How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Beginning in early October, facing huge territorial loses and other reversals in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin reached for a military strategy in which Russia should have a decisive advantage: airpower. In the most widespread such campaign to date, he ordered a blistering series of missile attacks against a dozen cities and electrical infrastructure across the country. Ukrainians were forced into basements and bomb shelters, and some 30 percent of the country’s power generation capacity was knocked out, causing rolling blackouts that affected homes, hospitals, and even the basic functioning of the economy. In the weeks since, Russia has been sending waves of drones to attack residential buildings and offices in Kyiv and other cities. In effect, Putin was reminding the Ukrainian government of his ability to attack its main population centers—a threat that Ukraine, having scrapped Soviet-era bombers long ago, having no long-range rockets able to hit Russian cities, and having only a tiny number of ground attack aircraft—is unable to match. The goal, it seems, is to punish civilians, wearing them down in the hope of convincing their leaders to sue for peace.
But it is a strategy doomed to failure. As in earlier phases of the war, Russia’s supposed air superiority has done little to shift the overall momentum on the ground. Despite the significant damage they have caused, Putin’s airstrikes have failed to hinder Ukrainian advances in the east. And when they have reached civilian targets they have only served to strengthen Ukrainian resolve.
In fact, the paradoxical outcome of Russia’s bombing campaigns suggests a more important insight about airpower in contemporary warfare. For decades, bombing civilian areas—as ugly and immoral as it gets in war—has been one of the most common strategies that states have used to undermine the target population’s morale and induce the target government to surrender. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and especially his recent escalation, has been no different. But as dozens of conflicts over the past century have demonstrated, using airpower against civilian targets is almost always doomed to failure. And as target countries like Ukraine obtain more advanced land-based munitions, the flaws of the airpower strategy have only become more apparent.
Modern states have often sought to punish the civilian populations of their adversaries. Generally, they have done so as a cheap and easy way to compel enemy governments to make concessions, retreat, or even surrender outright. The most common air strategy is attacking civilians, either directly, by bombing residential areas, or indirectly, by damaging the economic infrastructure necessary for the distribution of food, the heating of homes, and the electrical powering of the civilian economy.
The idea got its start in World War I, when German leaders, desperate to knock the United Kingdom out of the war, launched waves of zeppelins—huge maneuverable balloons loaded with bombs—to attack London and other British cities. Later they added Gotha aerial bombers, killing many hundreds but producing no results, until finally calling off the punishment campaign in 1917. Other strategic-bombing advocates, like Italian General Giulio Douhet, wrote highly influential books claiming that huge air attacks on the enemy’s cities would cause civilians to rise up and demand that their government surrender, thus producing victory without the need for messy ground battles. Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States rapidly expanded their air forces in the 1920s and 1930s, all basing their doctrines on the premise that direct or indirect attacks on civilians would be the key to winning modern wars.
These “get tough” strategies by governments have often been welcomed by their own publics, because they can produce dramatic immediate tactical results at little military cost to one’s own side and extract what is perceived as a measure of revenge for actions of the rival. Occasionally, strategic airpower has had notable results on the battlefield, as when the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force suppressed tribal rebellions in Iraq in the 1920s and when German planes helped General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist army capture territory in the Spanish Civil War. Often overlooked in these cases, however, was that changes of the military balance on the ground, rather than punishment of civilians, played the decisive role.
A bombed population has never revolted against its own government.
As many other conflicts have shown, the gains of punishment strategies tend to be short-lived. Consider what happened when German bombers blasted London and other British cities in 1940–41, killing more than 50,000 people. Much like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky today, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to hide in bomb shelters and would walk through the rubble, leading through demonstrative action and rallying the whole of society to make the sacrifices necessary for ultimate victory. Instead of shattering morale, the Blitz motivated the British to launch—with their American and Soviet allies—the counterattack that ultimately conquered Nazi Germany.
Indeed, inflicting punishment on civilian areas is not only immoral but has been shown to be singularly unproductive as a strategy for putting pressure on an adversary. Whether punishment is meted out massively or lightly, quickly or slowly, whether it is combined with diplomatic proposals or not, the historical record shows that harming civilians is also unlikely to compel rival states to surrender or to cut deals that effectively abandon territory that are important to the viability of the state or national identity.
Nor is there any case in which a bombing campaign has caused the targeted population to revolt against their own government. For example, in several major wars in the second half of the twentieth century, Washington sought to foment popular uprisings against enemy regimes by attacking civilian infrastructure. Thus, during the Korean War, the United States destroyed 90 percent of power generation in North Korea; in the Vietnam War, it knocked out nearly as much power in North Vietnam; and in the Gulf War, American air attacks disrupted 90 percent of power generation in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But in none of these cases did the population rise up. Strikingly, the United States did not bother attacking Iraq’s electric power grid or civilians during its 2003 invasion. Concentrating instead on effective military strategy, it was able to easily defeat Iraq’s army and topple the Saddam dictatorship in six weeks.
In World War II, of course, the effects of Allied bombardment of Germany and Japan were much more extreme. Cities were firebombed and destroyed by U.S. and British forces; more than 300,000 German civilians and 700,000 Japanese civilians were killed by conventional munitions—and more than 20 percent of each country’s population was made homeless. Yet even then, there was no public pressure on either regime to surrender. If modern nation-states in fights for the control of their homeland can withstand that, there is little reason to think that Russia’s relatively less punishing bombardment of civilians in Ukraine will cause Ukrainians or their leaders to give in.
By contrast, airpower has proved effective when used to achieve military objectives rather than to punish civilians. In war after war, theater airpower—smashing enemy ground forces and weakening them to the point where one’s own ground forces can dominate a zone of conflict—can provide a powerful tool of coercion when combined with effective land power. In 1972, the United States compelled North Vietnam to cease conventional aggression by coordinating its massive Linebacker bombing campaign with South Vietnamese army forces. In 1991, the United States successfully compelled Saddam to withdraw from Kuwait by combining the first modern precision air campaign with a coalition of ground forces. And the absence of theater airpower can seal the fate of a friendly army, as the United States discovered when Congress blocked the use of U.S. airpower in Vietnam in 1974 and Saigon fell the following year. The lesson was repeated in Afghanistan, with the U.S. withdrawal of theater airpower before the collapse of the Afghan army in the summer of 2021.
The combined use of theater airpower and friendly ground forces has a clear logic. Once wars begin in earnest, achieving victory becomes paramount. In war, successful leaders soon discover—sometimes after exhausting cheaper but less effective strategies—that the key to successful coercion is denial. That is, successful leaders come to realize that there is no realistic option other than directly thwarting the enemy’s ability to take or hold territory. In other words, the coercing state succeeds to the extent that it can prevent its opponent from achieving its military objectives.
In actual warfare, denial works best via a “hammer and anvil” strategy, in which the combined force of airpower and ground power puts the enemy in a military Catch-22: if the enemy concentrates its ground forces in large numbers to form thick and overlapping fields of fire, in order to best withstand a ground assault, those forces will become vulnerable from the air, and the airpower hammer can smash them to bits. But if the enemy disperses its ground forces across a wide area to make effective airstrikes more difficult, it risks leaving them thinly scattered and exposed to easy defeat on the ground, allowing friendly ground forces to overwhelm isolated enemy units, easily break through weak enemy lines, and encircle vast portions of the enemy forces.
From its own previous wars, Russia should have understood the need for combining air and ground power. Consider its supposed successes in punishing civilians in Chechnya during the 1990s or in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. Although it is true that Russian military forces extracted a heavy price from civilian populations in both cases, what ultimately mattered was the balance of forces on the ground. In Chechnya, Russia blasted civilians in Grozny in 1994 but its ground forces were soon defeated by the rebels, and the Russian military successfully conquered the republic by invading with a much larger ground army in 1999. In Aleppo, it was the forces of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and of Hezbollah that ultimately made the difference, taking rapid control of areas bombed by Russia. Take away these well-equipped ground forces and Russia’s air campaigns would almost certainly have failed.
Much has been made in recent years of advances in precision weaponry, ostensibly strengthening the hand of airpower. Yet today’s precision weapons have not proved any more effective in coercing enemies by destroying political and economic targets in civilian areas, since it has long been possible to destroy such targets with large numbers of “dumb” bombs. Nor have precision weapons made strategies targeting the enemy’s leadership any more effective. Such efforts have failed repeatedly against a variety of enemies, including against Muammar al-Qaddafi in 1986; Saddam Hussein in 1991, 1998, and 2003 (he was finally captured by ground forces); and Hezbollah leaders in 2006.
Moreover, nothing motivates an enemy’s civilian base more than killing its leader. In April 1996, Russia used air-to-ground missiles to assassinate the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, only to see a new, more energetic leader take over, kick Russia’s ground forces out of the republic, and win control when Russia invaded with massive ground forces three years later. There are exceptions to this pattern, but they only prove the rule: aerial targeting of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan from 2001 to 2010 succeeded in weakening the group, precisely because it had so little indigenous support in Pakistan.
A HIMARS missile battery has the combat power of several F-16s.
The true innovation of precision airpower has been to enhance the value of the hammer-and-anvil strategy. Today’s precision weapons allow airpower to destroy massed enemy ground troops more easily and to attack other smaller but still essential battlefield targets. Until the advent of these weapons, airpower could rarely destroy tanks, trucks, command posts, or bridges used to supply fielded forces, even with thousands of bombs aimed at these tiny targets. Now, satellites, advanced sensors, and various manned and unmanned bombing platforms can reliably locate concentrated enemy forces for precision strikes to destroy.
Nowhere has this precision revolution been more evident than in Ukraine’s military forces. Even before the arrival of advanced precision weapons from the West in the early summer, Ukrainian forces had been greatly strengthened by the fighting resolve that Russia’s failed invasion strategy had provoked. Since then, Ukrainian forces have been able to use hammer-and-anvil tactics splendidly to Kyiv’s advantage—not only in defending against Russia’s initial incursion but also in rolling back Russian forces, even in areas of the east that were far better defended. These tactics have been especially effective against Russia’s most dug-in, best defensively fortified ground forces in eastern zones of the country. Ukraine’s triumphs in these situations have been made possible not by tactical airpower but by advanced ground-based weaponry, such as the HIMARS missile system. It is not a stretch to consider each HIMARS missile battery—the United States has provided Ukraine with 16 of them, with another 18 on the way—as having the air-to-ground combat power and effectiveness of several F-16 aircraft. With the flexibility and range to coordinate with Ukrainian ground forces, they can be used against Russian forces in a given area wherever they may be.
Just as important, Russia has made clear through its battlefield performance that it has hardly begun to move into the precision age. The world has witnessed how poorly a great power with a huge but still largely “dumb bomb” military may fare against a much smaller state with access to precision-age weapons. The Russian military has been losing territory steadily for many months—in March, April, and May near Kyiv and the border with Belarus, and since the early summer in the territories it had newly seized in the east. There is no obvious reason to think that the Russian military’s pre–February 2022 positions in the east and Crimea are not ultimately vulnerable as well.
Given the failure of Putin’s campaign of civilian punishment and the growing effectiveness of Ukraine’s HIMARS-assisted ground offensive, many commentators have begun to ask how the war might end. History shows that when an opponent is persuaded that specific territorial objectives cannot be achieved, it is likely to concede that territory, either tacitly or formally, rather than suffer further pointless losses. But this form of coercion—getting an opponent to recognize that prolonging a war is futile—is rarely cheap or easy. Even successful coercion usually takes nearly as long and costs nearly as much as fighting a war to a finish. This lesson applies readily to the war in Ukraine today.
In view of current military realities, those who are calling for the United States and its allies to persuade Ukraine to accept a deal in the east are effectively asking the West to bail out Russia. This is unrealistic for two reasons. First, Ukraine will not and should not agree. Its forces have the momentum and have every reason to expect more territorial gains, and it would be foolish to force them to abandon a winning hand. Second, Russia might accept a deal in the near term but could easily violate it months or years from now. In short, any deal in eastern Ukraine is unlikely to be credible unless it can be backed up by powerful reinforcing mechanisms. These mechanisms would need to include agreements to respect international borders with the presence of third-party oversight, as well as military forces, and would likely be necessary to stabilize any end to the war, negotiated or not.
In the meantime, the United States and NATO are right to reinforce support and provide additional air defenses for Ukraine. These steps can mitigate some of the harm to civilians of Russia’s attacks and demonstrate that attacking urban centers only hardens the resolve of the West and Ukraine. Ultimately, however, an end to the war while the current regime remains in power in Russia would likely require the establishment of a hard militarized border, in order to keep Russia away from potential conquests in Ukraine and other parts of eastern Europe. As with the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, such a fortified boundary would serve the crucial purpose of preventing advances in both directions. It would also serve to deter any conventional offensive by either side, by denying both Russia and the West the prospect of rapid territorial incursions.
By going nuclear, Putin would be committing suicide for fear of death.
But as Putin has made clear with his escalating nuclear rhetoric, the conflict potentially involves more than conventional weapons. Many in the West, up to and including the Biden administration, have appropriately raised the alarm about the growing threat of nuclear conflict. But Putin’s military advisers have likely explained to him that going nuclear will do little to change his losing game in Ukraine. Any use of a battlefield nuclear weapon would almost surely cause nuclear fallout to blow back over Russian military forces themselves, as well as over the civilians in Ukraine who support Russia. It would almost surely accelerate the collapse of Russia’s military positions in Ukraine and weaken Russia’s ability to defend its own territory from possible escalation. Put simply, Putin may now risk losing Russia’s positions in eastern Ukraine, but by going nuclear he could risk losing large parts of Russia itself. To paraphrase the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, this would be committing suicide for fear of death.
Indeed, no matter how lethal its bombs against civilians, Russia cannot reverse its strategic failures in Ukraine, which are already playing out. Once Putin lost the gamble that Russia’s military had the wherewithal to defeat and occupy all of Ukraine in the February–March blitzkrieg campaign, and once Ukraine and the West responded by mobilizing a powerful counterbalancing coalition to defend the country, Russia’s options narrowed almost immediately. Since April, many in the West—and Putin and others in Russia—have simply been watching the inevitable aftermath of the initial set of miscalculations that led to that massive failure.
Putin can punish Ukrainians, as his air campaign has shown. But lacking an effective hammer-and-anvil strategy of his own, he is only losing faster. The only question is whether he will accept a new iron curtain separating Russia from Europe or continue fighting pointlessly to the finish and risk losing parts of Russia.
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