as a limited ‘special operation’ to save innocent Donbass civilians from ‘Banderite’ fascist militias, and barely mentions operations in other areas of the country at all.

      However, I do think that Russian fear of a NATO-member Ukraine must be at least partly real, and one thing I would genuinely be curious to know more about is what precisely scares Putin’s government so much about this prospect. There has been some general talk referencing concerns about ‘existential threats’ to Russia, but I haven’t heard much detail about what this means in practice. I appreciate it’s impossible to see inside Putin’s head on this issue, but does anyone have any evidence (beyond speculation or obvious propaganda) about what exactly is the Kremlin’s nightmare scenario here? I can think of a few myself, but they all seem a bit implausible:

      (1) Fear that NATO will use Ukraine as a jumping-off point for an invasion aimed at dismantling the Russian Federation or achieving regime change. This is superficially threatening, because Ukrainian bases would indeed allow Western armies to strike much more effectively at Russia’s southern flank, but surely the Kremlin knows that the odds of such an invasion are infinitesimally small; there’s no way that the West – amid all the other problems confronting it, including the rise of China – could muster the resources and political will for an unprovoked attack which, if it ever looked like succeeding, would almost certainly trigger nuclear MAD. Of course, in that event, NATO missiles sited in Ukraine could inflict extra damage, but it seems odd that Russians would care so much about the difference between being ‘dead’ and ‘very dead’.
      (2) Fear that NATO protection will allow Ukraine to go on acting as a beacon of freedom and prosperity that will eventually inspire the Russian people to rise up in imitation. This is the argument Bret used in his previous article, and – like some other commenters at the time – I don’t find it very convincing. Ukraine is one of Europe’s poorest and most unstable countries (almost uniquely, its economy still hasn’t recovered to Soviet-era levels), and although its attempts to fight corruption and entrench democracy may have made some progress in recent years, it’s still far from a model state. I can imagine some Russians thinking ‘if only Putin were gone we could be more like Germany/Poland/Finland’, but not ‘if only we could be more like Ukraine’.
      (3) Fear that the US could use a NATO-controlled Ukraine as a base for clandestine operations aimed at overthrowing the Russian government. To me, this is the most plausible threat. The US already uses its influence to support opposition movements in Russia where it can, and in the event of an uprising against Putin, it’s possible that the CIA would commence smuggling arms, money, and agents across the land border from Ukraine. Still feels a bit weak though; Russia has such long frontiers anyway (some of which already abut NATO countries like Estonia and Latvia), and today’s online and interconnected world allows so many forms of interference that don’t require land transport, that it seems unlikely that a few rebel sanctuaries in Ukraine would make a decisive difference.

      Of course, fears don’t have to be completely rational to be genuine, and it may be that the kernel of actual danger in these scenarios (when blurred with historical memory of the very real traumas of the 1990s and 1940s) has been magnified by paranoia into a key motivator for Putin and his circle. However, at the moment I’m inclined to think that fear of NATO probably plays a subordinate role in Russian government policy, at least when compared to wounded pride about the loss of the Soviet empire. Nonetheless, I’d be happy to hear more about anything I may have overlooked.

      1. The realistic way it could be a threat is that nuclear weapons in Ukraine could theoretically strike Russia’s nuclear arsenal or control systems before Russia could fire them, negating the counterstrike. Or cause NATO to believe that and (possibly in reaction to a percieved threat) fire off its arsenal and learn too late that it couldn’t.

        However, that could be resolved like the Cuban Missile Crisis, where NATO agrees not to station nuclear missiles in Ukraine. It already doesn’t station them in its eastern member states.

        1. I get that a NATO first strike from nearby bases could eliminate some of the Russian response, but is there really a credible scenario in which NATO can be confident enough about avoiding retaliation to actually launch such a strike? My understanding has always been that, given the existence of hidden nuclear-armed subs, Dead Hand, etc, there’s no version of a general nuclear exchange which doesn’t involve a bunch of Western cities being reduced to radioactive rubble. And since this first strike would involve attacking out of the blue to retain the element of surprise, I find it very hard to imagine the West accepting such a price for Russia’s destruction. However, I suppose advances in missile interception technology may change the strategic balance, so Russia might feel the need to keep NATO bases out of Ukraine in case they could one day make nuclear war winnable.

          1. Yeah those systems exist but one must worry the other side will think they’ll disable them, maybe hit key components of the dead hand system and torpedo the subs. So it’s a thing that is reasonable to worry about and can be negotiated over.

        2. “The realistic way it could be a threat is that nuclear weapons in Ukraine could theoretically strike Russia’s nuclear arsenal or control systems before Russia could fire them, negating the counterstrike. ”

          It would be a lot safer and cheaper to put their missiles in Siberia or Northern Fleet SSBNs, rather than wage a full-scale war in Ukraine.

          Or negotiate a treaty about how close NATO and Russian nukes can go to the boarder.

          And how would this make NATO membership for Ukraine or Georgia more threatening than NATO membership for the Baltic States (already happened) or Finland (which this war has made a lot more likely)?

          1. Well, subs have their own problems, called the Seawolf-class. They’re designed to hide from attack subs, but NATO has long held a technical edge in subs such that it’s reasonably plausible they could have hidden subs stalking the deployed Russian missile subs.

            I agree a treaty of that form would be the best way to accomplish the goal of keeping nukes out of Ukraine, and the fact that Putin didn’t attempt to make one while using his military preparations as leverage and a fallback but instead asked for a total NATO withdrawal from Eastern Europe that he was under no circumstances is a sign removing NATO as a strategic threat was not his goal.

      2. I don’t think NATO membership is seen as an existential threat in that way, the fear that NATO will overthrow the russian government, or invade. (though the fear for undermining the government, directly or indirectly might be there)

        But rather the fear is that NATO membership will basically restrict Russia’s freedom of action in what they consider their own sphere. Regardless of if Russia decides to annex Ukraine or not, there is, I think, a distinct sense among the russian establishment that *the future of Ukraine is going to be decided by Russia*, and that NATO membership basically negates this. I don’t think it is neccessarily full on “restore the borders of 1917” like Putin sometimes pretends it is, but rather a sense that whatever happens Russia should have the decisive say on what happens next, and NATO membership threatens that. (partially because of some genuine outstanding issues and conflicts, and partially just because of a sense that they need thier own sphere of influence)

        And I think there is also a fear that, rather than directly overthrowing the russina government, the US might basically try to do what Russia has been doing in reverse: Carve off minority regions, support insurgenices, etc. And that pushing the “buffer zone” out towards dependant regimes menas that these kinds of operations will be focused on them rather than the territories of the Federation.

        That said I agree that what NATO expansion primarily threatens is not Russia in an existential sense, but rather the sense of “Freedom of actions” Russia feels it deserves to setlte it’s outstanding issues in ways that they deem fit.

      3. > Fear that NATO protection will allow Ukraine to go on acting as a beacon of freedom and prosperity that will eventually inspire the Russian people to rise up in imitation. This is the argument Bret used in his previous article, and – like some other commenters at the time – I don’t find it very convincing. Ukraine is one of Europe’s poorest and most unstable countries

        This is precisely why it would make a spectacular example. Developing countries initially have very high economic growth, then it goes down as the country develops. Russian people are fatalistic and apathetic. They don’t think a positive change is possible.

  41. DanGer wrote above
    “A rational calculation in the interests of Ukraine would conclude that eating a huge loss to your own people and nation does nothing to advance your interests if it is unlikely to even generate a better peace deal than the one you are facing now. Acting just to ruin a neighboring nation at any cost is not a winning or rational strategy.

    Thus, it makes sense for Zelensky to be willing to give concessions to Russia now, rather than waiting for the Russian terms to become worse. If he is banking on the Russians losing resolve and just giving up, then I think he is making a fatal mistake.”

    The war is not yet two weeks old.
    As two weeks becomes a month,
    1. Ukraine has the advantage of weather turning fields to mud.
    2. Ukraine continues Phase 1 and Phase 2 recruitment and training. Ukraine has a population of over 40 million people. Reports are that huge portions of the population 10-20% (or higher) are actively involved in the various activities of defense.
    3. Ukraine can expect to continue continually better logistic support from EU and US including intelligence, war material, and basic supplies.
    4. The world wide supporters of Ukraine are likely to continue to increase the sanctions on Russia – and perhaps any overt ally.

    As the war lingers.
    1. Russia loses equipment that is slow to replace and certainly cannot be replaced as quickly as the West’s industrial machine can produce anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
    2. Russia loses soldiers who are slow to replace. Even in the best instance Russia cannot conscript and train new citizens hoping for a positive result in the field. Russia’s million man army has more to do than invade Ukraine. They must hold Chenya and parts of Georgia as well as other tasks.
    3. Russia’s logistics become more difficult – mud, destroyed trucks, damaged/destroyed roads and bridges. And their ability to provide basic supplies of food, medicine and ammunition gets stretched. Do they have an earth to finished product supply chain for all of these?

    Russia is a country of 145 million invading a country of 45 million. With Ukraine able to count on constant supply from combined economies 20 times that of Russia. And supplied with war material that is equal or better than Russia’s.

    While the will of Russia’s leaders may be strong. The will of Russian soldiers is nowhere near that of the Ukrainian defenders.

    The question is more about how the Ukraine will negotiate with the West so that they have a combined front when making demands of Russia.

    How long will it be for Phase III for Ukraine? Years? Months?
    What will Ukraine demand in the end?

  42. There is a theory of the Ukraine invasion as only a part of Putin’s war to stay in power. In this sense, it is a desperate move that he knows will drive the nation into penury, but harms his opponents more than himself.

    Rebuilding the army’s stock of equipment during and after will be expensive, but will enrich armament suppliers who might be his domestic supporters, possibly at cost to his domestic enemies obliged to pay for it all.

    Under this theory, the condition of Ukraine at the end does not figure, because if he survives he survives. If he ends up holding much of Ukraine, reconstruction in those areas might be force-managed by supporters, paid for of course by Ukrainians.

    There was a somewhat similar dynamic in Iraq: the war cost the US >5000 $billions, but Iraqis neither got nor paid them. Certain Americans got those $billions, and exactly who was largely selected by Cheney, his company Halliburton very large among them. The rest of us are still paying, and will be paying for a long, long time.

    1. And that’s why Bush and Cheney are still in power? You’re not making any sense. I don’t particularly embrace your theories about Putin either. People who lead countries aren’t in it for the money, and indeed they vaguely despise those of their supporters who are.

      1. Bush did get re-elected after invading Iraq though, and with a better results than in the 2000 elections.

  43. Regarding Putin’s mindset, one parallel might be Serbia’s Milosevich. His revanchist wars were driven by both a fear that Serbia’s culture would be submerged by a godless liberal gay-loving EU (a modern version of the Ottomans) and an instinctive connection to Serbian national myths, wherein the Bosnian Muslims were misguided Serbs and their land an intrinsic part of the Serbian patrimony, while Kosovan Albanians were recent settlers on to sacred Serbian ground. These were foundational beliefs. Putin seems to think Ukraine rightfully ‘belongs’ to Russia, and Russian culture – as he conceives it – to be under threat. If you reason forward from there, you get this war.

    1. That certainly makes a lot more sense than the theory that he is looking for kickbacks from the contracts for Ukrainian reconstruction he will be able to let after the war.

    2. This is more than a stretch. Fear of the EU as a “godless liberal gay-loving EU”, if any, is much more recent, not to mention that Milosevic, while playing heavily on religio-nationalist feelings, also had a strong socialist / communist background. Nor was there a realistic attempt to incorporate Bosnian Muslims into Serb national corpus.

      Personally, I don’t think that Milosevic had any particular master plan except staying in power and having as much power as long as possible and by any means necessary. This is the best explanation for his completely erratic politics.

  44. Here’s an interesting thread proposing that Ukraine still has significant state capability and is engaging in “semisymmetric” warfare, or to use your model, significant Mobile warfare engagements.

    “It does require significant state planning; excellent almost real time intelligence, and access to large stores of high quality equipment, larger than a normal insurgency could expect.”

    1. Also that the US is flying AWACS in Poland, and everyone is sending them plenty of arms (and maybe even more warplanes!), vs Russia having to rail in civilian vehicles to replace losses. Although that’s veering towards talking about Russia’s organisational failures which isn’t the point of this post.

  45. I think that Mao and Giap are not good references here.

    Ukraine is a modern country, with a heavy industrial base (including a strong defense industry), not small at all (40+ million people), with plenty of military hardware inherited from the Soviet Union (same as Russia), and a lot of people capable of operating it.

    A crucial thing is that beyond some limited areas (cruise missiles – Kalibr, ballistic missiles – Iskander, as it looks with quite limited stocks) Russia does not have a qualitative advantage. Generally speaking, the same types of tanks and aircraft are used by both sides T-72/80, Su-27 (Su-30 and Su-34 are just variants of Su-27), Su-25, Su-24, etc.
    Ukraine has also some advantages, for example in much modern portable anti-tank (think Javelin) or drones.

    Searching for historical references, I think I have found a much better one. I am thinking about Italy’s invasion of Greece (Greco-Italian War, 28 October 1940 to 23 April 1941). We have a similar, much stronger, but not necessarily much more advanced country trying to invade. It also went similarly sideways, leading to a stalemate with protracted fighting, that has been only broken by German forces.

    Even in the area of biggest superiority (sea) of Italy, the Hellenic Navy was able to put together some remarkable actions.

  46. I lack Bret’s expertise, so I’m happy to be corrected. But China, Vietnam, and Afghanistan don’t seem like the most relevant examples to Ukraine. They were/are extremely poor, underdeveloped countries, with bits of industrialization and urbanization in a sea of subsistence farming and feudal-like structures. So the context for popular will in these wars seems quite different, even if leaders operated partly in a modern context.

    Maybe a better choice would be UK, Ireland, and the IRA? I’m not sure what that example would imply for Ukraine, but it seems like a stronger parallel: Long history of occupation and abuse, but also a source of development and institutions. Ethnic and religious conflict, but also a lot of cultural commonality. Long time mixing and migration.

    How does the popular will for protracted war work in a developed, urbanized country? An occupying force can make a credible promises wrt electricity, water, schools, metro, etc. How does guerilla warfare not get co-opted by organized crime? See also Lawrence Durrell — give a guy a gun and he’ll shoot the guy he owns money to, before heading out to fight for liberty and justice (about Cyprus, IIRC).

    1. Vietnam was the first televised war. The Ukraine is not only being televised but streamed and podcast in Real Time. What effect is that likely to have?

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