In searching for a definition of war in Ukraine, I find it interesting to recall the ideas of John Keegan, an English historian who taught at the Sandhurst Military Academy. At the beginning of his classic work, A History of Warfare, he makes a categorical assertion: "War is not the continuation of politics by other means. The world would be easier to understand if Clausewitz's maxim were true". Keegan contends that war is a "complex cultural construct". As he points out, "we are cultural animals and it is the richness of our culture that serves us in our indisputable capacity for violence, nonetheless convinced that its outbreak is a cultural aberration".
Given this background, we will seek to analyse the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation by defining it, a priori, as a case of violence applied to the resolution of a conflict that is underpinned by various policies and whose technological resources and ethical justifications are used in accordance with what appears to be most useful to the various players. In other words, there is no "political moment" interrupted by a "moment of war". It is only by looking at it as a continuum linking politics and violence that we will be able to construe its origins, its development, and its consequences.
We do not believe we are being arbitrary, particularly if we think that Clausewitz was rather more subtle and complex than his simplified definition. In Der Krieg he said that "war is the continuation of political reality with the intrusion of other means". A complexity, not an alternation. Therefore, we will set out to talk about politics, violence, and technology.
The first victim
Almost a century ago (1928), the British politician Lord Arthur Ponsonby, went down in the history of synthetic definitions: "When war is declared, truth is the first casualty". He was referring to the First World War. He had indeed coined a universal apothegm that would rarely be more applicable than to the situation between Russia and Ukraine. In fact, the warring sides themselves do not even agree on the definition of the confrontation. For Volodomir Zelensky and his Western allies it is a "war". For Vladimir Putin it is simply a "Special Military Operation".
One side sees it as a case of extreme defence against an aggression that threatens the very existence of national identity (and dangerously entertains the idea of a Third World War. The other sees it as a preventive and controlled intervention aimed at protecting Russian-speaking minorities in Donbass, denazifying a potentially aggressive neighbour and avoiding the strategic danger of NATO expansion. The consequences of these definitions are not negligible. They have to do with the vision of causality, the objectives sought, the choice of means to be used and the conditions for peace. Words, let us remember, have a performative function. That is to say, they do not merely describe facts, but in certain circumstances, when expressed, they create the conditions for the production of such facts.
In the field of military theory, we believe it is useful to understand this apparent terminological confusion within the framework (currently under debate) of the "hybrid strategies" that seem to be dominating the battlefields of this hazy 21st century. "Hybridity" is a "grey zone" doctrine that combines the use of force (conventional or irregular) with cyber operations, migration, natural resources, fake news, diplomacy, legal confrontations, economic sanctions and even electoral interventions in third countries. One advantage of this model is that the aggressor can avoid blame for the attack. As some commentators on the Internet have noted, "an idea somewhat akin to plausible deniability". As an example, in 2021, sources attributed to the EU and NATO described the migration crisis between Belarus and the European Union as a "hybrid attack".
Digression on technology and the use of war
One of the most noteworthy events in Ukraine, almost three months into the conflict, was the destruction of a T 90 tank (the most modern armoured tank in the Russian arsenal) by a Ukrainian infantryman armed with a Swedish Carl Gustav anti-tank. Let us bear in mind this fact, which is not a minor one. It is one of the keys to understanding what is happening in the conflict. One man versus one tank. Technology is indeed changing the battlefield.
Gregoire Chamayou begins his excellent book A Theory of the Drone by quoting Simone Weil: "The most defective method possible would be to approach warfare in terms of the ends pursued and not by the nature of the means employed". It is a cliché, and one dangerously close to the truth, to say that armies are always preparing to win the previous war, not the future one. The apothegm has its logic. The military start by analysing historical experience, their own and that of others, to dissect it carefully in search of success and failure and, hence, to design their future capabilities. This logic sometimes leads to tragic confusions.
The most well-known case concerned the Germans and the French between World War I and World War II. Both countries had seen their armies, built in the shadow of Napoleonic mobility, bury themselves in unlikely trench lines where machine guns and barbed wire prevailed. While the analysis in the inter-war period was similar, the responses were diametrically opposed.
The French favoured static defence and built the Maginot Line. The Germans privileged the offensive and designed the Blitz Krieg (a lethal combination of the Panzer and the Stuka). The result is well known. What is perhaps less known is that the French Army had more tanks than the Germans. The difference is that the French thought of theirs as mobile artillery and distributed them in small units. The Germans thought of them as cavalry and concentrated them in Armoured Divisions. This is a clear example of the use of new military technologies applied to two different political intentions. Given this framework, we believe that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could be called the "Drone War". Why?
Today we see an army ranked 2nd in the world facing an army that comfortably ranks 32nd. What they envisioned as an operation that would last no more than 10 days is now bogged down, stretching into its third month. We see an army of tanks/mobile infantry held back by an army massively equipped with Javelin missiles, Stinger missiles, Carl Gustav rocket launchers and Turkish Bayraktar drones. In addition, Elon Musk's satellite Internet networks (and surely NATO intelligence) are in full swing, having made it possible to detect and sink two Russian flagships: The cruiser Moscow and the missile frigate Admiral Makarov. It is an asymmetrical conflict indeed because the use of the means employed is also asymmetrical. An army of Modernity confronted with an army of Postmodernity. An army designed for the 20th century facing an opponent that challenges it to fight in the 21st century.
The Pope and the Generals. A possible prospect of the conflict
Let us begin by combining unconventional sources in search of an explanation that accounts for the specificities of the current conflict. In recent statements to Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis said: "The barking of NATO near the Russian border facilitated the development of the conflict. What is clear is that new weapons are being tested in this war. The Russians now know that tanks are of little use and are thinking of other things".
Someone functionally at odds with the Pontiff, General Mark Milley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces), said: "It (the conflict) is going to be very extended in time. I think it can be measured in years. And, at the time of writing, US ARMY Secretary Christine Wormouth warned the US Senate that the timeline for replacing the stockpiles of Javelin and Stinger missiles on loan to Ukraine could be over a year.
OTAN, Years, Missiles
We could perhaps classify the Russian-Ukrainian conflict as part of the so-called “post-colonial conflicts” that Russia is going through in its attempt to redefine itself after the implosion of the former USSR, considering Ukraine and Crimea as integral parts of a cultural history and a non-negotiable zone of influence.
We could perhaps include it in a US effort to maintain a hegemonic role in a world that is moving towards multipolarity. This would explain, among other things, the BRICS' cautious vote in various international forums.
We could perhaps think of it as a rearrangement of prices and Global Markets. That Pocket War as per the headlines of the New York Times.
We are perhaps still facing a strategic dilemma for NATO, the same organisation that Trump had defined as an "obsolete instrument": to continue to be the armed wing of the USA in Europe or to become the force projection of an independent European player. I think it is important to remember that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz approved a 100-billion-euro Special Fund for the Armed Forces. This is the country's largest defence investment since 1945.
In military terms we may be facing Putin's Afghanistan: the US and its allies waging a proxy war (a conflict by proxy where one side fights indirectly through third parties without participating directly) that would bleed not only the military but also the Russian economy. And in this case, time will indeed play dangerously against Russia. What we can above all be sure of is that we are facing a paradigm shift in Benjamin's times.
Martín Gras is a lawyer, Director of the Department of Administration and Economics at UNTREF - Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero. He is a lecturer at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and a former lecturer at the Universidad Nacional de General San Martín and Universidad del Salvador.