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What Ukraine means for how we study war

- August 4, 2014

An armored personnel carrier flying Ukraine’s flag and a Ukrainian tank, from a convoy of the Ukrainian forces, drive toward the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk on July 25. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)
Last week Marc Lynch wrote a thoughtful commentary on the future of political science after Gaza. He noted that while the ongoing violence seems very familiar, it actually suggests a number of new questions for political scientists who focus on the Arab-Israeli dispute. These include everything from the limits of transnational moral campaigns to the future of U.S alliance relations in the region. What looks like another dreary chapter in a stagnant conflict may ultimately inspire research that pushes our understanding of war and politics in the Middle East.
The crisis in Ukraine raises similar questions for the future of strategic studies, a related though somewhat different discipline. Research in strategic studies tends to focus on historical analyses, and it usually shies away from quantitative work or formal modeling. Students of strategy often emphasize the role of contingency and chance and are wary of making broad generalizations as a result. Despite these differences, the two subjects are inseparable. Strategy is about war, and war is simply the continuation of politics by other means. Decisions about how to use violence shape political outcomes, and political problems shape the purposes of organized force. So political scientists have a strong interest in understanding strategy, just as strategists must pay close attention to politics.
Ukraine raises at least two issues that may inspire new thinking on strategic theory. One is the problem of recognizing success when it involves something less than victory. Ukraine has been on the offensive against the separatist fighters, rapidly driving them back into a handful of strongholds. But it’s unlikely the government can destroy them, given pro-Russian sentiment in the east and the possible existence of a large sanctuary for committed separatists across the border. Moreover, any durable settlement will require making concessions to groups that are extremely hostile to Kiev, as well as tacit promises to the Russian regime.
This might be a reasonable outcome, especially if Russia is badly bruised and if Ukraine comes away with increased Western economic and political support. But some Ukrainian leaders will bridle at any settlement that leaves their perceived enemies in place, especially after having lost Crimea. Not everyone will learn to live with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxies, and their unease may cause them to underrate important strategic gains.
Such a scenario should resonate with American observers. As I write in the forthcoming issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies, U.S. officials were unable to recognize their own success against Iraq during the 1990s. The first Gulf War and the sanctions that came after demolished the Iraqi economy and military, along with its unconventional weapons programs. Perhaps most important, Saddam Hussein’s behavior had changed for the better. In the past he had been an aggressive ruler with a powerful military and dreams of regional hegemony. After the war, the sanctions and the inspections, he turned his focus inward, doing everything in his power just to stay in power. The United States had triumphed by any definition of victory.
As the decade went on, however, U.S. officials came to believe that while they had won the war, Iraq was winning the peace. They believed that Saddam was playing a cunning diplomatic game to undermine the multinational sanctions regime. If the coalition came apart, he would be able to rebuild his military strength, revive his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and go back to menacing the Persian Gulf. This nightmare scenario was never realistic, given the depth of Iraq’s economic pain and the fragility of its government, but these factors didn’t seem to matter. U.S. leaders simply couldn’t accept the status quo as long as Saddam remained in power. Whether Ukrainian leaders can accept limited success remains to be seen.
A second issue is the relationship between strategy and grand strategy, terms that are often used interchangeably even though they are analytically distinct. Strategy is a theory of victory in war, a logical guide for using use violence to achieve political goals. Grand strategy is a theory of security, a logical guide for coordinating all instruments of state power to keep it safe, and for determining whether force should be used at all. A strategy identifies the best way to compel a particular enemy to do your will. A grand strategy identifies which enemies are worth fighting.
While strategy and grand strategy are interrelated, they are not always mutually supporting. In some cases, strategic requirements for victory in war may undermine grand strategy after the shooting stops. A large investment may be needed to compel an enemy to surrender, for example, but this may leave the state bankrupt and vulnerable.
Some analysts believe that the Obama administration should provide military aid to Ukraine. They argue that economic sanctions are unlikely to compel Russia to stop aiding the separatists and start working for peace. Worse, they believe that the United States is demonstrating a lack of resolve that will embolden Russia. Rather than forcing Putin to back down, he might escalate by sending Russian forces across the border.
These criticisms, however, consider possible strategies for Ukraine outside the context of the U.S. grand strategy. The administration’s ongoing pivot to Asia, along with its decision to draw down forces from the Middle East and Afghanistan, suggests that its primary concern is with a rising China. So while it is possible that the United States could implement a much more aggressive strategy toward Russia, this might divert attention and resources from the place it cares about most. A costly approach that compels Russia to back down might count as a strategic success but a grand strategic failure.
The converse is also true. Russia has suffered extraordinary economic consequences over the last several months, and the pain is going to increase now that Europe has levied broad sanctions against the Russian banking and energy sectors. Meanwhile Russia already is on the hook for Crimea; if it decides to invade eastern Ukraine its fiscal burden will grow. All of this is making Russia’s plan for a massive military modernization program, which is supposed to cost over $750 billion over the next decade, look like a fantasy. Any hopes of restoring great power status are fading fast.
For Russia, the strategic benefits of escalation will come at an extraordinary cost to its grand strategy. The harder it fights, the more isolated and impoverished it will become. For the United States this will mean one less great power to worry about. Critics will castigate the Obama administration if its diplomatic approach fails to change Russian behavior, but Putin is in the process of slowly eroding Russian power. This means that the United States will be free to concentrate on East Asia – where the real action is happening – while a former superpower exhausts itself.
Joshua Rovner is the John Goodwin Tower chair in international politics and national security at Southern Methodist University.