Ukraine and the Art of Limited War

Commentary | October 8, 2014 |

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”

-Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed album 1969


In a piece published in War on the Rocks last March, and in an extended version by the journal Survival in May, I considered Ukraine and the art of crisis management. My aim was to explore the relevance of the strategic concepts of the Cold War in relation to the unfolding drama of Ukraine, particularly the challenge of securing essential interests without triggering a wider war. I judged the crisis to have been badly managed by Russia, not particularly well by the West and with great difficulty by Ukraine. The consequences of the failure of crisis management lay not so much in expanding the area of conflict but instead in continuing and unsettling violence within Ukraine and a sharp deterioration in relations between Russia and the West. The death toll is now in the region of 3,500 and still rising.

The role of Russian forces within Ukraine was evident from the start of the crisis but gradually became even more overt as indigenous separatist forces were unable to cope. This resulted in a shift in the character of the crisis over the course of 2014. It moved from an externally sponsored insurgency in eastern Ukraine to a limited war between Ukraine and Russia, albeit one with some unique features. This was not a total war: Vast armies did not move against each other. Most capabilities were held in reserve. Diplomatic communications continued throughout the fighting.. A shaky cease-fire was announced on 5 September. This was perhaps better described as a de-escalation, because the fighting did not stop. It was, however, sufficient for attention to be given to the consequential political steps.

In this essay I take up the story from early May to the start of October and consider what, if any, strategic lessons might be drawn from this most recent stage in the conflict. Like my last essay on the subject, I will expand this into a longer reflection in Survival. The next stage in the conflict over the political future of Ukraine will depend on how the issue of the governance of territory currently occupied by separatists is handled. If the conflict bursts out of its current limits then the next essay in this series will have an even more alarming topic.

Commentary on the most recent stage of the conflict has stressed the originality of Russian tactics, with regular reference to “hybrid war” – combining overt and covert operations. My argument in this essay is that once Ukraine was able to put regular forces into its “anti-terrorist operation” in East Ukraine, this approach failed. This obliged President Putin to introduce superior Russian regular forces (albeit with their status denied).

Until more is revealed about Russian decision-making during the courses of this crisis, any analysis relies on inferences about Putin’s objectives and calculations. My view is that the wider conflict with the European Union and NATO had reached an uncomfortable stage for Putin. So while he could have taken more Ukrainian territory, he chose to accept a cease-fire that enabled him to retrieve some political advantage. At the same time, by exuding menace towards Ukraine and Western Europe he sought to resist further pressure. Russia’s position depended on the possibility that it was prepared to continue escalation. The West’s response was shaped by an evident reluctance to escalate and anxiety about moving into a less contained conflict. This was despite the fact that in the end the power balances were still in the West’s favor. In terms of the theory of limited war, the case of Ukraine confirms the observation that in disputes over territory, the most effective forms of control involve regular armed forces and superior firepower. Control, however, does not ensure a functioning economy and society.


The concept of limited war has an even longer history than that of crisis management. It requires that the belligerents choose not to fight at full capacity, and so prevent a conflict gaining in intensity and expanding in both space and time. This is different from the need to accept natural limits imposed by resources and geography. Nor is it relevant when a strong state employs only limited forces to deal with opponents with inferior capabilities. Against such opponents complete victories can still be achieved, as the rise of colonialism demonstrated. The concept comes into play only when the limits have been chosen and accepted by both parties.

As a distinctive concept, limited war depended on a contrast with total war, a term popularized by the First World War, when the parties would push war to its extremes. This appeared as the logical conclusion of the transformation of war begun during the Napoleonic period with the departure from the inherently limited conflicts of the eighteenth century. The old routines became obsolete with the expectation that the full resources of states would be pitted against each other in Darwinian struggles for survival. Once nuclear weapons were introduced, total war pointed to an absurd and tragic result: mutual destruction. If both sides could accept that whatever was at stake was not worth an all-out confrontation then any effort to protect interests through the use of armed force would be governed by some sense of how far they were really prepared to go.

The conundrums this created were first thrown into relief during the Korean War of 1950-53. Although this conflict was hardly limited for the people of Korea in its effects or stakes, the United States neither extended the war into China nor used nuclear weapons, and in the end accepted an outcome that could be characterized as stalemate rather than victory. A number of the new generation of civilian strategists sought to explain why this was a good rather than a bad outcome, a compromise that left one half of Korea under communist rule (where it has remained since) but the world intact.

If the United States was prepared to fight only total war and lacked a capacity for limited war, normally understood as strong regular forces, it would face a dilemma with a limited Soviet advance. The danger was of “salami tactics,” whereby each slice of the salami would appear not to be worth a major conflict, although, cumulatively, the successive slices would eventually turn into the whole. Limited war capabilities therefore meant being able to respond to a challenge in the terms in which it was posed and so dare the enemy to take the risk of escalating to the next and more dangerous level.

The word “escalation” entered the lexicon during the 1950s as a warning about why wars might not stay limited. Once forces of great size and complexity began to clash, it would be hard to exert control over the course of the conflict. Actions might be taken because of confusion, misapprehension, panic and passion. Once a conflict began, more would soon be at stake than the original matter in dispute. As the prospect of loss raised questions of reputation, credibility and pride, the effort might have to be increased to levels well beyond the original stake. Escalation therefore could describe a tragic process whereby belligerents ramped up the action in responses to each other. Hence the original metaphor derived from the moving staircase that took you up to a place you might not want to go because you could not get off. The theorists of escalation, such as Herman Kahn, resisted the idea of a loss of control, suggesting instead that it might be possible to find a level at which a war might be fought which suited one side’s capabilities but not the other, posing for them the problem of accepting defeat or moving to yet another more dangerous level. This was called escalation dominance.

The issue of proportionality was always present in any discussion of limited war. It was also complicated, for military commitments must reflect not only the value of whatever was in dispute but also the logic of combat and the commitments being made by the enemy. In addition, somehow limits must be recognized, agreed to and enforced. This required some sort of shared understandings about thresholds and boundaries. There might be natural lines – set by geography or types of weaponry or targets – but to serve the purposes of limitation they would still often need to be confirmed through forms of communication. Some diplomatic activity would be necessary if a conflict was to be kept limited.

Another issue was whether the rhetoric necessary to mobilize public opinion behind any operation could be scaled down when a threshold was reached or a deal had to be made. In the end the essence of a limited war is compromise, and this was always going to be difficult when the enemy has been described in the darkest terms and the stakes raised to an existential level.

With the end of the East-West confrontation, the issue of limited war became less pressing. The wars fought by western countries were inherently limited, and only rarely with another state. There were challenges in terms of keeping these conflicts limited in terms of time taken and resources expended, but their discretionary nature meant that if the demands of a campaign exceeded the value of the objective than an intervention could be drawn to a close.

This year’s developments in Ukraine revived the question of limited war as the confrontation morphed into an inter-state war with high stakes, and with one side a nuclear power. NATO of course was not directly engaged in the fighting, but it had to consider whether and how it might get involved, assess Russian objectives, advise Ukraine on how to respond and examine the implications for any conflict that might develop between Russia and a NATO member in the future.


President Putin has sought to shape what he considers to be Ukraine’s historic choice: Is it going to become part of the West’s expansion into the former Soviet space by joining the European Union or become a Russian partner, as a member of the Eurasian Union, loosely modeled on the EU?

Once the crisis broke, the immediate focus was on first Crimea and then the southeast of Ukraine, the­­ most Russian part of the country. This was reflected in the revival of the historic name of Novorossiya as proclaimed by the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Putin expressed astonishment that this area had been allowed to join Ukraine in 1922, along with the transfer of Crimea and Sevastopol to Ukraine in 1956. While such claims directly challenged Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, they also implicitly wrote off a large part of Ukraine as being beyond Russian influence. Yet if the rest of the country were left alone, then the EU’s, and even NATO’s, enlargement could continue. This pointed to a fundamental tension in Russian objectives from the start, between carving out a chunk of Ukraine that would be effectively controlled by Russia or even annexed by Russia, and gaining influence over Ukrainian decisions to prevent moves inimical to Russian interests – what used to be called “Finlandization.”

The issue had was also cast in wider terms by Putin when he spoke about Moscow’s special responsibilities to protect the rights of Russians unfortunate enough to live outside the borders of the Russian Federation, which generated a right to intervene in countries in its “near-abroad.” This was already present with the frozen conflicts in Moldova and Georgia, and the position of the Baltic States, notably Estonia. Some of Putin’s rhetoric even unnerved his notional partners in the Eurasian Union, Belarus and Kazakhstan. From that there could be further worries that once Russia moved into expansionist mode there would be few limits on its aggression, with Poland, Sweden and Finland soon coming into the frame. “If I wanted”, he is reported to have told Ukraine’s President Poroshenko in mid-September, “in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw, and Bucharest.”

Yet Russia’s capacity is limited. It is a great power by virtue of its nuclear arsenal and permanent seat on the Security Council. It rebuilt its armed forces during recent years of economic growth, but it would struggle to cope with a multi-front campaign or a prolonged occupation of a substantial hostile population. Should NATO’s Article V commitments be triggered, Russian forces would be outnumbered and face superior air power from the United States and other allies. Its GDP is close to that of Italy and its per capita GDP less than Poland’s. In no sense is Russia an economic superpower. It is already struggling with Crimea and none of its frozen territories are economic success stories. Putin’s dreams may be irredentist but for the moment, practicalities limit that dream. As we shall note below, he has not (yet) gone for broke in Ukraine.

In 1787, when Empress Catherine II visited Crimea after a devastating war, the region’s governor, Grigory Potemkin sought to create an erroneous impression of a vibrant settlement. This was achieved by fabricating villages on the banks of the Dnieper, populated by Potemkin’s men. These would exist only as the Empress’s barge passed and would then be dismantled to be reconstructed further down the river. While this story may well be apocryphal, its essence has been a feature of Russian practice, even during the Cold War, to hide weakness by seeking to create an impression of strength.


A brief account of the pattern of Russian intervention in Ukraine demonstrates that it has been driven by weakness as much by strength. Putin’s determination to set the future direction of Ukraine was obtained through an old-fashioned bribe in November 2013 when President Yanukovich rejected an association agreement with the EU and opted instead for the nascent Eurasian Union. This, however, led to an uprising centered on Kiev, concluding with Yanukovich’s flight in February, and the likelihood of the whole country pulling away from Russia.

An attempted counter-revolution fizzled out in Eastern Ukraine .The protesters lacked widespread support. Only in Crimea could Russians take control. Russia’s annexation of this territory, however, further reduced Russia’s influence over Ukraine, including the eastern parts. Those who wished for greater autonomy feared that the end result would be incorporation into Russia.

The use of professional soldiers in uniforms without markings (the so-called “little green men”) was first noticed in Crimea. They were deployed again in April, as Russian special forces acted with indigenous separatists to seize administrative buildings and other facilities in the Donbas area, with the efforts centred on the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. At first these operations were successful, in part because the local response by Ukrainian security forces was weak. Even with Russian backing, however, the rebellion struggled to establish itself because of a lack of popular backing. An attempt to hold referenda in support of separatism was farcical and soon barely mentioned. Resistance from workers in the Donbass helped push out separatists from weak positions in cities such as Mariupol.

After the election of President Poroshenko at the end of May, the Ukrainian military stepped up its effort against the separatists. As their “anti-terrorist operation” made inroads into separatist territory, Russia began to move in more advanced equipment, including GRAD rockets and anti-aircraft weapons. These did shoot down a number of Ukrainian military aircraft but then caused an international scandal when a Malaysian Airways flight was downed on 17 July by a missile fired from a Russian BUK system, causing the death of 281 passengers and crew. The furor that followed added to Russia’s isolation, not helped by Moscow’s refusal to accept any responsibility. Western sanctions, first introduced after the annexation of Crimea, were intensified. It also distracted the separatists’ attention from the defense of their positions. Slowly but surely Ukrainian forces pushed the rebels back to about half of their original holdings. It looked likely that they would be pushed out of first Donetsk and then Luhansk.

At this point, a decision seems to have been taken in Moscow to get a grip on the situation. The separatist leadership changed, with the more obvious Russian placemen removed, and local figures inserted, although the internal politics of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics remain murky. In late August, Russian armed forces became involved in a more overt way. The starting point was an argument over a so-called humanitarian convoy to deliver assistance to the areas under siege. Soon far more important were the tanks and troops moving into position to re-supply Luhansk, where they took the airport. More seriously, they seized the border town of Novoazovsk and threatened the port of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, thus raising the possibility of a land corridor to Crimea. The prime minister of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Alexander Zakharchenko, told Russian media in late August that among the 3000-4000 Russian citizens fighting with the separatists, were “many military men” on their “summer holidays.” Denials of direct Russian involvement in support of separatists had long been implausible but now they had little credibility. A further problem was opened up as Russian soldiers were killed fighting in Ukraine, leading to subterfuges to hide the real cause of death or explain their presence in a neighboring country. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian Army buckled under the new onslaught. It gave back ground in the Donbass and was forced to suspend the anti-terrorist operation to concentrate on defense. Ukrainian forces were pushed back towards the coastal city of Mariupol.

The cease-fire agreed on Sept. 5 with rebel leaders used ambiguous language originally proposed by President Poroshenko to promise some autonomy for the territory held by the separatists, but within Ukraine’s current borders. Later, an agreement on Sept. 20 proposed a buffer zone to separate the forces. There were reports of a more private Putin-Poroshenko agreement with harsher terms. Although the positions held by separatists created a serious problem for Ukraine, with important territory out of its control, the borders at the time did not guarantee that Russia would achieve its main aims. There was no land corridor to Crimea and the territory controlled by the separatists was too small to make much sense as a stand-alone entity, incoherent both economically and politically, yet large enough to require a substantial subsidy if it was not to collapse internally. Some 350,000 people were reportedly displaced by the conflict: It would be surprising if they returned while there was still a possibility of open warfare. The separatists continued to expand their area of control after the agreement. In practice, it was not so much a cease-fire as an agreed de-escalation that concentrated the fighting in specific places, notably around Donetsk airport. This was held by government troops and thus undermined the separatist claim to be in charge of the city. It is unlikely that without a return to even greater and more overt Russian support than before that cities such as Mariupol, necessary for a land corridor to Crimea, can be taken.

The conflict therefore has not yet been “solved.” Ukrainian elections scheduled for 26 October are likely to see Russian sympathisers in the Kiev parliament marginalised. Ukraine finds itself severely weakened, with its economy in freefall and key territories out of its control. Poroshenko has accepted the need for compromise, in terms of more autonomy for the troubled regions and respect for Russian concerns. But he will not satisfy demands for complete separation or abandon closer relations with the EU. For its part, Russia therefore must decide on its own priorities: To protect Crimea, to prevent the integration of a truncated “Novorossiya” into Ukraine or to keep Ukraine away from the EU.

This uncertainty about the future confirms President Obama’s proposition that there cannot be a “military solution.” This became something of a mantra among NATO leaders up to and around the alliance’s Cardiff summit of early September 2014, taking place at the same time as the cease-fire negotiations in Minsk. Its effect at the time was to signal to both domestic audiences and Ukraine that NATO members were not going to get militarily involved. Combined with heavy combat losses, this may well have convinced Poroshenko not to continue to push back militarily against Russia and the separatists, and accept a cease-fire. At most, NATO countries have been prepared to supply forms of military assistance to help the Ukrainians resist further Russian advances.

This mantra was at one level self-evident but at another missed the point. Wars are political struggles and therefore any solution will be marked by a political settlement. The military situation on the ground, however, will hardly be irrelevant. In this case, September’s tentative settlement was far more advantageous for the Russian position as a result of its direct intervention than it would have been without it.


In discussion of this intervention, commentary has focussed on two distinctive though related features of the Russian campaign. The first was the development of so-called “hybrid warfare”, involving the integration of local agitators along with both irregular and regular “volunteers” from Russia. The second was the reliance on information operations. A constant challenge was mounted to the claims made by Ukrainian and western opponents of Russian action, and a competing narrative was developed based on the illegal and fascistic nature of the Kiev government. This narrative pushed the notion that the Kiev government was solely responsibility for the conflict and for particular tragedies, such as the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner and the shelling of civilian areas.

The term “hybrid warfare” gained currency after Israel was said to have been surprised and discomfited during the 2006 Lebanon War by the combination of guerrilla and conventional tactics adopted by Hezbollah. As with many similar concepts, such as asymmetric warfare, once adopted as a term of art it has tended towards a wider definition. It does not refer to a new phenomenon, for there are many examples in military history of combination of regular and irregular forms of warfare. Frank Hoffman, who has done much to publicize the concept, defined hybrid threats in a recent War on the Rocks as: “Any adversary that simultaneously employs a tailored mix of conventional weapons, irregular tactics, terrorism and criminal behavior in the same time and battlespace to obtain their political objectives.”

The question begged by this is the one of political control and the presumption of a unified adversary. It can be challenging enough to meld together different units of the same army, for example special forces and infantry battalions, but even more difficult where the forces coming together not only have different military tasks and methods but also distinct command structures and possibly diverging political interests. If not quite comparable with the traditional challenges of coalition warfare, such problems have been faced by the Russians and separatist forces in Ukraine.

The purpose of the force structure has been to deceive (recalling the old Soviet concept of Maskirovka or masking), geared to the pretence that the fighting force is wholly indigenous and supplemented by no more than some friendly volunteers from over the border. Some observers have drawn attention to a speech from early 2013 by Valery Gerasimov, newly appointed as chief of Russia’s general staff. Reflecting some of the Western debate, he described how in conflict in the Middle East there had been a progressive erosion of the distinctions between war and peace and between uniformed personnel and covert operatives. Wars are “not declared but simply begin,” so that “a completely well-off and stable country” could be transformed into “an arena of the most intense armed conflict in a matter of months or even days.” In these circumstances, military means became more effective when combined with non-military means, including “political, economic, information, humanitarian and other measures.” These could be supplemented by covert and thus deniable military measures as well as offers of peace-keeping assistance as a means to strategic ends. “New information technologies,” would play an important role. As a result “frontal clashes of major military formations … are gradually receding into the past.” They now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures.” All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces.

This may well have been the approach adopted by Russia during the first months of the crisis in Ukraine. It appears that preparations had been made for this contingency for some time. The separatist forces, however, had a complex structure, including local agitators, militants who had learned their trade in Chechnya and Georgia, and some Russian special forces, Coordination was often poor and political leadership at times eccentric. Their methods alienated local people and used the sophisticated Russian-supplied equipment recklessly. They could not cope with regular Ukrainian forces once they were organized and prepared to deploy firepower more ruthlessly and so eventually had to be rescued by progressive and eventually quite overt Russian intervention. This case therefore shows some limits of hybrid warfare, and in particular the difference between combining different approaches in the same force and combining forces which are different not only in approach but in political interests and organizational structures.

The issue of information operations is more complex. Russian strategists judge these to be important as a means of challenging the claims made by opponents and shoring up support at home. Assertions were made about a fascistic and illegitimate Ukrainian government along with a larger narrative about the greatness, exceptional quality, and legitimate interests of Russia. Economic sacrifices and the risks being run in Ukraine were justified as enabling a shift away from links with Western Europe to intensified links with Asia. The increasing control over national media and internet providers, along with intimidation of dissenters, made it possible to shape Russian opinion. For example, after the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in St. Petersburg expressed concern about Russian casualties in Ukraine, the Ministry of Justice declared the nongovernmental organization to be a “foreign agent.” Enormous efforts were made to harass perceived opponents of Russia, including an army of trolls with a mission to contradict and abuse those taking anti-Russian positions on social media, and the use of Russia Today, a Russian-controlled news network with branches across the West. The defection of some of Russia Today’s reporters in the West, and the absurd nature of some of its claims, did little for its credibility (although it is important to note that in some parts of Europe, Russia media sources are widely used).

There are four issues connected with this propaganda campaign. The first lies in the contrast between its effectiveness at home and abroad. Putin became extremely popular at home, and rode a wave of nationalist sentiment, particularly with regard to the annexation of Crimea. Outside of Russia, its positions taken in a series of awkward Security Council sessions were widely disregarded and derided. Its attempts to shift blame for the downing of the Malaysian airliner failed. Although the starting point for Russian operations was plausible deniability, after a while it was as if Moscow no longer cared even for plausibility. Ukrainians did not rally en masse to the separatist cause. Russia’s international standing has fallen.

The second issue lies in the consequences for a government that insists on fictional descriptions of situations. It can get itself caught in what Jeff Michaels has called a “discourse trap,” whereby consistency with the fiction means that it must be upheld even when the result is to push policies to counter-productive and absurd positions. It also means that there is no agreed foundation for diplomatic intercourse. When an interlocutor insists on an alternative reality, it is hard to engage even on minor issues.

The third issue concerns the durability of Moscow’s narrative in Russia. Nationalists have already been unnerved by possible betrayals of the separatists (a factor which may have encouraged Putin in the more overt intervention) and if the separate territories are in any way re-integrated into Ukraine, allegations of betrayal may surface again. More seriously, the prospects for the Russian economy remain grim, with living standards squeezed as the country faces a recession and inflation. The decline in oil and gas prices and the current inability of Russia to attract inward investment will add to the challenges. Some Russian responses to sanctions, notably banning some agricultural products from the EU or reducing gas supplies to Poland and Slovakia, are damaging to longer-term Russian interests. A combination of sanctions and self-harm suggests that the Russian economy is about to enter a period of severe turbulence.

The fourth issue is that Russian propaganda effort successfully created a sense of menace that probably had an effect (although this is hard to measure) in deterring the West from supporting Ukraine as much as it might have done. This effort has combined not only rhetorical threats, such as regular reminders of Russia’s nuclear strength, but also staged incidents, such as kidnapping an Estonian officer and regular violations of Western airspace. By way of contrast to Russian bluster and braggadocio, instead of challenging the foundations of the self-promotion, Western commentary has often accepted it at face value and compared it unfavourably with the feebleness of the Western support. While the hawks have exaggerated Russian power, the doves have shown sympathy for its stance, accepting that the origins of the crisis lie in Western expansionism rather than Ukrainian self-determination.

Nonetheless, the crisis over Ukraine has reshaped the European security debate. Far more attention is being paid by NATO to tangible forms of reassurance to the Baltic states, while neutrals such as Sweden and Finland are getting closer to the alliance. NATO adopted a “Readiness Action Plan” to establish military bases in Eastern Europe and a rapid response force to protect its members from Russian incursions. It also committed financial and material support to Ukraine and regular military exercises on its territory. There are suggestions of a new Russian doctrine that would “re-establish NATO as Russia’s primary threat and effectively set Russia’s defense policy toward combatting it.” If nothing else, NATO has an answer to the question of what it needs to worry about as it leaves Afghanistan.

Energy security is on the agenda and that will lead to a gradual reduction of dependence upon Russian sources. For its part, Russia will wish to reduce its dependence on Western markets by looking to Asia. But China is largely taking advantage of its weakness to achieve attractive deals on oil supplies, while Japan has also imposed sanctions. Over time, Russia will need to re-engage with the EU. The Russian foreign minister even recently floated the idea of a new “reset” with the United States.

Limited wars are by definition contained. This requires that both sides accept a new reality as preferable to the risks involved into trying to move to an even better reality. There is therefore a degree of compromise. Both sides must convince themselves that they can live with the outcome. The problem with the position reached in September 2014 is that it is not durable. The crisis is not yet over because the future of Ukraine remains uncertain. There are profound constitutional questions still to be resolved. Although the annexation of Crimea will not be recognized, not much will be done about this, so the focus will remain on Donetsk and Luhansk. The dilemma for Putin remains the risk of losing real influence over these territories should they be re-integrated into Ukraine, or of losing influence over Ukraine if they effectively become part of Russia. Either way a dilemma is created for Ukraine, especially as it struggles with its own dire economic situation, aggravated by the costs of war, and the need to deal with problems of chronic corruption and incompetence left over from the old regime. It remains the case that the most important task for the West is to strengthen Ukraine economically while helping it rebuild its armed forces. Although there appears to be a view in western capitals that the worst of the crisis is over, this is not yet a frozen conflict along the lines of those in Moldova and Georgia. The situation remains unstable.

Russia has damaged but not defeated Ukraine. By sticking to economic rather than military sanctions, NATO and the EU have damaged but not defeated Russia. In a contest between these two forms of hard power, in the first instance, the advantage sits with the military. But if a definitive solution cannot be imposed, as in this case, then over time the advantage will swing to the economic. It is one thing to occupy territory with superior force, but it is another to administer and reconstruct, as the United States and its allies have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia has sustained a weak position and boosted its bargaining position by conveying a readiness to escalate. This has been a constant of Russian rhetoric, including reference on occasion to nuclear capabilities. From the start there were menacing deployments of Russian forces along the border. The menace was validated to a degree by the invasion of Ukrainian territory. The threat of escalation certainly had an effect on Ukrainian calculations, reinforced by Kiev’s awareness of its own limited ability to escalate. While the Russian threats were not quite Potemkin Villages, in that they had real substance, they were still exaggerated. Claims that Russia could march with ease to Kiev or turn off gas supplies without a thought for the consequences or pivot to China could all be challenged on the basis of the underlying economic realities of its position. The gloomy prognostications by many Western commentators on how Putin was determined to take on all neighboring states in some ways boosted this aspect of Russian strategy, making the country appear to be more powerful than is actually the case.

Putin’s power play in Ukraine has been impulsive and improvised, without any clear sense of the desired end state. It will serve neither Ukraine nor Moscow if Donetsk and Luhansk fall into disrepair and disarray, left in some separatist limbo, but it is not clear that either have the capacity to provide a viable future. The separatists will not allow its re-integration into Ukraine while Russia cannot afford to annex. The first stage of this crisis demonstrated poor crisis management. The second stage proved that in a struggle over territory, superior force makes a difference. However, without popular support, along with economic and administrative capacity, Russia will struggle to transform seized territory into a viable political entity. After many months of effort Russia has achieved limited gains but at high cost. In limited war you don’t always get what you want. Nor do you get much satisfaction.


Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013). He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.


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