Russia’s Military Was Doomed by Putin’s Culture of Militarism

World Politics Review, 25.05.2022
Alexander Clarkson, profesor en estudios europeos (King’s College London)

At least once at every conference about an international security crisis, in the midst of debate, a participant will suddenly lean back and quote Carl von Clausewitz in a booming voice to underscore a tenuous point. Sometimes, in order to demonstrate that they are not just drawing on conventional wisdom about politics and war, the Clausewitz citation might be followed up by an observation borrowed from Henri Jomini. Every once in a while, there might even be a Sun Tzu quip thrown in for good measure.

When it comes to analysis of what the Russo-Ukrainian war tells us about the future of conflict, we have seen the full deployment of quotes from all three. When trying to define the potential trajectory of the struggle between Ukraine and Russia, many analysts have reached back to Clausewitzian concepts focusing on how strategic goals generated by political pressures should define military approaches. Looking at the fighting on a tactical level, the debates have also reflected the influence of Jomini’s vision of warfare, with its emphasis on a set of specific rules of battle whose purpose is to ensure that an army can use maneuver to concentrate its strength on an enemy’s key point of weakness. Poking through all this speculation are also concepts around the Ukrainian military’s use of indirect approaches and information war that draw on the thinking of Sun Tzu, with its perspectives on how strategic goals can be achieved through minimal use of force.

Yet these attempts to develop a clearer understanding of what exactly is taking place in Ukraine often struggle to develop a complete picture of this devastating conflict’s implications for the future of war in Europe and the wider world. However useful the insights of Clausewitz or Jomini can be to understanding aspects of this war, they are the product of a very particular historical moment in the early 19th century. At times, analysis that has hinged too much around these theoretical perspectives has struggled to grasp underlying dynamics shaping the behavior of militaries and leaders in Europe’s first major war between states since 1945.

In trying to come to terms with these strategic challenges, the insights of 20th-century scholar Alfred Vagts may provide a better guide to how the social context around militaries shapes their performance on the battlefield. In his seminal book “A History of Militarism,” rather than defining universal rules of war—he dismissed Jomini as a “bank clerk who turned to war”—Vagts explored how a military’s specific institutional culture affects the outlook of its officers and influences the thinking of political elites in ways that can be decisive in war. Though more respectful of Clausewitz, Vagts criticized his tendency to “dream only of war and disregard its economy,” a worldview that leads to a monomaniacal focus on military priorities at the expense of the social and economic foundations needed to sustain them.

As both a German officer during World War I who served with such distinction that he was awarded an Iron Cross and a scholar who was forced to flee to Britain in the early 1930s out of fear of Nazi persecution, Vagts had direct experience of how Germany’s culture of militarism led it to disaster twice in less than 20 years. First written in the 1930s and then revised for a second edition in 1967, “A History of Militarism” represented Vagts’ attempt to reflect on that culture of militarism. As with every such theoretical text, there are of course problematic omissions and a particularly Eurocentric cast that need to be kept in mind when drawing any lessons from it in analyzing conflict a century after Vagts survived the horrors of Verdun and the Brusilov offensive. Nevertheless, in “A History of Militarism,” Vagts provides us with two key insights that can help us understand why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not necessarily developed to Putin’s advantage.

The first is the fundamental distinction Vagts makes between militarism and what he describes as the “military way.” For Vagts, the military way is “marked by a primary concentration of men and materials on winning specific objectives of power with the utmost efficiency, that is, with the least expenditure of blood and treasure.” In his work, Vagts contrasts this view of the military way, which is confined to one function and is “scientific in its essential qualities,” with what he describes as the disease of militarism, which “presents a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions, and thought associated with armies and wars and yet transcending true military purposes.” Vagts goes on to argue that, if unchecked, militarism’s hostility to “scientific thinking” can “hamper and defeat the purposes of the military way,” ultimately degrading into “the qualities of caste and cult, authority and belief.”

If viewed through the prism of Vagt’s sociological focus on the tension between militarism and the military way, many of the underlying factors that led to the Russian military’s dysfunctional behavior in March and April become evident. Building on Soviet traditions, the Putin regime has celebrated military power through propagandistic rituals and authoritarian narratives that Vagts would have recognized as representing the culture of militarism in its crudest form. This focus on a vast array of militaristic customs, interests, prestige and actions fundamental to Putin’s efforts to build legitimacy for his dictatorial rule was epitomized by the fetishization of weapons systems such as tanks or military units such as airborne forces, at the expense of their effective deployment on the battlefield against a skilled adversary.

The extent to which Russian society has become suffused with the culture of militarism also distorted perceptions of Russia’s global power among its military and civilian leadership and inculcated a culture of obedience throughout the state that enabled Putin to blunder into a set of basic strategic miscalculations. For Vagts, the Russian army’s basic strategic and tactical failures around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mikolayiv would have represented a case study in how a culture of militarism destroys a society’s ability to pursue the military way.

The second key insight Vagts presents in “A History of Militarism” can also help us better understand why the Ukrainian military survived the brutal onslaught it faced in late February and March. In reflecting on how societies faced with the existential challenges of war avoid the pitfalls of militarism, Vagts quotes Ulysses S. Grant’s observation that bad generals “failed because they worked out everything by rule” and that good ones avoided rote thinking based on calcified concepts because “war is progressive.”

Warfare presents constantly shifting logistical, technological and social challenges, so those pursuing the military way need to be willing and able to adapt swiftly if they are to survive. The Ukrainian military internalized this reality after the disasters it experienced against Russia in 2014. Through a painful process of internal reform and fighting around a Donbas frontline in which combat flared up regularly for years before the Russian assault on the rest of Ukraine in February, the Ukrainian military evolved into an institution more willing to engage with innovative use of weapons in the face of an opponent that was far more powerful on paper.

Faced with attacks on Ukraine’s military, political, economic and national survival, Ukrainian officers had to emerge from their own closed social world to work with partners in local government and civil society who would come to play a key role in supporting and even directing operations to defend their communities. In an existential struggle for the survival of Ukrainian society, the Ukrainian state could simply not afford to indulge a stultifying culture of militarism that might obstruct its pursuit of the military way.

For other democracies pondering the lessons they might learn from Ukraine’s struggle for survival against Russia, the contrast Vagts sets between the perils of militarism and the pursuit of the military way poses difficult questions about how they might build their defenses to preserve liberty and pursue social justice at home. As a first step, it might be worth pondering Vagts’ observation that, when it comes to managing the tension between militarism and what is truly necessarily military, it might be that “from the sheer professional point of view, democracies … are after all the best purveyors of soldiers and the best employers of officers.”

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