Small Wars Journal

Putin, Clausewitz, and Ukraine

Share this Post

Putin, Clausewitz, and Ukraine

Alex Deep

Russia has applied limited war as a means by which to achieve its political goals since the early 1990s.  Conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan displayed Russia’s willingness to use the defense of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers as a justification to undermine the territorial integrity of neighboring states in order to maintain its influence over the former Soviet Bloc.[i]  However, Russia escalated its formula of limited war through indigenous ethnic forces when it annexed the Crimean Peninsula.  The separatist struggle that ensued in Eastern Ukraine marked a return to Russia’s traditional model, but with increased visibility from the West, and economic sanctions that Russia did not see with its previous endeavors.  Going back to Clausewitz, Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to balance the trinity of passion, military means, and political aims in executing a plan that relies on friction and mass to succeed on the ground.  However, the real question might not be whether Putin’s strategy is Clausewitzian, but whether he is choosing the correct means by which to accomplish the goal of increasing Russian influence along its borders.

Clausewitz would laud Putin’s ability to use war as a way of achieving political ends.  Russia only chose to initiate hostilities after other forms of political power had failed to maintain its influence over Ukraine such as gas subsidies and support to the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, especially towards joining Russia’s burgeoning Eurasian custom house.[ii]  However, the removal of Yanukovych and the immediate shift of the new Ukrainian government towards Europe caused Russia to respond with military force through the annexation of Crimea and subsequent support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Russia views these actions as its best chance to maintain its influence over a state that it cannot “lose” to Europe.  Russia will continue to view Ukraine as absolutely essential to its national security framework as Russia considers the expansion of NATO and the potential deployment of land- and sea-based missile defense systems near its border as encirclement by the West.[iii]

Russia has used the passion of ethnic nationalism both domestically and within the Russian Diaspora to justify its military intervention in Ukraine.  Konstantin Dolgov, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of defending the right of ethnic Russians living abroad, remarked that, “the bacteria of neo-Nazism is spreading across Europe.”[iv] At the same time, Vladimir Putin has publicly vowed to defend “Russian citizens” and “Russian speakers” from this perceived danger of persecution at the hands of fascist radicals including offensive action if necessary.[v]  This rhetoric is popular in Russia and amongst ethnic Russians in Ukraine as many see the actions of the new Ukrainian regime as a direct challenge not only to Russian national security, but also as a threat of a “fascist” regime against ethnic Russians.  However, the danger of overly relying on the passion of the population rises as support fades, and Russian public support for its government’s interventionist policies has continued to wane.  As economic sanctions take their toll on the Russian economy combined with a devaluation of the ruble and eroding standards of living, “enthusiasm for war and isolation is diminishing fast.”[vi]  If this is the case, Russia might have to face the possibility of waging an unpopular war in Ukraine[vii] and falling into recession in 2015.

Shifting from the strategic to the operational and tactical levels, Russia is leveraging the Clausewitzian concepts of friction and mass to its advantage in Ukraine.  The persistent ambiguity over Russian overt military involvement due to a lack of information coming out of Eastern Ukraine has been advantageous to Russian strategy as it causes friction and a fog of war to develop for both Ukrainian forces and the international community.  Russian news media has greatest access to the region as reporters embedded with separatist units provide a propagandized version of the conflict for consumption both in Russia and, more importantly, with the targeted Russian Diaspora in Eastern Ukraine that watches predominantly Russian television.[viii]  The idea that information technology has somehow lifted Clausewitz’s fog of war does not apply when Russia is able to maintain information dominance over the narrative coming out of Eastern Ukraine.[ix]

Despite taking advantage of friction during the initial phases of the conflict, Russia was also the victim of this concept when separatists shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 777.  Despite publicly blaming this tragedy on the Ukrainian government, Putin had to mitigate this event through a massive propaganda campaign within Russia and by temporarily limiting overt support to separatist rebels even as Russian troops continued to mass on the border.[x]  During this time, the Ukrainian military seemed poised to reclaim all the territory that separatist rebels had seized at the beginning of the conflict.

When faced with the decision of whether to allow Ukrainian advance or escalate the conflict further, Russia decided to mass additional weapons, armor, and personnel in Eastern Ukraine with immediate effects.  The Russian application of mass allowed the separatists to regain the offensive and extend their territorial control in the east.  Had Russia decided not to mass combat power at this decisive moment, the conflict in Ukraine could have either ended with a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the breakaway region, or forced Russia to escalate further to a conventional invasion.

According to Clausewitz, the nature of the commander is essential towards the execution of a military campaign to achieve political ends.  However, he warns that the military and political structures should be separate with the former subordinate to the latter.  In Russia, Vladimir Putin has essentially combined the roles of military commander and political leader, driving Russian political policy and the military means by which to achieve those goals. Putin has displayed characteristics of a leader that Clausewitz equated to “genius” such as decisiveness, political awareness, and determination, in the execution of a nuanced strategy to expand Russian influence.[xi]  However, Clausewitz also understood that leaders must be able to alter actions and decisions based on the effectiveness of a strategy.  Whether Putin can do this is still undetermined, but his staunchness in continuing to execute a strategy that alienates the states he wants to influence, seems counterintuitive.

As Clausewitz used historic examples to display general concepts, comparing Russian strategy in Ukraine with pre-WWI sheds historic light on Russian behavior.  Prior to WWI, Russia equated its great power status to territorial expansion and influence over its Slavic Diaspora in the Balkans as Czar Nicholas II drove the decision-making process based on the nature of the authoritarian regime.  However, this obsession with expansion led Russia to decline as defeats in the Russo-Japanese War and Crimean War weakened its status prior to 1914, and WWI led to social revolution.[xii]  Today, Russia is executing an aggressive strategy to reclaim its great power status through a hybrid of conventional and irregular warfare under the auspice of protecting the Russian Diaspora. However, this obsession with destabilizing the territorial integrity of neighboring states, now including territorial expansion in Crimea, has weakened Russia financially and encouraged states within its perceived sphere to move towards the West.  Russia is following concepts from Clausewitz in Ukraine, but might be selecting the wrong strategy to achieve its political goals.

Works Cited

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Cohen, Stephen. “Patriotic Heresy vs. The New Cold War.” Nation. 15 September 2014, Vol. 299, Issue 11, p. 22-26.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Mankoff, Jeffrey. “Russia’s Latest Land Grab.” Foreign Affairs. May 2014, Vol.93, Issue 3, p. 60-68.

“Russian and Ukraine: Putin’s People.” The Economist. 13 December 2014, available online at:

Shuster, Simon and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson. “Russia’s Fifth Column.” Time. 15 December 2014, Vol. 184, Issue 23, p. 46-49.

Shuster, Simon et al, “Crime Without Punishment,” Time, 04 August 2104, Vol. 184 Issue 5, p. 26-35.

Strachen, Hew. The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Szostek, Joanna. “Russia and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of Soft Power.” East European Politics and Societies. August 2014, Vol. 28 Issue 3, p. 463-486.

End Notes

[i] Jeffrey Mankoff, “Russia’s Latest Land Grab,” Foreign Affairs, May 2014, Vol.93, Issue 3, 60.

[ii] Ibid, 63.

[iii] Stephen Cohen, “Patriotic Heresy vs. The New Cold War,” Nation, 15 September 2014, Vol. 299, Issue 11, 22.

[iv] Simon Shuster and Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, “Russia’s Fifth Column,” Time, 15 December 2014, Vol. 184, Issue 23, 47.

[v] Mankoff, 62.

[vi] “Russian and Ukraine: Putin’s People,” The Economist, 13 December 2014, available online at:

[vii] According to the Economist article “Russia and Ukraine: Putin’s People” from 13 December 2014, “Over the past nine months opinion polls find that support for the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine have fallen from 74% to 23%.”

[viii] Joanna Szostek, “Russia and the News Media in Ukraine: A Case of Soft Power,” East European Politics and Societies, August 2014, Vol. 28 Issue 3, 463.

[ix] Hew Strachen, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective, (Cambridge, United Kingdom; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 48.

[x] Simon Shuster et al, “Crime Without Punishment,” Time, 04 August 2014, Vol. 184, Issue 5, 28.

[xi] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 103.

[xii] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 173-175.


About the Author(s)

Captain Alex Deep is currently a Master of Arts in International Relations and International Economics candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), focusing on Strategic Studies.  Alex was previously assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  During his most recent combat deployments, Captain Deep served as a Special Forces Operational Detachment – Alpha Commander operating throughout Eastern Afghanistan, and Chief of Operations for Special Operations Task Force - Northeast. Captain Deep has been selected to instruct International Relations and Comparative Politics at the United States Military Academy upon completion of his studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS.


Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/08/2015 - 10:24am

In all of Clausewitz's writings you will not find anything that relates even the foggiest to the following events in Putin's Russia --Clausewitz would have not been able to envision how deep Russian criminal gangs are involved in and an inherent part of the new Russian non-linear UW strategy.

Referencing the recent killing of Nemtsov the opposition leader in Moscow--
four hours after the announced killing the Russian mercenary leader of the DPR accused the Chechen leader of using his security service to kill him--everyone on the social media said--wow this is brave as 50% of the Russian mercenary army of 21K is Chechen.

Then the 8 CCTV cameras all looking at the murder site "were down for repairs, and then the FSB surveillance team that had him under constant surveillance seems to have been off duty that night and then the victims apartment was torn apart for his computers and journalist notes and on and on.

Oh then there was a single grainy video but yesterday the Moscow police announced they were searching for two suspects seen in that supposedly grainy video.

Today there were four arrests and another blew himself up. And then social media identified the one main suspect who has somehow pleaded guilty to the killing in record time as having received an honor medal from Putin in 2012 and was employed by the Chechen security service.

Then the family it was reported got him a private lawyer who then was called and told he was off the case because the suspect wanted a "state provided defense lawyer"--now how strange is that private lawyer vs public defender?

Then all of this via social media with an interesting comment from a Russian TV pundit.

Reaction in Russia. “Please tell me how / persons from the Caucasus have switched off all video cameras in Moscow”


Sat, 03/07/2015 - 5:40pm

Responding to Outlaw’s four-legged-stool theory of Putin’s neo-Tzarist resurgence and concurring with him about why Clausewitz’s "total war" model blinds us to what is going on right before our very eyes, I adduce Carolyn Nordstrom’s GLOBAL OUTLAWS: “It is knowledge, not weapons and laws, which will even this playing field. If we cannot perceive the true magnitude and dynamic character of both the legal and the extra-legal, we are impotent to respond. PEOPLE CAN SEE ONLY WHAT THEY HAVE THE CONCEPTUAL TOOLS TO SEE. That makes the unseen a powerful tool of both hegemony and resistance: SEEING IS POWER. What we do not see often becomes not only invisible, but inevitable.”

Putin has been slugging away at NATO’s conceptual blindspots, the same blindspots that Nordstrom studies--extra-legal organizations and criminal groups. You forgot to mention Putin's army of kamakazi cyberpunks (hackers) who took Estonia offline in May 2007 and who recently perpetrated a massive online bank heist. They serve his tactical and strategic goals.

Regarding Putin’s savvy, off-our-radars handling of extra-state and international criminal groups, like the “Black Wolves” and hackers, we do not see what he is doing or why because we have not developed conceptual tools for seeing what he is doing right before our eyes. Nordstrom, who went undercover for nearly a decade to research for that book, could be very useful in helping us understand Putin’s short-term tactics and long-game strategy. Her model accounts both for outlaws and for inlaws with the same disregard for the niceties of academic and disciplinary borders and boundaries as Putin has recently demonstrated for European political borders and boundaries.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 5:38am

Notice just how easy it is to take a report out of the Ukraine and match it against the Russian UW strategy elements that have been identified up to now at play in their "hybrid war".

Russian generals in the Ukraine is on the listed 15 elements.

Ambsdr Pyatt: US has evidence that Russian generals direct fighting in Donbas… …

Outlaw 09

Mon, 03/02/2015 - 5:28am

There is another aspect that the author as well as the entire US intel community and political pundits have fully overlooked when discussing Putin/Russia/Ukraine in the same sentence as Clausewitz OR for that matter in any sentence.

Clauswitz is if serves my memory well in all of his writings never did mention the concept called "criminal gangs" and their impact both inside and outside their various European nation states as well as the massively developed transnational connections between the various criminal gangs.

Robbers,thieves and petty criminals of the Clausewitz era are nothing compared to this new generation of transnational criminal gangs--one can now actually safely state for every legal business in a particular country there is a matching illegal criminal business.

From the past-- I spent a long number of years conducting strat debriefs of EGPPs (East German Political Prisoners) who arrived in Berlin in the late 70s and through the 80s. In the early 80s the GDR was running out of PPs and started substituting long term criminal prisoners at 25K DM per pop.

Somehow I ended up dealing with them for several years and built a solid understanding of their structures and methods of operation inside the GDR.

At that time I had a constant running battle with the national level IC as to the value of such debriefs which resulted in a series of specific collection activities with me being viewed as a tad crazy.

What stood out in the early 80s was the complete lack of any control over the criminal gangs by the "feared" MfS---the Stasi would engage them for dirty work but never were they fully able to exert full control over them.

This applied as well to the Polish and Soviet gangs and the SB and KBG security services--not a single former Soviet bloc member and the SU had any control over this sub culture during that period.

That impressed me to no end as there had been such an image built around the Stasi, the SB and the KBG that did not match their failures in this area.

Recently I made number of comments concerning the decision making process inside Russia and compared it to a four legged stool. One leg--the oligarchs, one leg the military, one leg the state security FSB and the last leg the Russian Mafia---with Putin as the center moderator---and the stool is covered by the blanket called the Russian Orthodox church.

I would now revise that since the eastern Ukraine and the recent Anti Maidan protest march in Moscow organized by the largest Russian criminal biker gang the Black Wolfs to say the same legs but the input of the oligarchs has been greatly reduced via sanctions and falling oil prices, some increase in the military influence due to the invasion but limited as they have been taking large manpower loses, with far more power accumulating in the FSB with increased power residing now in the Russian Mafia.

Clausewitz would not be able to apply any of his concepts to this power constellation especially since the goal of the Russian UW strategy is to "win" without a true war almost to a degree Sun Tzu in thinking.

If one looks at their recent doctrinal changes based on the Ukraine NATO response ---Russia if it must go to a true war wants to win immediately because they know they cannot overcome a massive NATO response and that now includes tactical nuclear first use against a major EU city or military forces in order to then "deescalate" and their abandonment of the MAD principle in 2012 and again in 2014.

Now if one thoroughly looks at the Crimean and eastern Ukraine just how strong is the criminal element in the Russian UW eight phase strategy mix?

What we need is a complete rethink in the analysis of Russia not using the past but using the simple concept of ditching one's biases and attempting to "understand" exactly what one is "seeing" in reality physically on the ground--something we never got right in either Iraq and or AFG.

Meaning "what you see is what you get"--simple straight reality based non biased analysis always on the hunt for the WHY?

Outlaw 09

Sun, 03/01/2015 - 4:30pm

While the article is typical for an academic environment -- what has been seen in Crimea and eastern Ukraine dates back to 1990 and regardless of what many say it has nothing to do with NATO expansionism, nothing to do with humiliation or the other four reasons Putin has stated since his Duma speech.

If we look at the Putin Duma speech where he speaks of “protecting ethnic Russians where ever they reside” or what some call the Putin Doctrine ---the Estonia President Meri in his 1994 speech already spoke of this issue as an entrenched element in Russian imperialism.

So what we are seeing in 2014 is just an extension of 1990-- just on steroids and a number of astute Eastern/Central Europeans have been pointing the finger at Russian imperialism since 1990.

What one can say is that the new Russian UW strategy is a full court “whole of government press” including an integrated conventional/SF military which is possible only in a governmental structure we currently see in Russia which allows for quick decisions and quick implementations in the field/political environment depending on how the selected opponent reacts.

In fact the Russian UW strategy has been closely tailored to the current political and leadership structure found in Russia allowing if one looks closely ---the achievement of territorial and political gains all one level below a full scale war.

This is the defining question that NATO is facing for the first time—during the Cold War the “enemy” could be clearly defined---a Soviet T80 crossing the inner German border and Article 5 would be easily triggered with no internal debate. But will any NATO member call for Article 5 to be triggered when a bunch of ethnic Russian/Polish/Romanian speakers demonstrating for more civil rights to protect their “Russian language and culture” decide to takeover administrative buildings or build barricades?

That is a very valid question and Russia knows of this internal dynamic and again their UW strategy is designed to counter that process by remaining a half step below open warfare where the civil societies of NATO would openly question going to war.

Clausewitz on the other hand lived in a far differ military, political and leadership environment where the term “war” had/carried a total different meaning than the current mantra “hybrid warfare”.

The Estonian Presidential speech of 1994 could actually be called the precursor warning statement of Russian intentions in Eastern/Central Europe for 2014 --which is the next logical step in Russian imperial expansionism started in 2008.

"Wishful thinking of the West"The speech by president Lennart Meri (1994)could've been written today

If we look at the following article there are two interesting questions being raised---is in fact the Crimea and eastern Ukraine really the first European war being fought over 1) natural raw resources and 2) a dependency on another country’s military industrial complex by a slowing fading superpower.…

This next article is one of the first breakouts of all the players involved in the Russian UW strategy being exercised inside eastern Ukraine.

Actually believe even Clausewitz would not have a counter for it and be lost for a strategy much as is the entire Western political leadership at the moment.

Right now this indecision by western political leaders is the inherent danger as their hesitation is being interpreted by Putin as weakness as it confirms his personal views of the “decadent liberalism” of the West.

I seriously doubt that Putin with his KGB upbringing anchored in the Russian Orthodox Church really cares about Clausewitz.…

Russias 'hybrid army' currently consists of:

1. Cossacks (something in between police and soldiers)
2. conscripts, regular army (similar as with our armies)
3. Chechen mercenaries (lots of them; Kadyrov has something to do with it)
4. other mercenaries (Serbs, we see a lot of Asians)
5. Berkut (former Ukrainian special police)
6. ethnic Russians living in Ukraine who join
7. 5th column (locals who work as foreign agents)
8. Russian 'tourists' (nationalists who pretend to be Ukrainians)
9. Real life actors, actresses and figurants (used for their own propaganda or deliberately seeking Western cameras to play their drama and speak their propaganda)
10. Ukrainian soldiers and officers (either deserted from Ukrainian army or still working within the Ukrainian army as traitors/spies).
11. local mafia and criminals given training and arms
12. brainwashed locals (mainly manning checkposts and interviewed by Western media)
13. locals somehow forced to join (mainly of young and very young age, or out of need/money)
14. Russian criminals or 'inmates' given 'amnesty' in exchange for fighting in Ukraine (we have seen many of them already and there is going to be A LOT more of them; see this blog.)
15. Special Forces and GRU (seldom filmed; used to tip the balance in Russia's favor)
16. FSB agents (they check and control)
17. Russian generals 'coordinating the ceasefire' on the UKRAINIAN SIDE OF THE FRONTLINE
18. Embedded journalists for creating propaganda (they also get a military training and are called 'our boys')
19. Commanders (command and control is all in Russia's hand)

All coupled with an “integrated vacationing military” using and testing the modern new weapon systems envisioned in the Russian UW strategy New Generation Warfare.