Clausewitz and the dual nature of war in Ukraine

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist who stressed both the moral and political aspects of war.  His most notable work was About War and is required reading for all senior military colleges both here and aboard.  Even though written almost two hundred years ago, many of his maxims are applicable today.  He is probably best known for the phrase "war is the continuation of politics by other means."

According to Clausewitz, war has a dual nature and is pulled by opposing tendencies toward escalation and limitation.  Given this duality, the degree of effort that should be made in war becomes a matter of judgment that requires a constant assessment of the probabilities of success in the light of known circumstances.

We have seen the dual nature of escalation and limitation playing out in Ukraine over the last month.  At the start of the invasion, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, confidently declared that "Kyiv would fall in seventy-two hours."  Ukraine was initially written off by the Biden administration and left to its own defenses.  As Clausewitz would say, due to our perceived outcome, we chose to limit our support.

We opted to send our usual "thoughts and prayers" but vetoed Poland sending MiG aircraft that would have enabled Ukraine to establish a no-fly zone of its own not maintained by NATO aircraft.  This tit-for-tat has been escalating ever since Russia launched what it called a "special military operation to destroy Ukraine's military infrastructure."

Since then, Ukraine forces have proved their mettle and resisted Russian aggression and have even gone on the counteroffensive, pushing Russian forces out of territory they previously occupied.  Unfortunately, we have seen the result of Russian war crimes inflicted on civilian men, women, and children.

Russian troops attacked a rail station in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine Friday morning, leaving more than 39 dead and more than 100 hurt.  The station was being used by civilians trying to evacuate and is the latest evidence that Russians are deliberately targeting civilians.  Slovakia prime minister Eduard Heger is sending a Soviet-era S-300 air defense system to Ukraine to "help save many innocent lives from the aggression of the Putin regime."  "I can confirm that the Slovak Republic has donated to Ukraine an air defense system, the S-300.  I believe that this defense system will help save many innocent lives from the aggression of the Putin regime," Heger said. 

So, as Clausewitz would have predicted, we are now entering into the risky escalatory phase of the conflict.  Who knows where the escalation may end — chemical or biological weapons, or, God forbid, the use of tactical nuclear weapons?

It all proves that in the world of geopolitics, it pays to be bold and decisive and to think two steps of your adversary rather than be passive and react to his next move.  After all, as Joseph Addison warned us, "he who hesitates is lost."  "Swift and resolute action lead to success; self-doubt is a prelude to disaster."

Image via Max Pixel.

If you experience technical problems, please write to