The Russo-Ukrainian War in Clausewitzian Perspective: June 2024 Update

By Jack Tribolet

Battlefield realities of the Russo-Ukrainian War provide a model to measure the continued applicability of dominant military theory and practices.

After more than two years of war in Ukraine, the deadly pendulum of fate has swung dramatically. What began as a heroic Ukrainian defense in 2022 has since faltered with an unsuccessful offensive in the summer of 2023 and is now overshadowed by the looming resurgence of Russian aggression.

Penetrating the fog of the Russo-Ukrainian war presents a formidable challenge for the casual observer. However, we can illuminate the murky depths of this intricate battlefield by employing enduring principles of Clausewitzian theory, delineated by his seminal work—On War (1832).

Pragmatic military theory provides a framework for perennial principles to improve conflict comprehension, and while Clausewitz requires an initial high conceptual buy-in, his models remain indispensable to military science.

A brief review of Clausewitz’s life reveals his early immersion in warfare. He joined the Prussian army in 1793 at only twelve years old and first saw action at the Siege of Mainz that same year in the French Revolutionary Wars.[1] Later, he endured the mastery of Napoleon and was caught in the Prussian disaster of the dual defeats of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, which resulted in the French army seizing Berlin.[2] Unwilling to serve Napoleon’s eagles, Clausewitz sought refuge in the Russian military and fought until Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815.[3] During these twenty-two years of near-constant warfare, he emerged not only as a seasoned veteran but also as a keen observer of the art of war, learning military science against one of history’s great captains.

As a theorist, Clausewitz aptly sought to reduce warfare to the “essential, timeless elements” and “distinguish them from its temporary features.”[4] However, he also admits, “theory can never lead to complete understanding, which is an impossibility, but it can strengthen and refine judgment.”[5]

The terms “simple” and “Clausewitz” seldom find themselves in alignment; nevertheless, permit me to reintroduce a few pivotal concepts—the paradoxical trinity, friction, and the center of gravity—which can help dispel the fog of the Russo-Ukrainian War and discuss potential avenues of conclusion.

Enduring Clausewitzian Concepts

Clausewitz distilled the complex dynamics of warfare into a paradoxical trinity comprising three fundamental pillars, “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.”[6] Or simplified, the military, which corresponds to violence, the people, equating chance, and the government (try not to laugh), equates reason. Together, they exert a gravitational pull on the trajectory of conflict, with each force wielding potential influence over the outcome. “These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another.”[7]

Moving forward, the concept of friction delves deeper into the idea of chance. “Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”[8] It encompasses “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.”[9] Even the most brilliant military strategist, including Napoleon, cannot foresee every source of friction on campaign.

Clausewitz first identified this concept in the 1806 campaign, where he observed its profound impact on 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] The consequences of friction on the 1806 campaign culminated in one of Prussia’s most catastrophic defeats and threatened the existence of the state.

Lastly, the concept of a center of gravity sparks immediate disagreement amongst theorists, as its precise meaning remains debatable. Military theory draws upon a few non-sequential ambiguous quotes to define it. For one instance, he remarked, “one must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”[11] Another quote suggests, “a center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely. It presents the most effective target for a blow.”[12]

The exact interpretation of Clausewitz’s intentions for the center of gravity remains ambiguous. Furthermore, configuring the term to reflect modern warfare means it must encompass a broader spectrum of elements. Despite this, the prevailing consensus leans towards the notion of a singular mass, which, if decisively struck, will unravel enemy forces.

In practice, Clausewitz employed this concept to denote a target in the context of early 19th-century warfare when singular battles often determined the conflict outcome. However, in the 20th century, battles temporally lengthened from days to months with the advent of total war. Consequently, Clausewitz’s center of gravity has not changed in definition but in application.

Today, the center of gravity can still refer to a military mass but has expanded to include dimensions such as public morale or industrial capacity. For example, in Vietnam, the pivotal factor in the US withdrawal and subsequent victory of the North Vietnamese Army was the erosion of US public support due to media coverage. This dimension illustrates how factors beyond pure military considerations can determine the outcomes of conflict in the modern era.

Regrettably, for military strategists, clarity regarding a conflict’s center of gravity only becomes apparent in hindsight, rendering its identification in real-time a formidable challenge.

Now armed with the etymological knowledge of the paradoxical trinity, friction, and center of gravity, let’s re-apply them to the Russo-Ukraine War.

Revisiting the Russo-Ukraine War as a Case Study

February 24, 2022, Putin drastically escalated what had been a quasi-war in the Donbas region into a full-scale conflict. His four-axis invasion ignited Clausewitz’s pillar of primordial violence within the military sphere. Putin’s forces targeted Kyiv via Belarus, Kherson from Crimea, and then Donbas and Kharkiv from the east. Kyiv proved to be a bridge too far due to unanticipated friction caused by ferocious resistance in the Kharkiv region by the Russian-speaking Kharkivans.

Moreover, widely circulated images of miles of Russian armor piled up on the northern roads into Kyiv proved an enticing target for Ukrainian defense. Additionally, a fierce defense mounted at the key aerial supply position of Hostomel Airport thwarted Putin’s initial designs of a quick campaign to seize Kyiv, the first center of gravity of the war.

A Ukrainian counter-offensive in March ended the Russian threat to Kyiv, momentarily shifting the trinity pillar from the military to the government. In the seventh round of peace talks, the Ukrainians finally had a bargaining chip—battlefield success. However, instead of leveraging military success and the threat of further Russian defeats, Ukraine, glimpsing victory, broke off negotiations with Western support. Although the UN-verified discovery of Russian atrocities in northern Kyiv was stated as the reason for the cessation of talks, this ignored off-ramp supercharged the magnet of violence.[13]

Clausewitz’s most famous maxim, “war is merely the continuation of policy with the addition of other means,” implies what most casual observers ignore—policy and discourse persist unabated during warfare.[14] Consequently, peace negotiations have ebbed and flowed throughout the war, their potential intrinsically linked to battlefield outcomes.

The intractable policy dispute at the heart of these negotiations centers on the return of Russian-captured territory, including Crimea, which was seized in 2014. Early in the war, negotiations indicated that both parties might agree on a non-aligned status for Ukraine; however, the matter of territory ownership remaining at an impasse compelled the disagreement to be decided militarily.

With Russia’s Kyiv offensive failure, the center of gravity shifted away from Kyiv, spreading amongst the entirety of the eastern front in the Donbas, preordaining a brutal WWI-like attritional stalemate.

By December 2022, the US delivered $114 billion in aid to Ukraine through four congressional bills. Meanwhile, the European Union provided a further $37 billion. This financial boon encompassed military hardware and credit to buy additional weaponry, meaning Ukraine’s true center of gravity shifted out of Ukraine to this US-led coalitional alliance.[15]

Armed with US and European weaponry, Ukraine seized the initiative in June 2023, launching a general offensive in the south with a pinning movement in the east. Originally planned for the spring, continued pauses due to training and material delayed it until the summer. This critical time lapse enabled the Russians to build a sophisticated layered defense in anticipation, thwarting the Ukrainian military, which ultimately gained roughly 370 km2, less than half of what Russia captured in 2023.[16]

Ukraine’s offensive setback shifted the trinity back to the government; however, Russia anticipating future successes and Ukraine suffering from failure provided little incentive for either belligerent to come to the table.

Russia Seizes the Initiative

The Russian military had adapted and learned. History often views the Winter War (1939-1940) between Finland and the Soviet Union as a black eye for the Soviet army, leading Hitler to discount its competence and subsequently invade in 1941. However, as with other major Russian wars—Napoleonic, WWI, and WWII—the Russian military suffered grave initial defeats but reorganized and out-massed its opponents. Ultimately, the Winter War ended with Finland ceding territory to the Soviet Union, but only the narrative of the initial poor Russian performance has persisted.

One unintended consequence of Ukraine shifting its center of gravity outside its home territory was introducing the dimension of US public opinion—chance into the Clausewitzian trinity. In January 2023, the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives and suspended further Ukraine aid for over a year. This lack of support and Ukraine’s offensive failure caused a further degradation of Ukrainian military effectiveness.[17]

Public war fatigue and, in some cases, opposition have supplanted the initial outrage against the Russian Federation. The US public is split 36-36% on whether the US is “doing too much” or “not doing enough” to support Ukraine. However, this is an improvement after last fall when “doing too much” sat at 41% and “not enough” at 25%.[18]

Despite the split, Congress recently voted an additional $61.3 billion in April, plus another $2 billion announced on May 15, bringing the total to $177 billion in aid since the war began. However, the arrival of renewed US material will require time, creating a precarious situation for the Ukrainian army. Russia recognized this gap in supply and adroitly planned to exploit the opportunity in the summer of 2024.[19]

On May 10, 2024, Russia launched a probing offensive into the Kharkiv Oblast aimed at thinning the Ukrainian forces. This probing action signifies the beginning of a coordinated Russian summer offensive, opening a new front with the potential for significant Russian territorial gains. Primordial violence will seize complete control of the conflict for the summer months.[20]

Significantly worse than the deficiency of war material, Ukraine faces a significant manpower shortage. Russia has massed perhaps upwards of 50,000 men in preparation for the Kharkiv offensive. To face this challenge, Ukraine has enacted a divisive mobilization law lowering the drafting age from 27 to 25. An additional 768,000 military-aged Ukrainian men have temporary EU protection status abroad. In an act of desperation, Ukraine, following Russia’s lead, has begun mobilizing convicts.[21]

The manpower issue in Ukraine has potential domestic drawbacks. In wartime, a state must balance its economic workforce with its military mass. Siphoning too many men from the home front can cause financial and public distress and thrust the pillars of chance and policy into play due to public unrest and economic upheaval.


Causes for the Russo-Ukraine War vary. Putin’s original claim of “de-Nazification” seem ludicrous despite some evidence of Nazi admiration in segments of the Ukraine military. Most analysts cite Russia’s red line on NATO expansion; however, in a broad sense, historians will blame this conflict on the global shift from a unipolar order back to a multipolar world.[22]

The two-decade-long unparalleled position of the United States as the sole superpower has passed. History has demonstrated, time infinitum, that world polarity shifts have precipitated conflict.

Russo-Ukrainian battlefield results have yielded opportunities for governmental policy shifts; however, no outcomes of battlefield successes have been decisive enough to facilitate a lasting peace.

Ukraine will require a drastic victory to enter negotiations with the potential for enduring peace. Still, the gap between an acceptable conclusion for the Ukrainian public—the return of all Russian conquered territories will likely be a bridge too far.

(1) The Most Likely Course of Action

If Ukraine grinds down the Russian 2024 summer offensive, it could regain most of the territory lost since the initiation of the Russo-Ukraine War through negotiation; however, Crimea is unlikely ever to be returned, barring some unforeseen event.

To achieve this outcome, Ukraine must inflict severe attrition on Russian forces to thrust the pillar of chance and policy into the Russian sphere. Casualty numbers remain estimates, but Russia may have had as many as 500,000 casualties since 2022. These figures have surpassed the Battle of Verdun and approach the Somme of WWI.[23]

(2) The Most Dangerous Course of Action

If Russia breaches the Ukrainian front, it could take a perilous step to regain lost Soviet and Russian Empire territories of the Iron Curtain era. Russian armies hardened by years of modern war will pose a significant threat to NATO.

As previously noted, much of the US public has grown disillusioned with the Russo-Ukraine War without grasping the consequences of a Ukrainian defeat. The West has staked its reputation as a reliable alliance partner on the conflict. A failure would signal to other aggressive powers—Iran, North Korea, and most of all, China—that the West no longer has the ability nor resolve to deter authoritarian expansion.

The Russo-Ukraine War illustrates the fluid nature of centers of gravity in conflict. To apply a quote from another famous theorist, Sun Tzu, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb every battle.”[24] Therefore, the strategist who successively identifies and exploits the enemy’s center of gravity will achieve victory.

Ukraine’s center of gravity will revert to Kyiv should the war become mobile again. Russia has correctly identified the weakness in relying on Western support and is currently exploiting this material gap.

US public exhaustion of the Russo-Ukraine War was an unforeseen and exploitable friction. The oversaturation of war footage from Ukraine has benefitted it little; without a more coherent narrative explaining the “why” behind US involvement, public backing will continue to wane.

Clausewitzian theory continues to provide powerful tools to analyze the Russo-Ukrainian War. Specifically, the paradoxical trinity can explain the cause and effect of initiative changes.

War is the continuation of policy, but war directly reshapes policy to reflect battlefield reality. Violence, chance, and reason each have an equal ability to move the magnet of policy.

Regrettably, for the foreseeable future of the fighting season, until Russia suffers grievous losses of its new cadre of recruits, violence will dominate policy prescription.

Graphic Credit: Photo 242347493 | Ukraine War © Kar881am |

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 13.

[2] Hew Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War (New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), 45.

[3] Clausewitz, On War, 13.

[4] Clausewitz, On War, 11.

[5] Clausewitz, On War, 193.

[6] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[7] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[8] Clausewitz, On War, 119.

[9] Clausewitz, On War, 119.

[10] Clausewitz, On War, 89.

[11] Clausewitz, On War, 595-596.

[12] Clausewitz, On War, 485.

[13] Paige Sutherland and Meghna Chakrabarti, “The story behind 2022’s secret Ukraine-Russia peace negotiations,” WBUR, National Public Radio, May 6, 2024.

[14] Clausewitz, On War, 87; James R. Holmes, “Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong,” The Diplomat, November 12, 2014.

[15] “Ukraine Support Tracker,” Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Accessed May 19, 2024.

[16] Hugo Bachega, “Zelensky says Ukraine needs more time for counter-offensive,” BBC, May 11, 2023.

[17] Jonathan Masters and Will Merrow, “How Much U.S. Aid Is Going to Ukraine,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 9, 2024.

[18] Megan Brenan, “More Americans Say U.S. Is Not Helping Ukraine Enough,” Gallup, April 12, 2024.

[19] Masters and Merrow, “How Much U.S. Aid Is Going to Ukraine.”; Kevin Shalvey, “US to send additional $2 billion in Ukraine aid, Blinken says,” ABC News, May 25, 2024.

[20] Christina Hayward et al, “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 18, 2024,” Institute for the Study of War, May 18, 2024.

[21] Samya Kullab and Joanna Kozlowska, “Ukraine’s divisive mobilization law comes into force as a new Russian push strains front-line troops,” AP News, May 18, 2024.; Aliss Higham, “Ukraine Follows Russia’s Playbook in Mobilizing Convicts,” Newsweek, May 19, 2024.

[22] Allan Ripp, “Ukraine’s Nazi problem is real, even if Putin’s ‘denazification’ claim isn’t,” NBC News, March 5, 2022.

[23] “What are the Russian Death Toll and Other Losses in Ukraine?,” Brand Ukraine, May 02, 2024.

[24] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles, (New York: NY, Fall River Press, 2015) 57.

Lieutenant Jack Tribolet is a US Navy MH-60S Knighthawk pilot who currently serves as an Officer Instructor and Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California NROTC unit. He instructs and is the Course Coordinator for the class Seapower and Maritime Affairs nationwide. LT Tribolet has a master’s degree in Military History from Norwich University and a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Arizona.