“In war everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. Those difficulties add up and cause friction, which nobody can really imagine who has not witnessed war”. Thus Clausewitz. An effective plan of attack is based on a simple idea, for a plan that is too complex to explain to one’s own commanders, will not be executed. But the best plans go awry, first of all because, naturally, the opponent also has a plan. This renders war very unpredictable per definition, as Vladimir Putin has experienced – as well as the many military and academic analysts in the West.
The Self-Defeating Offensive
I had expected active fighting to have fizzled out long before the summer. After a few weeks, it was clear for all to see that Russia could not achieve its initial objectives of regime change in Kyiv and occupying (at least) half of the country to the Dnepr river. My assessment was that Russia would halt offensive operations once it had conquered the land bridge between the Crimea and the Donbass, and dig in there.
With hindsight, that would have been smarter on their part. At that time, the Ukrainian armed forces were not yet capable of launching a powerful counterattack. Russia could have consolidated its control over occupied territory, making a counteroffensive at a later stage even more difficult. Undoubtedly, some in the West would have been tempted to probably still adopt sanctions, but to basically accept the fait accompli on the ground.
By keeping on the offensive though, Russia paradoxically weakened itself more than Ukraine. Russia did conquer more territory, but only by overstretching its (unexpectedly low) military power. At the same time it fortified unity and resolve in the West to fully support Ukraine and to punish Russia. The brutal war crimes of the Russian army further strengthened that dynamic. Thanks to its own strong will to fight and with Western support, Ukraine not only blocked the Russian advance, but in some sectors of the front even succeeded in driving it back.
What we see now – nuclear bluff, fake referenda and sabotage of the Nordstream 1 and 2 gas pipelines – are signs of Russian weakness and frustration with defeat on the battlefield. The actual impact on the war may be limited. Putin’s tale of Western aggression, against which ultimately nuclear weapons can be deployed, must veil Russia’s failure from his own public. For how to explain that a supposedly inexistent Ukrainian nation fights so hard that mobilisation must be decreed, if not by a Western conspiracy? The referenda and illegal annexation of more lands will not stop Ukraine from continuing its efforts to liberate its entire national territory.
Sabotaging the pipelines in the short term ratchets up energy prices again, which hurts Europe, but in the long term it will hurt Russia more. They are their pipelines. Before the war I wrote that the EU should signal to Russia: if ever you cut off the gas, it will never be reconnected again. That has now become very certain indeed.
Nevertheless, these acts of sabotage (a form of “hybrid attack”) do represent an escalation. We, the EU and NATO countries, are not at war with Russia, and the unspoken understanding remains that direct war between nuclear powers must be avoided. Such hybrid attacks, which remain below the threshold of military violence and as long as they don’t cause loss of life, the West will not quickly consider to be an act of war. (Although at its summit last June NATO did explicitly decide, for the first time, that the option to do so exists). But we must react when sabotage, or other far-reaching hybrid attacks, happen on our territory.
For now, we attempt to deter hybrid attacks by building up strong defences. But we ought also to deter by threatening retaliation. Whoever paralyses a port through a cyber attack or blows up a pipeline in any EU or NATO country, ought to know that the EU or NATO as a whole will launch a counterstrike against their infrastructure. The West should develop a doctrine along those lines, but that debate had only just started before the war.
For my country, Belgium, in particular, this is of crucial importance, for as the host nation for EU and NATO headquarters, it is a primary target for hybrid attacks, and the Belgian state holds the primary responsibility for averting them. That is a core message of the country’s first ever National Security Strategy, adopted in December 2021.
No End in Sight
Meanwhile, let us not forget that militarily, Russia is far from finished. We see the ongoing protests, but the regime (which is much more than just Putin) is firmly established. We see how many try to escape mobilisation, but tens of thousands have now joined the ranks and will shortly reinforce Russian positions in the occupied areas. That will not enable Russia to seize large parts of territory again, but it may allow it to stabilise the front. Sadly, it is far from certain, therefore, that Ukraine will be able to liberate all of the sizeable territory that Russia still holds.
As stated above, war is especially unpredictable. At this point in time, the most likely outcome still seems that both sides will eventually fight each other to a standstill, and that large active operations will cease at least temporarily – hopefully when the front has moved as much as possible to the east. Winter conditions may contribute to this, though one should not forget that in 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, major battle continued well into December.
If there were indeed a (temporary) lull in the fighting, would this create conditions for tentative talks, or would the war just flare up again next spring, with more firepower deployed on both sides? Or might Putin, faced with the defeat of his ambitions, be tempted to opt for massive escalation and use the nuclear weapon against Ukraine, in spite of the risk of an escalatory spiral? For that might in turn invite a direct intervention by the United States and its European allies. Nobody can know anything for certain.
The West must in any case prepare to support Ukraine on a structural basis, economically and militarily, and to render its economy structurally independent from Russia. A peace agreement remains the ideal outcome, but is impossible as long as Russia is not prepared to make major concessions. We better adjust therefore, if the hot war ever ends, to a long-term frozen conflict, with an ever present risk of renewed escalation.
This article has been originally published here.