“War,” said the great Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side, therefore, compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes.”
With this, Clausewitz introduced the concept of escalation into the theory of war. As it meets resistance, each side increases the amount of force it applies, inducing the other side to do likewise, setting in motion an upwards spiral that has no theoretical limit other than the physical capacities of those involved.
So it has proven in the current war in Ukraine. When Russia began hostilities in February, it seems to have envisioned a short war ending in a negotiated settlement. Consequently, it applied only a limited percentage of the resources available to it. But its hopes of quick triumph proved to be in vain. Once it became clear that Ukraine would survive the initial onslaught, Western powers initiated the process of escalation, sending large volumes of military aid to Ukraine. This aid has proven very effective, enabling the Ukrainians first to halt the Russian advance and then to push the Russians back. The culmination of this process was a successful offensive this past month which saw the Ukrainian army recapture a large area of conquered territory without much of a fight.
However, as Clausewitz pointed out, the natural response to setbacks in war is not to give in but to apply more force of one’s own. And thus we should not be surprised that the Russian reaction to its recent defeat has not been to surrender but to escalate even further.
This week, the escalation has taken shape in two important ways. The first consisted of declarations by the authorities in four Russian controlled Ukrainian provinces—Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhe and Kherson—that they would carry out referendums between September 23 and 27. The inhabitants of the provinces will be asked whether they wish to join the Russian Federation.
One may assume that the outcomes of these referendums are pre-determined. When the results are declared, it is almost certain they will claim that the great majority of the population of all four provinces have voted to join Russia. Speaking on Wednesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that he would respect the wishes of the people as expressed in the referendums. One may expect, therefore, that soon after the votes are held—perhaps as early as October 1—all four provinces will be absorbed into the Russian Federation.
Putin also used his speech to make an announcement concerning the second form of escalation. For the president declared a partial mobilization, calling up 300,000 military reservists. To date, Russia has only sent around 200,000 troops to the war in Ukraine. While some experts doubt Russia’s logistical ability to effectively deploy another 300,000, the more than doubling of the army’s size in Ukraine cannot but make a difference.
Until now, Russia has had a material advantage over Ukraine in terms of equipment, especially air power and artillery. But the Russians have been at a serious disadvantage in terms of manpower. This is a result of the unwillingness so far to use anything other than contract soldiers and volunteers. Simply put, the Russian army has not committed enough troops to effectively cover the entire 1,000 kilometre front. The partial mobilization of reservists is designed to resolve this problem. It will take several months, however, for the effects to be felt. The Ukrainian army has roughly to the end of the year to press its current advantage. After that, as the Russian reservists reach the front line, it may find the going much harder.
The impact of the forthcoming referenda in Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporozhe and Kherson provinces will be more immediate. The legal framework for what the Kremlin euphemistically calls the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine does not allow the use of conscripts outside of the territory of the Russian Federation. It would, of course, be relatively easy for the Russian government to adopt a new framework, but for economic and political reasons it wishes to avoid doing so. The annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces provides a neat work around. For once they have been absorbed into Russia, their territory is no longer foreign soil according to Russian law, and therefore conscripts could be legally deployed there.
This does not mean that the Russian army will necessarily do so. The political optics of deploying conscripts to the war zone remain poor. But the option will suddenly become available, and even if conscripts are not sent to the front, they could be sent to the newly annexed lands to free up soldiers currently engaged in activities behind the lines. The impending annexations offer up important opportunities for Russia to solve its manpower problems.
Beyond that, the likely absorption of Ukrainian territory into the Russian Federation severely complicates any potential peace negotiations. Although it was clear from the start of the current war that Russia intended eventually to annex Donetsk and Luhansk, it was less clear that it had this intent with regard to other Ukrainian territory it had occupied. Indeed, it seems likely that the initial plan was to use such territory as a bargaining chip that could be traded in for Ukrainian concessions on other matters. The outlines of a peace deal were something along the lines of Ukraine agreeing not to join NATO and accepting the loss of Crimea and Donbas, and in return getting back its other lost territories.
That deal is now firmly off the table. In 2020 the Russian Constitution was amended to state that action “directed at alienating parts of state territory as well as calls to such will not be permitted.” Once the four Ukrainian provinces become part of the Russian Federation, the Russian government will be constitutionally forbidden from giving them back to Ukraine as part of a peace deal. Moreover, it will also be unconstitutional for anybody in Russia even to suggest such a deal. Exchanging land for peace is no longer a possibility.
Russia is now committed to defending its newly conquered territory to the bitter end. If the additional resources announced this week don’t do the trick, then one can expect further escalations down the line. Ukraine, meanwhile, has made it clear that it has no intention of making peace on any terms other than the return of its lost land. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to see how any peace deal could be struck. The most one could possibly hope for would appear to be a ceasefire that freezes the conflict along the front lines existing at the moment that the guns fall silent, without any formal peace treaty (the ending of the Korean War is an example). For that to happen, though, there has to have been a prolonged period of stalemate from which both sides see no obvious exit. We are far from reaching that point.
In the meantime, Western leaders seem to be banking on Ukraine’s ability to achieve a total military victory. This week’s developments make this considerably less likely than before. Somewhat paradoxically, the developments may also mean that the final outcome may end up being less favourable to Ukraine than would have been the case had Western states not given it so much military support. For as previously mentioned, Russia might originally have been willing to give up some of its conquered land in return for various non-territorial concessions. But by enabling Ukraine to mount a successful military resistance, the West has induced Russia to escalate and to now adopt a position that makes a return of the lost territory impossible other than by military means that may be beyond Ukraine’s capacity.
All that, however, remains to be determined. As Clausewitz noted, war is a realm of chance and uncertainty. It would be a rash analyst who dared to predict how this current war will turn out. About the only thing of which one can be confident is that it will continue for a long time yet—certainly many months, and perhaps even years, until the two sides reach a point of mutual exhaustion. Every war must end, but at present this one’s ending seems to be far out of sight.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.