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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
- as I write this; I dearly hope, reader from the future, that when you read this, Ukraine is free, independent and at peace
- 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.
- Work cited below
- Artillery, airstrikes, cruise missiles, etc.
- Important word! See below
- 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.
- 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.