The war in Ukraine provided a new context in which to refine and quantify Clausewitzian theory as the modern age’s first popularized social media war.
Let me start first with a review of key aspects of Clausewitzian theory and then apply them to the current Russo-Ukrainian war.
Key Aspects of Clausewitzian Theory
Clausewitz’s magnum opus—On War, posthumously published in 1832, reflected his firsthand experiences from the Napoleonic Wars. In his writings, he transferred his wealth of knowledge into perennial practical military theory.1
The war between Russia and Ukraine in the breakaway Donbas region began in February 2014 after the Euro-Maidan protests and political revolution. The Donbas evolved into an intersectional conflict between East and West over the cultural affiliation of a non-NATO member. The next phase of the war came in February 2022, the Russian invasion changed the dynamic of the war, shifting the strategic center of gravity to Kyiv.
Timeless Clausewitzian principles—the paradoxical trinity, friction, and the center of gravity remain critical with a modification to modernity to apprehend effectively the causal factors of the Russian strategic shift in Ukraine as they reworked their strategy.
Clausewitz’s life, dominated by the Napoleonic Wars, caused him to write On War as a personal evaluation of his experiences. Napoleon, the “Emperor of the Revolution personified, and profited from, the unique fusion of social, political, and military elements brought about by the overthrow of the Old Regime in France. “2 Clausewitz focused on Napoleon’s rise and fall from power and analyzed a wide array of strategic battlefield and political decisions made within the Napoleonic wars.
Clausewitz joined the Prussian army in 1792, first seeing combat at only twelve years old. He participated in multiple campaigns, including the Prussian disaster at Jena-Auerstadt, the Russian campaign, and the War of the Seventh Coalition.3 4 5 Unlike the prominent military theorist Antoine de Jomini, Clausewitz rejected prescriptive military theory; instead, he favored descriptive analysis and concluded—”there was no single standard of excellence in war.”6
Clausewitz believed that “war could never be fully caught by a system” and oversimplification “only falsified reality.”7 Determined to enhance understanding, he sought timeless attributes and condensed them to “strengthen and refine judgment” of the study of war.8
Clausewitz determined that the primary tendencies of war unfailingly constituted a “paradoxical trinity”—violence, chance, and political policy.9 Elaborated, his trinity comprised the distinctive attributes of “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”3
In application, the first pillar—violence “concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government.”3 The three pillars of the trinity, as different as “three different codes of law,”3 act as magnets that invariably affect war, each gaining prominence dependent on the scenario—Clausewitz refined chance and probability into his most durable concept—friction.
Clausewitz first employed the concept of friction during the 1806 campaign of Jena-Auerstadt to describe the difficulty his mentor Prussian General Gerhard von Scharnhorst, “encountered in persuading the high command to reach decisions, and the further difficulties of having the decision implemented.”10 Friction signifies the unknown variable in war—”countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal.”11
This timeless, masterful perspicuity provides a practical tool, adjustable and applicable to any unique war. Clausewitz conspicuously clarified—”everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”5
His most famous maxim—”war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,”12 illustrated the third pillar—policy, the supposed rational aspect of war, formed by governmental goals. To Clausewitz, war exists within the “realm of chance,”13 which ensures each “is rich in unique episodes”14 and demands universal applicability to theory.
Each conflict within the Napoleonic Wars, which comprised seven “Wars of the Coalition,” generally peaked into a singular decisive battle. Clausewitz coined the “center of gravity”15 concept to describe actions determining the war’s outcome.
As war industrialized on a massive scale in the 20th century, the nature of singular battles temporally increased from the scale of days to often months. Nevertheless, war remained reducible to a distinct center of gravity to explain the decisive strategic juncture.
Clausewitz characterized strategy as “the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war.”16 Thus, strategy comprises individual actions within the center of gravity and accounts for decisions made by military and political leaders.
Clausewitz favored using examples of conflict in military theory, which serves a dual purpose—to expound upon an idea, demonstrate its application, and test and refine a hypothesis.
The most recent full-scale conflict—the Russo-Ukrainian War, reorients military theory in the twenty-first century and provides a model to measure the continued applicability of dominant Clausewitzian theory.
The Russo-Ukrainian War as a Case Study
Ukraine, which in Slavic languages translates as “borderland,” exemplifies its strategic geographical position as the intersection of East and West in Europe. Also acutely labeled “the bloodlands,” Ukraine’s unfortunate location historically served as the principal battleground of the 20th century, witnessing staggering carnage.17 A historical highway for marauding Scythians, Huns, Goths, and other “barbarians” into Europe ensured the eventual regional dominance of a war-like people.18
Kyivan Rus symbolized the first foundational ancestor of the modern Ukrainian state. An amalgamation of Scandinavian and Slav peoples—Kyivan Rus controlled the area—including Moscow until smashed by the Mongols, leading to the eventual shift of power to the Russian forbearers.
The second ancestor of the modern state, the Ukrainian Cossack “Hetmanate,” founded in 1648 after an insurrection against the regionally dominant Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, saw the Ukrainians willingly submit themselves to the Russian Empire and “transformed the geopolitical situation in eastern Europe.”19
The last foundational ancestor of modern Ukraine—the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, formed during the wars of 1917-1921 and comprised the “southern European provinces of the Russian Empire and, to some degree as well, in territories a little to the west, in the Hapsburgs’ Austrian Empire.”20
Russia forcibly ignored Ukrainian cultural independence, often disabusing them as second-class citizens, culminating in the Holodomor, where 3.5 million Ukrainians died in forced starvation by their Russian colonial masters.21 22
In 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence and began a long process of extricating itself from Russian influence.23
Applying Clausewitz’s trinity to determine the foundations of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict implicates the political pillar primarily and the competition for cultural prominence. Ukraine’s political dichotomy, representative of a collision between pro-West and pro-Russian parties, first arose in the 2004 presidential election. Pro-European Yushchenko and pro-Russian Yanukovych battled in a highly contentious election culminating in the “Orange Revolution” due to voting malfeasance.24
The political landscape continued in a near 50-50 split. Yushchenko gained power after the third election vote, and Yanukovych took office in 2010.25 In 2014, the political impasse drastically shifted, turning violent.26 The inclusion of Clausewitz’s pillar of violence sparked a chain of events that inevitably brought full-scale conflict. Pro-Western forces seized power after months of violent protests, which saw the eastern Donbas regions extricate themselves from the Kyiv power structure—the civil war had begun.
The low-scale conflict raged in the Donbas regions of Luhansk and Donetsk for eight years, representing the war’s center of gravity. Crimea—added to the Soviet Ukrainian province in 1954, sought a referendum after the Russian invasion in 2014 to join the Russian Federation, raising geopolitical tensions.27
Russian weapons, mercenaries, and capital flooded into the Donbas, enabling the separatists to resist governmental Kyivan forces effectively. On February 24th, 2022, the satellite war between Ukraine and Russia detonated.
After months of military build-up, Russia invaded Ukraine on four axes of advance—Belarus-Kyiv, Crimea-Kherson, Donbas, and Kharkiv, shifting the center of gravity from Donbas to Kyiv. In the media, Putin claimed that his objective “to de-Nazify” and “de-militarize” shone transparently. Instead, he intended to bring Ukraine back under the Russian umbrella, as demonstrated by his initial military goals.28
The axes of advance through Kharkiv considered a pro-Russian region, intended to link up with the Belarusian front to encircle Kyiv. Full-scale conflict conferred the equal application of Clausewitz’s three pillars—the political objective with the implementation of violence propelled the result into the realm of chance and to the whim of friction.
Shifting the center of gravity from Donbas to Kyiv—from a province to the capital—considerably raised the political stakes. The tremendous addition of Russian troops to the equation increased the pull of the violence and chance magnets to the conflict’s character.
Putin’s aggressive plan sighted a quick campaign to overrun the capital and thereby force a policy conclusion through warfare. Unforeseen friction stopped Russia’s objectives dead in their tracks. Eastern provinces, specifically Russian-speaking Kharkiv, failed to fall immediately and provide the base of operations required for a westward push towards the center of gravity.
Kharkiv not only resisted the initial Russian offensive but repelled and regained lost ground surrounding the city.29 The Kharkiv axis of advance, now stalled, forced the Russian military planners to shift focus and armament to the Belarus-Kyiv axis.
Overly ambitious Russian objectives demonstrated the inability of the Russian military to assess the capabilities and resolve of the Ukrainian people, even ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Clausewitz said, “apt examples are the best teachers,”30 but it is necessary to remain aware of “preconceived ideas,” which demands a calculated pause to analyze soon begotten examples.
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict requires careful examination of empirical samples because of limited information. For example, the Battle of Hostomel Airport epitomized Russian overreach, a classical “bridge too far” scenario where Russian forces attempted to secure a strategically vital airport near the new center of gravity—Kyiv to establish a base of operations and link up with advancing mechanized troops.
At 0800, February 24th, a heavily laden formation of thirty-four Russian helicopters assaulted the airport.31 Unanticipated friction—the relay of critical information of the impending attack by United States intelligence alerted the 4th Rapid Response Brigade of the Ukrainian National Guard, who immediately encircled and began to overwhelm the elite desantniki—Russian paratroopers.32 33
Reportedly eighteen Il-76 troop transport planes took off to reinforce the beleaguered desantniki, failing to deploy, causing the initial force to retreat from their positions in the evening.25 34 The decisive factor in the battle—the timely assault of the Ukrainian army, ensured the failure of Russian reinforcement by air due to heavy fighting and accounted for significant friction for the Russians, who relied on tactical surprise.
The outcome remains the same whether details of the battle shift over time as history attunes to pure factual evidence—the Russians initiated a high-risk, high-reward offensive, which failed due to staunch timely Ukrainian resistance enabled by United States intelligence.
Ukrainian resistance in Russian-speaking areas delineates perhaps the most surprising form of friction for the Russian war plan.
Kharkiv considered the most pro-Russian area of Ukraine outside the Donbas, represented a likely base of operations and an easy target for the Russian advance.35 Instead, the Russian army encountered some of the most dogged native resistance in their operation, failing to encircle the city and eventually defeated after significant Ukrainian counterattacks in the district.36
Russia’s plan failed to account for substantial popular resistance, which caused considerable friction in the Kharkiv axis of advance. The magnet of chance and violence overwhelmed policy objectives and left the Belarus-Kyiv axis to stand alone in its offensive to take the capital.
Despite initial setbacks in taking strategic airfields surrounding Kyiv, Russia continued to mass significant forces north of Kyiv, preparing to assault the center of gravity. Ultimately, the battlegroups amassed to attack Kyiv proved inadequate and, after months of heavy fighting in the outskirts of the city, withdrew to initial positions, some even into Belarus.37 38
Clausewitz’s statement—”war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,”39 accounts for an incomplete thought. The second half of his most famous maxim implies a policy shift dependent on the war’s outcome. The Russian failure of any early victory through taking Kyiv forced Moscow to reconsider its initial objectives.
The defeated Kyiv and Kharkiv axes of advance compelled Moscow to redefine the center of gravity of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Immediately upon the loss of the battle for Kyiv, Russia began redeploying its forces to the Donbas—the new center of gravity. This shift in policy allowed Moscow to reduce the likelihood of friction, reorient the magnets of policy and violence, regain the initiative and retain the possibility of a strategic victory.
As of 15 July, the Russians maintain control of more than half of the Donbas and continue to make incremental gains despite significant losses.40 Russia now claims that the Donbas always constituted its original objective; this claim disproven by the initial concentration of forces allows Russia to assert total victory upon the eventual fall of the Donbas.
The shift of gravity from Kyiv to Donbas comprised a reorientation of the operational objective to defeat friction, thus allowing Russia to reshape policy objectives to achievable aims and reconstitute its pillar of violence.
Clausewitz’s perennial concepts continue to provide practical tools to explain modern dynamic warfare.
Policy and violence change with the nature of conflict, but the broad conceptual utilization of terms remains the same.
Friction—probability, however, shifted beyond Clausewitz’s initial intention. He utilized friction as an all-encompassing box of unknown variables; that box has grown far beyond the original definition.
The Russo-Ukrainian War constitutes the first social media war; access to first-hand video propaganda provides an unforeseen impact on operational capability. The preponderance of communication and information access has hardened political lines and had unintended consequences for Russia’s invasion, an unanticipated variable added to the friction box.
Putin’s original intention, to prevent the growth of NATO, backfired spectacularly; instead, he unintentionally strengthened NATO with the admission of both Finland and Sweden and increased defense budgets across Europe as the rest of the world watched the war in real-time.41
War is the continuation of policy, but war also reshapes policy to reflect battlefield reality. Violence and chance have an equal ability to move the magnet of policy, as demonstrated by the Ukrainian quagmire.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, it sits at the gateway to Europe and acts as a transitory position for the competition between Eastern and Western cultures. Ironically, had Ukraine not surrendered its nuclear weapons by signing the Lisbon Protocol in 1992, it may have been able to deter outright violent incursions to its borders and possibly allowed albeit corrupt referendums to solve its identity crisis.42
The likely unintended effect of the Russo-Ukrainian War will be a redefinition and strengthening of the concept of “Ukrainian.”
Clausewitz shed his Prussian officer’s uniform for a Russian staff position in 1812, and now his explicative theory returns to the East.43 Clausewitz considered defense the stronger strategy, allowing the enemy to take the initiative to probe for weak points.43
Ukraine traded time and space to ground down the Russian offensive; only capable of limited counterattacks, they continued to rely on the superiority of defense to force a change in Russian policy.
Clausewitzian theory provides a powerful set of tools to analyze modern conflict, and provide insights into the current Russo-Ukrainian war.
- Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press) 27.
- Peter Paret, “Clausewitz,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 124.
- Hew Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War, (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007) 45.
- Strachan, 125.
- Clausewitz, 13.
- Ibid, 5.
- Ibid, 6.
- Paret, 193.
- Clausewitz, 89.
- Ibid, 16.
- Ibid, 119.
- Ibid, 87.
- Ibid, 101.
- Ibid, 120.
- Ibid, 258.
- Ibid, 177.
- Thomas M. Prymak, Ukraine, the Middle East, and the West, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021) 7.
- Prymak, 4.
- Ibid, 11.
- Ibid, 3.
- Prymak, 10.
- Tatiana Zhurzhenko, “Capital of Despair,” East European Politics and Societies25, no. 3 (2011) 600.
- Prymak, 3.
- Sergey S. Zhiltsov, Ukraine: A Political Landscape, (New York, NY: Nova, 2020) 55.
- Zhiltsov, 147.
- Ibid, 198.
- Mikhail Deliagin, “Crimea,” Russian Politics & Law53, no. 2 (2015) 10.
- Mason Clark et al, “Russia-Ukraine Warning Update: Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 26,” Institute For the Study of War, February 26, 2022.
- Mason Clark et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 28, 2022,” Institute For the Study of War, February 28, 2022.
- Clausewitz, 262.
- Sebastien Roblin, “Pictures: In Battle For Hostomel, Ukraine Drove Back Russia’s Attack Helicopters And Elite Paratroopers,” 1945, February 25, 2022. https://www.19fortyfive.com/2022/02/pictures-in-battle-for-hostomel-ukraine-drove-back-russias-attack-helicopters-and-elite-paratroopers/.
- Stijn Mitzer et al, “Destination Disaster: Russia’s Failure At Hostomel Airport,” Oryx, April 13, 2022. https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/04/destination-disaster-russias-failure-at.html.
- Ken Dilanian et al, “U.S. intel helped Ukraine protect air defense, shoot down Russian plane carrying hundreds of troops,” NBC News, April 26, 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/us-intel-helped-ukraine-protect-air-defenses-shoot-russian-plane-carry-rcna26015
- Mason Clark et al, “Russia-Ukraine Warning Update: Initial Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment,” Institute For the Study of War, February 24, 2022. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russia-ukraine-warning-update-initial-russian-offensive-campaign-assessment.
- Natalia Shapovalova et al, “How Eastern Ukraine Is Adapting and Surviving: The Case of Kharkiv,” Carnegie Europe, September 12, 2018. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/09/12/how-eastern-ukraine-is-adapting-and-surviving-case-of-kharkiv-pub-77216.
- Kateryna Stepanenko et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 13,” Institute For the Study of War, May 23, 2022. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-13.
- Frederick W. Kagan et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 7,” Institute For the Study of War, March 7, 2022. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-7.
- Frederick W. Kagan et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, April 5, 2022,” Institute For the Study of War, April 5, 2022. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-april-5.
- Clausewitz, 87.
- Kateryna Stepanenko et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, July 15,” Institute For the Study of War, July 15, 2022. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-july-15.
- “Did Ukraine give up nuclear weapons?” ICAN, Accessed July 17, 2022. https://www.icanw.org/did_ukraine_give_up_nuclear_weapons.
- Clausewitz, 13.
- Ibid, 357.
Lieutenant Jack Tribolet is a US Navy MH-60S Knighthawk pilot, who did two deployments to Bahrain with the HSC-26 Desert Hawks. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California Naval ROTC unit, where he instructs Naval Science and Seapower and Maritime Affairs. LT Tribolet has a degree in Political Science from the University of Arizona and is currently working on a Master of Arts in Military History from Norwich University.
Featured Photo: A stamp printed in the German Democratic Republic shows Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz 1780-1831, Famous Personalities series, circa 1980