Iraq and the Pathologies of Primacy
The Flawed Logic That Produced the War Is Alive and Well
This article is part of a series examining what a year of war in Ukraine has revealed.
Over the course of the war in Ukraine, the strategies of Russia and Ukraine have increasingly diverged. At first, Russia sought to catch Ukraine by surprise using a modern army engaged in some fast-moving maneuvers that would yield a rapid and decisive victory. But over time, its army has been seriously degraded, and it has increasingly been relying on artillery barrages and mass infantry assaults to achieve battlefield breakthroughs while stepping up its attacks on Ukrainian cities. In the areas its forces are occupying, it is seeking to impose “Russification” and has dealt harshly with those suspected of spying and sabotage, or simple dissent.
Ukraine has been more innovative in its tactics and more disciplined in their execution. Aided by a growing supply of Western weapons and an agile command, it has managed to recover some of the areas occupied by Russian forces. But it has also been fighting on its own territory and unable to reach far into Russia. So while Ukraine has limited itself to targeting Russia’s military, Russia is targeting Ukraine as a whole: its armed forces, its infrastructure, and its people.
These contrasting approaches—the “classic warfare” pursued by Ukraine and the “total warfare” adopted by Russia—have deep roots in the wars of the twentieth century. As the war in Ukraine reaches its one-year mark, it has begun to offer significant insights into how these two forms of warfare can cope in contemporary conflicts—and how they are likely to shape the contest between Kyiv and Moscow in the coming months.
The classic way of warfare, which dominated military thought before World War I, was all about battles. Strategy focused on getting an army in a position to fight; tactics concerned the fighting itself. Victory was decided by which army occupied the battlefield, the number of enemy soldiers killed or captured, and the amount of equipment destroyed. In this way, battles determined the outcome of wars. This approach was bolstered by laws of war that covered the treatment of prisoners and noncombatants and assumed that the defeated enemy would accept the verdict of battle.
Even before World War I, there were many reasons to doubt how closely this model of war captured reality, especially because of the way in which it insisted on keeping the civilian and military spheres separate. But the classic model continued to shape expectations in the run-up to World War I. That conflict, however, turned into a long war of attrition, during which underlying economic and industrial strength came to play a far more important role than mere battlefield outcomes. And the ability of aircraft to strike enemy cities called into question the concept of a distinct battlefield separate from civil society. People and property became natural targets.
To many strategists, bombing cities looked like a simpler route to victory than winning battles.
The rationale for targeting population centers was simple: armies drew on civilian infrastructure to fight. Munitions factories depended on a civilian workforce. When governments needed more troops, they drafted civilians. In other words, when an entire country was on a war footing, there were no innocents. Moreover, the governments that decided on war and peace depended on popular support. Vulnerable citizens, suffering under incessant bombardment, might be turned against the war, even to the point where they demanded their own side’s capitulation. To many strategists, bombing cities looked like a far simpler route to victory than winning battles. In this way, war became total, leading to the massive air raids of World War II and the U.S. decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. After that, civilians were spared only in wars that did not last long and were fought away from cities.
But three developments caused Western strategists to change their thinking about total war. First, the logic of total war led to nuclear catastrophe. If that was to be avoided, a way had to be found to keep wars limited. Second, there was a growing awareness that attacks on civilians were counterproductive. This was the conclusion of studies undertaken immediately after World War II on the impact of the Allied strategic bombing campaigns, and then the later experience of the Vietnam War, in which the efforts to seek out and eliminate the communist Viet Cong led to many civilian casualties.
The third development was the advent in the 1970s of precision-guided munitions. In principle, the dramatic improvements in accurate targeting afforded by such technology meant that there was no longer any excuse for collateral damage. Operations could be conducted in ways that would avoid civilians and strike only at military-related targets. With precision-guided weapons, there was an opportunity to revive classic warfare by concentrating on undermining an enemy’s military organization through deep strikes and rapid maneuvers. This was the lesson drawn from the United States’ decisive defeat of Iraqi forces in the first Gulf War.
Nevertheless, although this doctrinal shift has been evident in the planning of recent Western military interventions, classic warfare strategy has often fallen by the wayside once those wars turn into counterinsurgency campaigns, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both conflicts, the United States and its allies made efforts to avoid harming civilians in order to keep their support and avoid fueling the insurgency, but these efforts tended to be relaxed when their own forces were at risk. For Western forces, an additional source of tension was that local communities often regarded them as unwelcome, especially when they were supporting a government that—precisely because it relied on foreign support—lacked popular legitimacy.
For its part, in the decades after the Cold War, Russia never quite abandoned the total-war model. This was the case even when it employed precision-guided munitions. In Syria, for example, Russian forces demonstrated that avoiding civilian targets was a matter of choice and not technology, as they deliberately attacked rebel hospitals. Even close to home, Russia has used unsparing tactics, especially in the Chechen Wars of the 1990s and in the first decade of this century, during which Moscow applied brute force directly to civilian areas and cities.
Now Russia is doing the same in Ukraine. But this time around, it faces an increasingly well-organized and professional army. As the Kremlin has become more frustrated in its campaign to occupy the country, it has resorted to regular attacks on Ukrainian civil society and economy. These have included aiming missiles at Kyiv and other cities, leveling apartment complexes and sometimes whole towns, attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, and laying prolonged sieges, such as against Mariupol in the spring, Severodonetsk in the summer, and Bakhmut more recently. These are operations that involve artillery barrages that reduce cities to rubble and force their populations to flee.
Despite Russia’s maximal aims in Ukraine, it is possible to argue that it is not pursuing a total war. This is because Russia has refrained from using nuclear weapons—the ultimate symbols of contemporary total warfare. In fact, nuclear weapons have already played a critical role in setting the boundaries to the conflict. At the outset of the war, Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked the nuclear threat to warn NATO countries against direct intervention. At the same time, his desire to avoid a war with the alliance has deterred him from using nuclear weapons on a smaller scale within Ukraine and from ordering attacks on neighboring NATO countries. Nonetheless, in most respects, Russia has followed the total-war approach that it has used in other conflicts since the end of the Cold War.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is following a classic-war approach. In defending their own cities, factories, and energy plants, Ukrainian forces have every reason to avoid unnecessary damage to civilian areas, and they have needed to conserve their scarce ammunition for high-priority Russian military targets. Moreover, Kyiv has also been constrained by the limitations placed on it by its Western suppliers. One area in which this has happened—and another example of the deterrent effect of the threat of total war—is Washington’s deliberate restriction of Ukraine’s ability to attack Russian territory, at least in ways that involve Western weapons. Ukrainian forces managed some attacks on targets within Russia using drones and sabotage, but these have been few. Notably, the United States has denied Ukraine the long-range artillery and aircraft that would allow it to strike deeper and more often, although the impact of such attacks against a country of Russia’s size would be more symbolic than material.
The result of these constraints is that Russia has been fighting a total war on Ukrainian territory without facing a serious risk of anything equivalent on its own. The contrast between the Russian and Ukrainian approaches has become even sharper as the war has progressed.
Since Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union until 1991, their armed forces have a shared history as well as shared experience with Soviet-vintage equipment. Since 2014, however, Ukraine has come progressively under Western military influence. This process accelerated during the buildup to Russia’s 2022 invasion, and even more so once the war began. The United States and its allies have provided Ukraine with various forms of assistance, including training, intelligence, and advanced weapons systems. Although Ukraine has employed weapons that enable it to target Russian assets located far behind the frontline (such as command posts, ammunition dumps, and logistic hubs) and areas where Russian troops are concentrated, Russia has had few options other than to rely on its artillery and, following mobilization, infantry assaults designed to render Ukrainian towns and cities indefensible.
Reinforcing the contrast, Russian forces have attempted to “Russify” areas under their control—by imposing language, education, and currency requirements on local populations—and have used torture and executions to inhibit Ukrainian resistance. This is in addition to the widespread war crimes they have committed, including abductions, as well as looting and sexual abuse, which reflect their fear of sabotage and snooping, along with general indiscipline.
So far, the results of the Russian approach have confirmed the standard criticisms of total-war strategy. The onslaught against Ukraine’s civil society has made no dent in popular support for the Ukrainian government. Instead, accumulating evidence of egregious Russian behavior has made Ukraine all the more determined to ensure that these territories are liberated and that none is handed over to Russia indefinitely. The humanitarian consequences of Russia’s methods have also strengthened Western support for Ukraine. In addition, Russia’s total-war aims have reinforced the Ukrainian belief that there is no obvious “compromise peace” available. Nor have Russia’s total-war tactics impeded Ukrainian operations.
In recent months, Moscow has provided coercive rationales for its attacks on civilian infrastructure, connected to Ukraine’s refusal to accept Russia’s annexation of four provinces in eastern Ukraine in September. These attacks have made life extremely difficult for Ukrainians, with civilians regularly killed and injured by random strikes, and frequent blackouts during the winter months. But the Ukrainians have learned to adapt, taking out increasing numbers of missiles and drones with air defenses and finding ways of coping with the civilian hardship. After a year of war, there has been no evident effect on Ukraine’s will to fight.
A year of war in Ukraine has further discredited the total-war approach. But what has it revealed about classic warfare? Here, experience warns that the battlefield victories essential to this approach can prove elusive when the defending forces appear to have inherent advantages over the offense. In such situations, armies can get stuck in long and grueling standoffs. It is possible to overwhelm an outgunned enemy by punching holes in its lines, but this usually requires maneuvering with armored vehicles, surprising the enemy with unexpected advances, achieving success through encirclements, and pushing the enemy into rapid retreats to the point where it is eventually unable to recover.
Such an outcome is not easy to achieve. In Ukraine, the most successful offensives by either side have come in situations where the defenses have been thin on the ground. Russian gains came during the first days of the war when its forces had the advantage of surprise and were able to move fast. In the south, they met little resistance, especially where defenses were poorly organized, notably in Kherson. Yet in the north, they took forward positions that could not be sustained, soon got into trouble against agile Ukrainian defenses, and were forced to withdraw. Then, in the next stage of the war, beginning with the battle for the Donbas, Russian gains were few, covering narrow areas, and they were achieved only at immense costs and over months.
For its part, Ukraine’s most impressive offensive came in Kharkiv in September, when its forces took advantage of a weak and poorly prepared defense while the Russian high command was focused on Donetsk and Kherson. Yet in areas where Russian defenses have been prepared, and then bolstered by the extra troops generated by mobilization, Ukraine’s progress has been slowed. Ukrainian forces were further limited by the onset of winter, as the ground became boggy. Ukraine’s counteroffensive to retake Kherson got off to a slow start in the late summer, and its forces were able to make progress only when they were able to cut off Russian supply lines, thus rendering Kherson City indefensible. It was evacuated in November.
If an army needs to move firepower over treacherous terrain, then what it needs looks very much like a tank.
In the coming months, the direction of the war may also be shaped by the changing balance of firepower. When it next gets a chance to go on the offensive, Ukraine will benefit from more armored vehicles, including Challenger, Leopard, and Abrams battle tanks furnished by Europe and the United States, following protracted discussions in January. As important, Kyiv will also be getting infantry vehicles, improved air defenses, and longer-range shells and missiles.
But it will take time for all these weapons to be delivered and to train Ukrainian forces to use them. Meanwhile, Ukraine will have to cope with a new Russian offensive that is essentially attritional in its methods, depending on Russia’s readiness to accept high casualties to make its gains. While the weight of numbers may allow them to advance in some areas, Russian forces have yet to demonstrate the ability to exploit any breakthroughs with rapid, forward thrusts. For now, Ukraine is obliged to cope as best it can with this pressure, concerned about the rate at which it is using up ammunition, hoping to hold its line well enough that when and if the new Russian offensive begins to fade, it will have its own opportunity to move onto the offensive.
Ukraine’s new capabilities will be geared to maneuver warfare. In the opening months of the war, many Western commentators pronounced tanks obsolete on the basis of the substantial numbers the Russians lost to antitank guided weapons, drones, and artillery fire. In fact, there are explanations for the Russian tank losses, including a failure to follow their own combined-arms doctrine, which left them exposed. (Another reason for the weakness of the Russian offensives was the unexpectedly limited role played by the Russian air force. Instead, the demonstrable vulnerability of Russian aircraft to air defenses seemed to provide added confirmation to what has become a defining feature of contemporary warfare: the use of relatively cheap weapons to disable or even destroy very expensive systems.)
Now, it is tanks, along with more numerous infantry vehicles, that form the central piece of the recent equipment packages the West has agreed to send to Ukraine. If an army needs to move firepower with protective armor over treacherous terrain, then what it needs looks very much like a tank. It is rarely helpful to look at any systems without taking into account the strategic context in which they are being used and the other capabilities available to both sides. A new Ukrainian offensive, against entrenched Russian defenses, will represent a significant test of classic warfare in its purest form.
The basic problem with wars is that they are easier to start than to end. Once Russia’s initial thrusts were blunted, it found itself caught in a protracted conflict in which it dares not concede defeat even when a path to victory remains elusive. Such wars inevitably become attritional, as stocks of equipment and ammunition are depleted and troop losses mount. The temptation to find an alternative route to victory by attacking the enemy’s socioeconomic structure grows. Russia has not abandoned this alternative path even though so far it has only hardened Ukrainian resolve.
Russia has persevered with inefficient and costly strategies, perhaps in the belief that in the end its size and readiness to accept sacrifices will tell. By contrast, Ukraine’s route to victory depends on pushing Russian forces back enough to persuade Moscow that it has embarked on a futile war. Since it cannot target the Russian people, it must exploit the accuracy of its longer-range systems to target its military, rendering Russia’s supply lines, command networks, and troop concentrations vulnerable. Russia seeks to create circumstances in which the Ukrainian people have had enough. Ukraine seeks to make the position for the Russian military untenable. As the war enters its next, critical phase, these strategies, and the contrasting approaches to war they represent, will face their most severe tests.