The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
It is a somber thought that, at a time when so large a proportion of the human race remains near starvation level, about six percent of the world's resources, or something under $200 billion, is still being devoted to military expenditure, with no serious likelihood of this situation fundamentally changing during the remainder of this century. Social scientists will continue to seek basic causes in the hope of offering total solutions, but at the political working level the explanation is simple enough. Any sovereign state-that is, any community which wishes to maintain a capacity for independent political action-may have to use or indicate its capacity and readiness to use force-functional and purposive violence-to protect itself against coercion by other states. Given the state system, peace is possible only when there is freedom from all fear of coercion; and in the absence of any supranational authority enforcing a universal rule of law, such freedom from fear still depends at least partly on independent or collective military capability. Such is the conventional wisdom which will continue to rule mankind until we develop a viable alternative, or until there develops so strong a global sense of community that coercion, the use of force to impose one's will on others, becomes literally unthinkable. At present, unfortunately, such coercion is by no means unthinkable even within the most stable of communities and the most powerful of sovereign states.
Military strategy is organized coercion. It can be defensive or offensive: either posture involves the use or threatened use of force to compel an adversary to abandon his preferred course of action and conform to one's will. The traditional object of military operations was to force one's opponent into a position where the only alternatives open to him were compliance with one's own demands or acceptance of an intolerable level of destruction, extending even to total annihilation-whether of his armed forces, or his social system, or both. Against a very weak adversary it might not be necessary to use serious strategy (the art of the strategon, or general) at all. Pure coercion was then possible at the level of "gunboat diplomacy." But since it is normally the object of any community to escape from such a condition of total vulnerability, whether by developing its own power or enlisting the support of an effective protector, the opportunities for such pure coercion in the international system tend constantly to diminish; and a state resorting to force as an instrument of policy will require a strategy appropriate for overcoming an opposing, and armed, will.
The development of strategy as an activity consciously studied, analyzed and practiced according to principles rationally deduced from experience went pari passu in Europe with the development of the state system itself; with the development, that is, of communities conscious of their identities and expecting from their governments protection against coercion by alien groups. Before the seventeenth century such protection was rarely possible. Outside such compact and defensible areas as the Low Countries and the Lombard Plain, warfare consisted often of no more than predatory raids whose object was to inflict the maximum damage on the peoples and possessions of one's adversary; it was a process of mutual and sometimes simultaneous coercion. The protection of territory against such raids by the creation of adequate, fixed defenses and instantly available armed forces required a level of social mobilization and a control over economic resources such as European princes were only beginning to establish during the seventeenth century. Fortified frontiers and standing armies with their own supply systems were in fact an intrinsic part of the development of the state itself. Once direct coercion was no longer possible, serious strategy, the struggle to outwit and disarm the enemy, had to begin.
How strategy then developed from the eighteenth up to the twentieth centuries, how it was affected by technical transformations in transportation and weapons systems and by the broadening of popular participation in national affairs, has been described too often for it to be necessary to say much about it here. An activity limited in the eighteenth century to professional forces absorbing a tiny proportion of national resources became, by the twentieth century, the concern of the whole community. Resources, enormously increased by industrial development, were made available in their entirety to governments by the expansion of their general administrative competence. Thus, strategic triumphs by limited forces over limited forces, such as had in Napoleon's time been accepted as politically decisive, were treated in the twentieth century as incidental reverses by governments which could draw on apparently limitless resources of money and manpower to repair the damage. Lightning military strokes might still be effective against physically or morally unprepared opponents, as the Germans found in 1939 and 1940, but in general the Second World War bore out the lesson of the First. Against a fully mobilized and determined adversary, nothing short of the erosion of his entire physical and moral resources to a point of virtual impotence could be effective in reducing him to a condition in which he could be truly "coerced."
The experience of the First World War made it clear, also, that the morale and cohesion of the community as a whole were at least as important an element in military effectiveness as weapons technology or expertise in generalship. Between the Wars there was much discussion of the possibility of reducing or even eliminating the need for military operations by concentrating on this factor-civilian morale-alone: whether by subversion and psychological warfare, as Hitler often suggested, or by the direct use of air power, as Douhet, Trenchard and Mitchell believed. But the Second World War gave little comfort to either school of thought. Whatever the effectiveness of strategic bombing in other respects, civilian morale proved the last element affected. If anything, bombing intensified the solidarity between government and people in democracies and totalitarian states alike. As for subversion, this was a weapon of which great things were expected by belligerents when they were weak, but which they downgraded as soon as they were strong enough to do so. Hitler's alleged "fifth column" successes against the West in 1939-40 were rather the result of his insight into the existing weaknesses of the democracies than of any specific measures he took to exploit them. Against the Soviet Union he disdained subversion altogether, and there is little evidence to suggest that the Soviet Union devoted any considerable resources to subversion within Germany. The British during their period of maximum weakness in 1940 and 1941 did indeed hope that subversion, together with bombing and blockade, might bring about the collapse of the Nazi empire, but with hindsight we can see how unrealistic such hopes were. Subversion had no serious place in U.S. plans, and after 1942 even the British came to regard the European Resistance as purely ancillary to Allied military operations.
Traditional strategy, in short, assumed that in any conflict the antagonists were in complete control of their national resources and that their governments commanded a total consensus of national will. Violence between states was considered to be totally crystallized into those manifestations of it initiated and controlled by governments. When this proved not to be so, professional fighting forces often reacted with anger and embarrassment, treating friendly partisans with suspicion and hostile ones with savagery. Partisan operations were for them a retrograde step to the sporadic and uncontrolled violence, the isolated and reciprocal atrocities, of which war had so largely consisted before the state had acquired a monopoly of force and channeled it along rational and purposive ends sanctioned and to some degree controlled by international law.
Such an attitude was natural enough in conflicts occurring within a settled social framework which both belligerents were concerned to preserve. But it was out of place in conflicts in which at least one of the belligerents was concerned not with preserving that framework but with destroying it. The Second World War was for some of its participants a struggle of this type, and so, of course, have been a large number of armed conflicts since. The revolutionary objective and its methods can exist within the pattern of traditional strategy. The Nazis sought to achieve military victory by orthodox methods before introducing their new order, but Communist resistance movements in Western Europe, like that of Mao Tse-tung against Japan, were consciously making war and revolution at the same time. While eroding the power and authority of a foreign invader, it was all to the good if they could in the process discredit the established institutions and dispossess the native élites who were collaborating with him. So there developed within the womb of traditional strategy a new technique of revolutionary war: of growing from weakness to strength, of erosion from the periphery to the center, of the use of violence to discredit and humiliate authority where it could not be overthrown directly, of substituting an alternative hierarchy of government with patently effective sanctions and rewards. All these techniques could be used against an unpopular invader. But they could be just as effective in a domestic situation-especially against a colonial occupier whose charisma had been destroyed by external defeat, or an indigenous régime which, in conditions of prolonged turbulence, had failed to establish its legitimacy. It was this kind of strategy which was being perfected in the middle years of the twentieth century. Its object was no longer the coercion of a community from outside; it was the transformation of its social and political structure from within.
The implications of this revolutionary strategy for international politics, considerable though they are, can be and have been overrated. Until now its effectiveness has been limited to the fragile structures of colonial, and the chaotic conditions of post-colonial and similar societies, and it has yet to be shown that it can really be an effective technique in international conflict between major powers. The tendency commented on earlier for subversion to be used by powers in their weakness and abandoned once they are strong certainly appears to apply to the Soviet Union, whose relations with revolutionary movements throughout the world have grown steadily cooler as it has established a position of respectable international strength. The Russians have had more opportunity than most to observe how seldom it is that successful insurgents make docile satellites, and the Chinese seem to have no illusions about this in Vietnam. Without underrating the skill and relish with which Communist powers first trouble waters and then fish in them, one can now say with reasonable certainty that the successes of revolutionary warfare during the past quarter of a century have owed more to the peculiar circumstances of a post-colonial epoch than to any farsighted strategy masterminded in Moscow or Peking.
Still, these historical circumstances-the "objective conditions" so beloved by Marxists-have to be taken into account by any contemporary student of strategy. One must be properly cautious about extrapolating from the confused conditions of the Third World, where the impact of Western culture first shattered indigenous forms of authority and then abandoned those it had put in their place, to the more settled societies of the developed world, whose traditional value systems give their governmental structures and established authorities deeper roots of legitimacy. But it is no longer possible to assume that any of these developed societies are inherently stable. Those in continental Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, have been ravaged by war, occupation and revolution for over half a century. Beyond the Iron Curtain a precarious order is maintained only by totalitarian discipline. In Western Europe the political system impresses less by its stability than by its confusion. The Anglo-Saxon nations whose fortunate geographical circumstances enabled them to escape the worst ravages of the World Wars have their own problems in adjusting their institutions and their values to the bewilderingly rapid social transformation, brought about by their very economic successes. In their dislocation only a very optimistic Marxist would see a situation which could be exploited to the point of takeover by revolutionary cadres. But these societies are unhappy, confused and decreasingly responsive to traditional authority. Their complexity makes them highly vulnerable to the violence of ruthless minorities. And only a very optimistic patriot would hope that they could achieve the same degree of social mobilization, the same dedicated unanimity, that brought them all, on whichever side, through the two World Wars. This is a factor which must be borne very much in mind when assessing the viability of strategies on the part of Western societies which involve the use of nuclear weapons and the credibility of nuclear threats.
Nuclear weapons could at first be seen simply as an extension of a long trend in military technology, which for a hundred years had been making armed forces capital-intensive rather than labor-intensive, so that firepower rather than manpower could be used to overthrow the opposing forces. Their timely development spared the United States the disagreeable necessity of deploying a massive conventional invasion force to complete the defeat of Japan. But when the further step was taken to the development of thermonuclear weapons with ballistic-missile delivery systems, it seemed that the entire apparatus of traditional strategic thought could now be discarded. The whole object of traditional strategy had been so to deploy armed force as to compel the enemy to face the inescapable alternatives of unacceptable destruction or compliance with one's will. Now thermonuclear weapons confronted him with these alternatives before a shot had been fired. Had not technology therefore replaced strategy altogether as a means of political coercion?
The answer could be "yes" only if the state concerned did not face equally unacceptable destruction itself-which of course in a confrontation between nuclear powers, it did. The strategic situation had thus reverted to that of the sixteenth century and earlier epochs, when princes could not prevent their rivals from ravaging their territories, but only deter them by taking hostages or retaliating in kind. Governments again found themselves unable to protect their populations. Some early British strategic thinkers did indeed speak of the need for civilians to be prepared to "take it" as they had taken the 1940 Blitz-an attitude which probably only increased the recruiting rates of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Well-intentioned American statesmen declared their resolve to shrink from no sacrifice in order to live up to their obligations; but behind the rhetoric lay the disagreeable fact that they were proposing to incur for the peoples for whose safety they were responsible a holocaust of horror inconceivably greater than anything suffered by the far more disciplined and cohesive societies which had endured the two World Wars. The political credibility of nuclear strategy indeed decreased in indirect ratio to its technical credibility, for it was precisely those technologically advanced societies best able to build sophisticated weapons systems whose social and political structure made them least likely to be able to endure, or even seriously to contemplate, the costs of nuclear war.
Can it then be said that in the nuclear age traditional strategic concepts retain any validity at all?
Certainly these concepts have shown themselves to be still valid in conflicts between non-nuclear powers. In the wars between India and Pakistan and between Israel and her Arab neighbors the techniques and even sometimes the weapons of the Second World War still showed themselves highly effective. But between these operations and those of 1939-45 we must note one major difference. Non-nuclear powers are in general poor powers. (An armed conflict between highly industrialized but non-nuclear states is, under existing world conditions, very difficult to visualize indeed.) Such powers lack the industrial base which enabled the belligerents in the World Wars to fight prolonged conflicts of attrition. The forces which they have en presence with their first-line reserves are often all the strength they possess. For that reason their strategy can revert to a Napoleonic model. It is quite possible for them to destroy their enemy's entire available armed forces in a single battle or series of battles and leave him literally defenseless. At this level, war in the hands of skillful commanders and well-trained and equipped troops can still be a very effective instrument of policy.
It is highly doubtful whether the acquisition of nuclear weapons by such powers would make it any more effective, since it would then be subject to all the constraints and uncertainties of conflicts between nuclear powers considered below. The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons might be a reinforcement for those concerned to preserve the status quo, but "nuclear blackmail" has yet to be shown to be an effective weapon in the hands of those who wish to change it. Not only would threats of nuclear action for offensive purposes depend on verbal credibility alone, in contrast to the visible deployment of conventional forces, but such a threat would cause reverberations throughout the international system whose outcome would be very difficult to assess. There are indeed national leaders in the Third World who might not be particularly interested in assessing them; but the strategist, like the economist, has to assume a degree of rationality for his calculations which is not always met with in the real world.
It may be this kind of rationality which has deterred nuclear powers from using their nuclear capability to coerce non-nuclear parties (if we except Khrushchev's barely serious statements at the time of Suez) even when, as in the case of the United States and North Vietnam, they are in open military conflict with them. But this restraint may also be due not so much to rational calculation as to an almost instinctive feeling on the part of policymakers that any short-term advantage which might be gained by the use of nuclear weapons, even against an adversary who had neither the capacity to retaliate nor allies willing to do so for him, would be rapidly swallowed up in the costs to the international system as a whole, and that those costs would be borne by the initiator in the long run as much as anyone else-not least in terms of his own internal social cohesion. But this sentiment derives from a value-system which is far from universally shared throughout the world, and it cannot be denied that the use of nuclear threats to coerce a non-nuclear state by a power with the technical capability and political will to implement them remains a finite, if at present remote, possibility.
Today, however, nuclear powers see their nuclear capability almost wholly in terms of holding one another in check. Soon after nuclear parity emerged in the middle-1950s, a school of thought arose in the West which argued that since in effect the nuclear capabilities of the major powers now cancelled one another out, traditional strategic concepts would once again become valid, and conventional forces would be required to fulfill much the same role as before. This argument did not stand up to close analysis. However reluctant a state might be to use its nuclear forces at the beginning of a conflict with another nuclear power, this reluctance would be likely to diminish the closer it approached to defeat; and the prospects of its ultimately surrendering with its nuclear arsenal intact would be very slight indeed. Each side would therefore fight in the knowledge that its opponents might at any moment decide to introduce nuclear weapons into the struggle; and the greater the success of its own conventional forces in battle, the more likely would such a decision on the part of its opponent become. The temptation to preëmpt would thus be strong on both sides, and even if it were to be resisted non-nuclear forces would have to deploy and operate on the assumption that nuclear weapons might at any moment be used against them. Traditional strategic concepts thus have to be profoundly modified. The nuclear element can neither be left out of account altogether nor postponed to the later stages of an action. It is present from the very beginning of hostilities as an inescapable dimension affecting the calculations of both adversaries.
Under these conditions the task of conventional forces is not to act according to traditional concepts as if nuclear weapons did not exist, but to operate so as to minimize the possibility of the adversary using his nuclear forces at all, and to maximize the credibility of the nuclear threat of their own government. The first role primarily required of conventional forces would be taking the offensive. If the opponent's nuclear weapons were small in quantity it might be possible to destroy them by a conventional surprise attack. If the object of the conflict was the control of disputed territory, conventional forces might seize the area by a rapid attack and force on their adversary the decision to use nuclear weapons to evict them. Even if such territory could not be easily seized, other hostages more vulnerable might be nearer to hand, as the population of West Berlin understands very well. Or a low-profile strategy might be adopted in which the attacker approached his objective by stages, each so slight that no nuclear reaction was credible. Under conditions of nuclear parity, the power which can force upon its adversary the decision to initiate the use of nuclear weapons enjoys an enormous strategic advantage. For the military planner must never leave out of his calculations the fundamental fact that his political masters, however brave their rhetoric, will grasp at every excuse not to authorize nuclear release, or to delay doing so for as long as they possibly can.
Can this nuclear threat indeed ever appear credible-especially when made by the leaders of pluralistic democracies with all their lack of social cohesion and political consensus? The question is one that haunts policy- makers. But we can take as our starting point the argument so frequently enunciated in the context of NATO by a former British Minister for Defence that it deserves to be known as "Healey's Theorem": if there is one chance in a hundred of nuclear weapons being used, the odds would be sufficient to deter an aggressor even if they were not enough to reassure an ally. The nature of the stakes involved, which would make such a decision so appalling for those who have to take it, would make even the bare possibility that it might be taken equally dreadful for their adversary. When we discuss the question of nuclear credibility we are doing so on a quite unique scale of magnitude-or, if such a word exists, minitude. A microscopic degree of credibility, as of some hideously powerful poison, may be all that is needed to work effectively.
There are degrees, however, even of microscopic credibility. The credibility of a retaliatory second strike is far from microscopic : this indeed is a technical rather than a political problem. So long as it is technically feasible, there is little reason to question the credibility of a governmental decision to retaliate after its territory has been subjected to nuclear attack-or to build a system in advance to make such retaliation automatic. But once we start moving away from maximum credibility of this kind, the political problems multiply even if the technical difficulties diminish. It is considerably less credible that a state would initiate the use of nuclear weapons in response to an invasion of its territory by purely conventional forces. A decision to accept conquest rather than holocaust, to be Red rather than dead, would be an entirely rational one to take in the circumstances, and one which an aggressor might expect from societies preoccupied with material welfare and having a low degree of social cohesion. Even less credible would be a decision to use nuclear weapons in response to the invasion of anyone else's territory, given the possibility of nuclear retaliation against one's own. Beyond that, the likelihood of any state initiating the use of nuclear weapons in an offensive action against an adversary with an invulnerable second-strike capability becomes more remote still.
It is obvious enough that the credibility of nuclear use will be in direct ratio to the degree to which the actual territory of a state is under threat. The strategic problem is thus how to increase that credibility for politico-military objectives other than pure territorial defense-a problem which has preoccupied NATO planners for the past 20-odd years. They have not been entirely unsuccessful in solving it, for the function of the conventional forces in Western Europe is precisely this: to maximize the credibility of a decision by the United States to initiate the use of nuclear weapons in response to an invasion of territory other than its own.
Within the European context this has become a familiar concept. The crude "plate-glass window," "trip-wire" or "burglar-alarm" analogies of the 1950s, like the more grandiose image of "the sword and the shield" which was rather more popular in SHAPE, were discarded in the 1960s in favor of the concept, elastic in itself, of "flexible response." But even the most dedicated exponents of flexible response did not suggest that the conventional defense of Europe should be decoupled from American nuclear striking power. For them conventional forces were rather a kind of fuse which should be made as long as possible so that even when it was lit there would still be time to stamp out the flame before it reached the nuclear powder-barrel. Once fighting began, and particularly once American forces were involved, the decision to use nuclear weapons, at first on a small and local scale to prevent total military collapse, would become a highly credible option; and once low-yield nuclear weapons had been used, the way would be frighteningly clear for escalation up to almost any level. The object of strategy had remained unchanged since before the advent of the nuclear age-coercing one's opponent into abandoning his preferred course of action by posing the alternative of unacceptable punishment; but that object was now to be achieved less by manipulation of actual forces than by manipulation of risks.
A study of the possible confrontation of the superpowers in Europe, or indeed in Cuba, indicates two conclusions. First, to make a nuclear threat an effective instrument either of offensive or of defensive coercion, the engagement of conventional forces is a prior necessity-a detonator to the otherwise inert mass of nuclear credibility. The engagement of such forces produces a conflict situation and a conflict mentality for which the decision to introduce nuclear weapons becomes, even for confused pluralistic societies, not simply an academic possibility but a horrible real-life probability. Precisely because of that linkage, the deployment of conventional forces, whether by land or sea, can therefore be a very effective instrument of policy indeed. This was clearly the lesson which the Soviet Navy learned from Cuba, and this perhaps is the true significance of Soviet maritime expansion. It does not indicate, as has sometimes been suggested, that the Russians have read Mahan and are seeking "command of the sea." It shows rather that they have learned from an earlier age of naval history that the political effectiveness of warships lies, like that of a policeman on the beat, less in the force they can command themselves than in their capacity to represent and if need be to commit the total strength and interest of their state. They play the role of fuses which nobody in his right senses would wish to ignite.
The second point is this. The more remote a crisis or a country from the territory of a nuclear power, the more necessary it will be for that power to deploy conventional forces if it wishes to demonstrate the intensity of its interest in that area, and the less will be the significance of its bare nuclear strength. An American nuclear threat in the context of the Middle East would command little credibility unless it arose in the context of such a commitment of conventional forces. In the context of Cuba, however, a very much smaller commitment was needed: the intensity of American interest in that area required no emphasis. Conversely, the Soviet Union would have required a considerable commitment of conventional strength in the Caribbean to enhance the credibility of any nuclear threat it might have made. It is in the light of this principle that the presence of American forces in Western Europe must be considered. It could certainly be argued that American interest in that area is so evident that it no longer requires so massive a commitment of American forces to demonstrate it. But some commitment of forces there must be if the American nuclear guarantee is to remain credible either to the allies or to the adversaries of the United States. The reduction of existing American troop levels in Europe is not therefore necessarily to be seen as a lessening of American interest. But unless European forces are prepared to make up the balance, it could lead to a significant shortening of the conventional fuse leading to the ultimate nuclear holocaust.
In what sense, if at all, would these conventional forces of nuclear powers operate against one another in accordance with the principles of traditional strategy? Only to this extent: that it would be their function to confront their adversary at every point with the alternatives of withdrawal or facing the possibility of unacceptable punishment, by making the risk of nuclear release more probable with every step he took. Their object must be to make the use of nuclear weapons unnecessary while at the same time making the prospect of it convincing. As in the days of pre- Napoleonic strategy the movement of forces once again becomes part of the bargaining process, an indicator of resolution or of willingness to consider accommodation. To that extent classical models have relevance for nuclear as for non-nuclear powers, but the models must be those, not that of Napoleon with his decisive battles nor those of Napoleon's successors with their total wars of attrition, but of Napoleon's eighteenth-century predecessors: men who had much to lose and little to gain from war, who fearfully committed their forces to battle and maneuvered them cautiously; men with limited resources and often a divided public opinion within their domains.
But all such precedents must be considered with extreme caution. The historical conditions which made traditional strategy possible have now very largely disappeared. It is not just that governments can no longer protect their populations against wholesale destruction by their enemies. The change goes deeper than this. The whole governmental control of violence which made military strategy possible at all-which indeed made peace possible at all-is being rapidly eroded. The state monopoly has been broken. Violence is being increasingly employed, whether against the international community as a whole by groups which pride themselves on standing outside the existing state-system, or by groups with comparatively limited and local objectives, economic as well as political. The violence which was once concentrated into wars conducted by legitimate authorities with carefully identified forces according to agreed conventions is fast becoming as generalized as it was in the centuries before any state mechanism existed to maintain order and security by organized and legitimized coercion.
Yet this sinister development may have its advantages. It is not likely that any government feels sufficiently immune from its dangers to contemplate with much satisfaction the damage suffered by its rivals. It is even less likely that any government, however radical, feels confident of its ability systematically to manipulate these movements so as to advance its own state interests. If this generalized political violence were really to increase to a level at which it appeared seriously to threaten the structure of the international state system as it has developed over the past three hundred years, governments of every color might find that they had a common interest which transcended their rivalries-much as the interest in survival transcends the ideological rivalries of the superpowers. Anarchy is little more attractive as a prospect than is nuclear holocaust. The development of common and coöperative procedures to maintain governmental authority could then increase yet further those transnational links which offer the best hope of creating a world community in which states will need neither to practice, nor to fear, nor to prepare for mutual coercion. Only then will traditional strategy be truly and, one hopes, permanently irrelevant.