Understanding the War
On the Exceptionality of Russia’s All-Out War Against Ukraine
A Ukrainian serviceman checks the dead body of a civilian for booby traps in the formerly Russian-occupied Kyiv suburb of Bucha, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022. AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda
Perhaps what Western leaders lack most is an understanding of war. They are certainly subjugated by its absolute brutality and its lack of mercy on the part of the Russian aggressor; they probably perceive better today its total character, as shown by the strikes aimed mainly at the civilian population; they also know that the Russian war did not have the beginning of a “reason” other than the destruction of a nation and the annihilation of a people. At least one can hope that they have understood this, that is, the extremism of the war and its endless crimes. But because common sense tells them to be astonished, perhaps they have also secreted an antibody: the repression in their minds of the inconceivable. This still seems to prevent them from understanding the end, that is to say, from putting in place the means to win it.
The reality of this war is the genocidal project that animates it—no doubt the same was true for Milošević and the Bosnian Serb leaders at the time with regard to the Bosniak population. In filthy remarks widely condemned by Western chancelleries, but also by the European Jewish Congress, Sergei Lavrov referred to a claim that the United States intended to implement a “final solution to the Russian problem.” In reality, if Putin had had the means, he would not have hesitated to implement something like an Endlösung. All in all, this is what the Russian army is trying to accomplish in part by deliberately targeting hospitals, schools and residential buildings, as it had already done in Chechnya and Syria, by systematically torturing, and by deporting Ukrainian children en masse to “Russify” them. To summarize his war aims as a form of neo-imperialism and neo-colonization is too simplistic, even if it contains some truth. Just as Hitler’s project was primarily the extermination of the Jews and secondarily the domination of Europe, Putin’s is the annihilation of the Ukrainian population to whom he gives the “choice” of assimilating or physically disappearing. In both cases, it is a war whose ideological nature outweighs any other consideration.
As we know, this project is not new for the head of the Kremlin. Perhaps he would have been satisfied at the beginning with a grip on the country, which he tried to achieve with Yanukovych, as he also attempted in Belarus with Lukashenka. But he saw that he could go about it in a more brutal way: the lack of reaction to his crimes against humanity in Syria and their insignificance after the illegal occupation of Crimea disguised as annexation were green lights for him. That Putin was surprised by the Western reaction and unity and by the sublime resistance of the Ukrainian population is one thing; that he has totally renounced it is another. It is clear that he will pursue his policy of destruction to the end, even if it means cutting back a little on his initial objectives. It will only stop if it is stopped in a total and definitive way.
This war, which Russia wants to be total and perpetual, has largely thwarted the predictions of Western strategists. If scenarios of a high intensity war in Europe had sometimes been evoked, this type of conflict had not really been prepared because they were not at the highest level of the retained hypotheses. Most relied on the two classical instruments of deterrence: nuclear deterrence, which certainly remains entirely valid, and a classical deterrence that was ultimately limited and within NATO. The procrastination in the delivery of essential weapons to Ukraine, which remains far too limited, is partly, but only partly, the result of these past choices. They are also the consequence of an at best partial upgrading of our strategic concepts.
Faced with the total threat
The fear of Western leaders is precisely due to the fact that the Russian threat is total, both because the war it is waging on Ukraine potentially knows no limit in the frenzy of destruction and crimes and because its extension is potentially without any other limit than that of Russian means. For a long time, this total intoxication with destruction has produced in most Western leaders a repressive effect: after having intended, despite all evidence to the contrary, to normalize the regime, they have even worked to normalize the war—in Ukraine since 2014, in Syria since the beginning and even after the direct intervention of Russian troops in the worst crimes against humanity from the fall of 2015. Even after February 24, 2022, and beyond the unity of the Allies in favor of Ukraine, some continued to attempt this normalization of their perceptions of the Russian regime. Some, suggesting possible mediation or negotiation, are in the same intellectual refusal to understand the reality of this total threat.
In terms of diplomatic conceptions, this potential descent into the absoluteness of the abyss that this total threat suggests shatters two deeply held forms of diplomatic belief. The first is that of the relativity of any position. The second is that, simultaneously and paradoxically, of an end to the period opened with the Cold War and of a temptation to think of Putin’s regime in the same terms as those used by strategists during that period.
I have already mentioned here several times the desire of some to lock diplomacy into a form of unchanging essence with the temptation to make it a science embalmed forever for the Academy. They want to define the terms of the discipline as if it were a total science sheltered from the vicissitudes of time. They love diplomacy so much that they make it an end in itself, as if the means could define the aim and as if it should capture the whole of international relations. It likes to see the moderation that befits its servants and therefore refuses to consider that this moderation may not exist in certain historical circumstances—or at least that the facts may not be considered “moderate”. The absolute—especially that of crime and, even more so, in a metaphysical way, that of evil, which has already been discussed in these pages—is rejected as excessive, as if its unsuitable nature had to be canceled by the word, since it cannot be abolished in the facts. Relativism follows logically from this.
This conventional and, in the end, rather short-sighted thinking tends to erase historical differences in meaning. It is certainly possible to identify historical constants in the history of war, and in particular in massacres and crimes. One can read Thucydides or Tacitus and draw parallels with our wars and, even more, with this or that character or situation. Rereading the history of the Thirty Years’ War or the Napoleonic Wars, not to mention those closer to us, is rich in lessons on the behavior of troops as well as on diplomatic attitudes. However, leaving it at that and drawing from it a model that is supposed to make it possible to understand what is at stake with the Russian war against Ukraine is a contempt for intelligence and a denial of the primary historical fact: the emergence of novelty in history, which Hannah Arendt had spoken about at length. Without this attempt of comprehension—understanding which is not simple knowledge—, one could not understand the specificity of Nazi totalitarianism. Nor could we understand Putin’s regime. The kind of mathematical logic that can animate our best diplomats to understand the patterns of a negotiation must be abandoned in favor of a kind of terror that can sometimes fill—and perhaps feed—the soul of the philosopher.
I thought of this when I read the other day what the former French diplomat Gérard Araud wrote, in a clear, if indirect, allusion to some of my widely circulated remarks on a popular TV program: “Diplomacy is the domain of the lesser evil, of the temporary, of the ambiguous and the unspoken. To introduce the absolute into it is to substitute a confrontation which admits of no other law than the capitulation of the adversary, whatever the uncertainty and the cost.” I had answered him: “It is the central point of our partial disagreement. In 95% of the cases, I am in perfect agreement. In the case of the Russian war, because of its exceptional character since the Second World War, I do not see any possible compromise. It is a long-term commitment.” Elsewhere, the same diplomat remarked, “Europeans have apparently forgotten that for fifteen centuries they have not stopped fighting wars like the one between Russia and Ukraine.” These words are relatively trivial in many ways, and historically correct, but they are indicative of certain biases in the thinking of some political leaders, well beyond the closed world of diplomacy.
In addition to blithely jumping on the experience of the Second World War and even the wars in ex-Yugoslavia and Syria, which have much to teach us about the absoluteness of evil, this conception obscures the limited role of diplomacy when confronting a total enemy. It also exclipses what we might pompously call the progress of civilization, or what we wish to be such, as the rules of international humanitarian law in particular have attempted to codify. Precisely, everything we tried to put in place during the 20th century was aimed at avoiding the kind of limitless massacres that may have characterized some old wars, even if those of the last century were those of the greatest outburst of violence. Some have compared certain phases of the war in Ukraine with the trench battles of the First World War: is this what we would like to repeat? Can we accept as a historical inevitability the deliberate massacres of civilians, as we have seen recently in Syria and Ukraine, and as we still see in Yemen? In Ukraine, in particular, we need to rethink war from the perspective of absolute crime, not from the perspective of pre-Holocaust wars.
The second belief lies in the paradoxical relationship with the Cold War. Indeed, some people hold, at least implicitly, a double discourse. First, they recognize, as I did, that the Cold War model is unable to account for Putin’s aggression against the democracies and, more specifically, the war against Ukraine. Almost nothing is similar between then and now, neither strategically nor in terms of ideology. To fit the current policy of the Kremlin into this scheme could be, in a way, reassuring, even though the nuclear risk, often hidden in retrospect, was at that time undoubtedly higher than today. Precisely, we should not be reassured.
But on the other hand, some analysts are sometimes inclined, without explicitly referring to the Cold War, to transpose its patterns, especially in terms of a supposed solution. The invocation of security schemes at the European level points in this direction, as do certain negotiation hypotheses. Lending a hand to this model would lead to a return to a form of balance of power that could perhaps be “realistically” envisaged at the time of the USSR—it also meant an accommodation with the prison in which some of the former republics of the USSR and the members of the Warsaw Pact were held—but which it is unthinkable to imagine with an unlimited revisionist power. In reality, it is the concept of balance itself that Russian power shatters, and with it any credible prospect of an arrangement. It is therefore no longer sufficient to think of our military relationship with this state with the help of the concepts of balance and deterrence, or even of containment—which is not applied, by the way. It is a conceptual revision that must be undertaken.
The center and the periphery
We must return to the two components of deterrence.
The first is nuclear, and its essential formulation is found in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, even if France’s nuclear component is independent—France is a member of NATO’s integrated command, but not of its Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). Of course, Article 5 is not limited to the nuclear form of deterrence, which we must always remember is not implemented automatically. The nuclear component of deterrence plays both an indispensable role in the response to Russia’s war on Ukraine—deterring Russia from using nuclear weapons itself, even if the response to a possible Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine would not necessarily be nuclear itself—and a limited role—nuclear deterrence rarely deters high-intensity conventional offensive action, let alone against a non-Alliance country.
Thus, the nuclear component of deterrence remains absolutely decisive, but it is not certain that it constitutes the strongest pillar of future deterrence. Incidentally, we remember that during the Cold War, what was then called the balance was based, in Europe at least, on this nuclear component, but also on a conventional component that was much more important than today, although not necessarily fully operational in the event of real combat. This nuclear component also proves to be all the less relevant during a conflict as one moves away from the center of the potential sanctuary—whatever the ambiguity, which is partly necessary, as to what it covers—and towards its periphery. And this distinction, which we shall explore, is, as we shall see, less and less decisive, even though it constitutes the implicit core of the classical doctrine of deterrence.
The conventional component of deterrence has, on the European side, revealed its intrinsic limitations in the case of the Russian war against Ukraine. The two European countries with nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and the capacity to project their forces abroad, France and the United Kingdom, had, especially for the former, largely sacrificed part of their conventional forces over the previous two decades, mainly tanks and, to some extent, artillery, while retaining strong firepower in the air and, to a lesser extent, at sea. In any case, their resources were designed more for external operations than for the defense of their territory. Their armies however remain the two most powerful in Europe. The fifth largest army in Europe, Germany’s, is neither the best equipped nor the most prepared to combat, even if it has an advantage in conventional maneuver weapons, essentially tanks, especially the Leopard 2 heavy tanks, which it refuses to deliver for the time being.
Without going back over the reasons for this lack of anticipation and a precise state of forces, it is certain that the European countries hardly imagined that they would have to intervene to fight against an enemy attacking another state on European soil. It is not proven, by the way, that they really imagined that they themselves could be direct victims of a Russian aggression: given their widely shared belief in the state of the Russian army, which they generally overestimated, the forces they were able to field were certainly not up to the task. They certainly placed more value on nuclear reassurance.
Beyond these real capability problems—regularly pointed out by the United States, which is often quick to accuse certain European countries of not taking their share of the burden sufficiently—and the known limits of European defense, the Russian aggression against Ukraine directly raises the question of the scope of deterrence which, by definition, should govern its means. The classical conception of deterrence is based on its very heart, namely NATO, which, in an apparently logical way, concerns the countries party to the Washington Treaty. In Asia, it is based on a series of security agreements, essentially between certain countries in this area and the United States. Strictly speaking, there is no Asian NATO, and we will not discuss the relevance of this concept here. In addition, there are interventions in the framework of ad hoc coalitions in the fight against Islamic terrorism, without the concept of deterrence being fully applicable.
The war in Ukraine has shown that NATO’s centrality in the concept of deterrence has certain limits. In Ukraine, certainly, but also in Moldova, Georgia, even Belarus and, in a different way, in Armenia, attacked or threatened by Russia, our own security is endangered. The short-sighted decision taken at the Bucharest summit of 2-4 April 2008, due to the blockages of the French and German governments of the time, excessively sensitive to the Kremlin’s narrative of alleged red lines, not to grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Kyiv and Tbilisi, have reinforced the disconnect between NATO and non-NATO countries in terms of deterrence. In Syria, even though, beyond the Responsibility to Protect, Western countries did not consider that Moscow and Tehran’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime constituted a threat to our security, even though it strengthened these countries. Everyone saw the dramatic consequences in August 2008 and in 2014 in Georgia and in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, especially since the installation of Russian troops in the fall of 2015. For all that, NATO had not refused to intervene after the massacres in Račak as part of operation Allied Force from March 23 to June 10, 1999, not to mention its peace stabilization operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina from December 1995 as part of the implementation of the military component of the Dayton Agreement. This intervention was the determining factor in the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia and the fall of the regime of Slobodan Milošević and his bringing, along with other war criminals, to international justice.
Therefore, if deterrence is seriously considered as the foundation of security in Europe, it cannot only cover NATO member countries—it is certainly essential that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova join as soon as possible. Beyond its nuclear dimension, this deterrence must be based on a capacity to intervene—and an effective will to do so—on the conventional level, as the war in Ukraine has shown to be the determining element. Moreover, it should have immediately considered—and it is not too late to do so—providing direct military assistance to Ukraine within the framework of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The refusal of NATO countries to intervene weakens the credibility of our deterrent posture for NATO members, despite strong speeches, notably by American President Joe Biden. A position that is too far behind makes a limitless aggressor even more certain.
When there is no longer a balance
Our situation is no longer conceptually defined by balance in the face of the Russian aggressor. From a strictly military point of view, the state of forces certainly reflects an imbalance, because the Russian army does not weigh much compared to the American army and, more broadly, to the armed forces of NATO—to remain with conventional forces, because the calculation is undoubtedly less relevant in terms of nuclear forces. But this imbalance of forces means nothing from the moment that Russia has, through lack of a totally appropriate response from democratic nations, the latitude to destroy a country and massacre its inhabitants and to control others. The problem lies precisely in the fact that a certain number of Western democracies, while coming to the aid of Ukraine, in a way that is far too measured and hesitant, continue to consider Russia as a power “to be reckoned with” and to think of our relationship with it in terms of a potential balance. They still reason as if Russia’s defeat were not an option and therefore not to be sought. They continue to buy the simplistic narrative, posited as an axiom never proven, that a nuclear power could not be defeated. This was the case for the USSR in Afghanistan, for the United States in Korea, in Vietnam and, more recently, with the abandonment of Afghanistan.
The reality is that Moscow is not in a position to seek a balance with the democratic world. It does not set itself limits that could prefigure any compromise, even one that is not very acceptable to us, and the search for a give-and-take on the basis of which a more or less lasting peace could be envisaged. An allegedly “prudent” approach to Russia would be the worst form of imprudence—the history of the last twenty-three years bears witness to this—and any prospect of negotiations a fool’s game. To continue to hold such a discourse about the end of the war in Ukraine is a serious mistake, because it is part of the Russian hope of reaching a compromise, even if it is less than its initial ambitions. To make such remarks would be to do exactly what Moscow is looking for: to present itself as a supposed partner with whom it is possible to reach an agreement, to believe in its signature—which is constantly flouted—and to suggest that the Russian regime is not an absolute enemy. This would again trivialize its crimes. To pretend to give any credence to Russia’s supposed interests as expressed by the regime would be to question the fundamental principles enshrined in the international treaties drawn up in the aftermath of the Second World War. There is certainly no possibility of stability with a power that seeks instability through destruction.
Not to understand that any prospect of equilibrium has been broken would mean returning to the failings I have pointed out: to normalize both the regime and the war, to make the present Russia a normal power and to deny the reality of an absolute enemy. This would be to offer the coming generations the prospect of a long and atrocious war. It would be a sign of our guilt forever.
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