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The Russian Grand Strategy Guiding the Invasion of Ukraine

7 minute read
Morris is the Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and Professor in History at Stanford University. His new book is Geography is Destiny: Britain's Place in the World, published in May.

We have been living in a golden age, what scholars of international relations call the “Long Peace.” Since 1945, the world has fought astonishingly few interstate wars, and no total wars—where all restraint goes out of the window and every available weapon is used—at all.

In a way, this is surprising. As far back as historians can look, every major shift in the balance of wealth and power has set off massive violence—and we are currently living through the biggest, fastest shift of all time. In 1950, 3 of the world’s 4 richest countries were Western and just 1 was Asian; in 2022, 3 are Asian and just 1 Western. This is the mother of all shifts.

But in another way, the Long Peace is not surprising at all. “War,” Clausewitz famously said, “is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” Governments go to war when they think force will achieve their policy goals; they do not go to war when they think it will bring disaster. The threat of nuclear weapons since 1945 and of overwhelming American economic and conventional military superiority since 1989 have, so far, raised the costs of war so high that few governments ever want to pay them.

Yet interstate disputes persist, and so governments have found new ways to win them. Hence Ukraine. In the last 400 years, Polish, Swedish, French, and (twice) German armies have threatened or captured Moscow. Vladimir Putin was being perfectly serious in 2005 when he called the collapse of the Soviet Union, which pushed Russia’s front line 800 miles east from the Elbe, the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” For 30 years, rolling the frontier back westward has been one of Russia’s top strategic priorities.

But with jaw-jaw not getting what he wanted and war-war looking far too alarming, Putin spent the first 13 years after his “peace enforcement” attack on Georgia in 2008 making war on his neighbors, yet not; invading them, yet not. “Ukraine,” he insisted in 2008, “is not even a state,” because Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.” By this logic, his 2014 decisions to annex Crimea and support violent separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region constituted neither war nor an invasion. As late as February 21, 2022, he still seemed to be working from the same script when he announced that Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions were in fact independent countries. By firing rockets at Kyiv, shelling Kharkiv, and sending tens of thousands of troops across Ukraine’s borders, he was just being a good neighbor, helping the new statelets keep the peace and “de-Nazifying” Ukraine’s elected government.

Putin’s strategy was one of unclarity, of blurry, gray movements in a fog of ambiguity, none of them rising to the level of war. American strategists sometimes call this the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” after an essay published in 2013 by Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the Russian army’s chief of staff for the last ten years. “The emphasis in methods of struggle,” Gerasimov observed, is on “widespread use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military matters … Overt use of force,” he advises, “often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis management, occurs only at a certain stage, primarily to achieve definitive success in the conflict.”

Read More: How the Invasion of Ukraine Shattered Europe’s Illusion of Peace

That “certain stage” arrived on February 24. But when Russian forces entered Ukraine from the north, south, and east, they encountered stiff resistance. Ukrainian troops held their ground while American and European leaders kept their nerve, sending military supplies and imposing tough sanctions. And so, on February 27, Putin invoked another Russian strategy for making war yet not making it: “escalating to de-escalate.”

This Orwellian idea, floated by three senior Russian army officers in a 1999 essay, means threatening to use—or actually using—low-yield nuclear weapons to signal to an enemy that it if it does not back down, its conflict with Russia could escalate to all-out nuclear war. Russian officials regularly deny that they have any such strategy, but the U.S. Department of Defense has been treating it as a reality since its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

By putting Russia’s nuclear forces on “high alert,” Putin is escalating to de-escalate. By raising the stakes, he hopes to break the West’s united front and bully Ukrainian leaders into giving in to his demands in the ceasefire talks that began on February 28. If he gets his way, he will push Russia’s frontier westward and rescue Russia’s economy from sanctions without fighting a major war; if he does not, he courts the greatest international disaster since World War II. The Gerasimov Doctrine is going through its first major test.

The results will feed directly into the Doctrine’s second major test, which has already been underway for several years in a theater even more vital to American interests—the West Pacific. Chinese leaders have been complaining for decades that the U.S. is containing their growth with “Island Chains” of allies, running from Japan to Australia. Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” throwing transport routes across Eurasia to link China to the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, outflanks these chains; but China also looks to break them, most likely in the South China Sea or Taiwan.

Chinese leaders have rushed to point out that Ukraine is not Taiwan. Currently, Beijing seems highly unlikely to invade the island, except in the equally unlikely event that Taiwan unilaterally declares independence. But China is keeping its options open. On the one hand, it has merely abstained from votes to condemn Russia’s actions in the United Nations Security Council, rather than openly siding with Russia by vetoing them (or the U.S. by supporting them). On the other, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying insists that Putin has not launched an actual invasion; and in its own back yard, China has for some years been Gerasimoving all along the Island Chains.

Taiwan, China insists, is just a breakaway province. Like Ukraine, it is not even a state, because mainlanders and Taiwanese are one people. Beijing’s maps, in defiance of the U.N. law of the seas, insist equally loudly that the South China Sea is already part of China’s territorial waters. Chinese coastguards, so-called “fishermen,” and aircraft regularly harass other countries’ oil rigs, fishing fleets, and even warships. The People’s Republic has bullied neighbors into private deals and turned uninhabited rocks into artificial islands, complete with naval facilities and runways.

None of this rises to the level of war as Clausewitz defined it, but that, of course, is the point. Although every major shift in wealth and power in the past has involved massive violence, this time might well be different. Putin is gambling that the Gerasimov Doctrine gives revisionist powers—Russia, China, Iran—a road map for remaking the world by making war yet not. If he gets his way, the Long Peace will persist, but its terms will have been redefined. Some American strategists in fact already conclude that “war” and “peace” are outdated concepts: we live in a world of constant, multi-level “campaigning.”

Ukraine’s agony is a test of the West’s ability to win a new kind of great-power conflict. There are a lot of ifs involved. If its leaders can stand together, if sanctions can impose sufficient pain, if its citizens can stand some pain of their own, and if its allies will fight, aggressors might yet back down. If not, the West may well avoid fighting the next war, but will lose the peace anyway.

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