The armed conflict in Ukraine is starting to resemble a “limited war” of the 18th century more than a modern 21st century “total war.”

Ukrainian soldier loads ammunition as he gets ready to guard OSCE observers near the village of Shyrokyne, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, April 19, 2015. Photo: AP

April 12 marked the first anniversary of the start of the armed conflict in the Donbas. Experts disagree about who has gained the upper hand – is it Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel or Petro Poroshenko? A convincing case can be made for each.

But the very fact that the topic is being debated shows that there are no clear winners or losers. The conflict in the Donbas reiterates that in modern warfare, unlike in its traditional sense, the concepts of “victory” and “defeat” are relative. Paradoxically, modern warfare is reminiscent not of the world wars of the last century, but of the limited wars of the eighteenth.

Total and limited warfare

Back in the 1820s, German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz identified two types of war: total and limited. According to Clausewitz, they differ not by the scale of operations or the number of casualties, but by the culminating point of victory. The aim of total war is to annihilate the enemy or to impose peace in the form of surrender. The purpose of limited war is to force the enemy into a compromise that benefits the victor at the expense of the vanquished.

Over the one-and-a-half centuries from the Napoleonic Wars to World War II, the world was dominated by total warfare. It was characterized by three salient features: first, the stated political goal was to crush the enemy and deprive it of the capacity to resist; second, war was ideological in nature, meaning that the warring sides conceptualized the confrontation in terms of a struggle between “good” and “evil”; third, the view was that war affected “the whole nation” and required the mass mobilization of human and material resources.

The situation changed in the late 1950s. After the United States and the Soviet Union developed nuclear missiles, U.S. strategists posited that victory in total war was no longer possible. As a result, they came up with the doctrine of “flexible response.” 

Its objectives were to recognize the infeasibility of inflicting direct military defeat, to focus on victory in local conflicts of low and moderate intensity, to limit targeted strikes to mainly military facilities, and to confine the war objective to securing a clearly defined set of political concessions from the enemy.

Officially the Soviet Union denied the concept of “flexible response” and “limited nuclear war.” But in the 1970s official journals published articles by Soviet experts on the feasibility of keeping a future conflict in Europe at the pre-nuclear level and forcing the enemy into concluding an advantageous peace.

For a very different take on this issue, read "Military conflict in Ukraine ushered in a new era of dangerous multipolarity."

The “limited nuclear war” envisaged by Cold War strategists did not happen. But the superpower rivalry spilled over into a series of limited wars in the Third World. The objective of these conflicts was to force the opposing superpower into making concessions by inflicting defeat on the “junior partner.” 

One of the “rules” was that the territories of both superpowers had to remain free of military conflict. Such wars demanded a transition from universal conscription to small-scale professional armies and new types of weaponry intended primarily for counterforce operations.

“What is past is prologue”

There is a historical precedent. After the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-1648), the logic of limited war reigned supreme for the next 150 years. King Louis XIV of France understood “hegemony” as the acquisition of key positions from which to impose his will on the enemy. His wars did not directly affect the territories of the “great powers,” but consisted of a series of demonstrations of power in disputed areas along France’s borders.

The large mercenary armies of yesteryear were replaced by small, highly flexible contingents of professional soldiers. The purpose of war was to win a profitable peace, namely the annexation of border areas and forcing other powers into recognizing the redrawing of maps. Therefore, any peace was pregnant with so many compromises that terms such as “victory” and “defeat” were nebulous concepts.

The “limited wars” of the early twenty-first and early eighteenth centuries are strikingly similar. In both cases, the aim is to force the enemy to compromise. In both cases, war is limited to a strictly delineated area of dispute without directly affecting the territory of the great powers involved. In both cases, small professional armies are used, not mass mobilization. And in both cases, negotiations are maintained throughout the conflict.

Amazingly, even the “sanctions war” has faithfully recreated the atmosphere of the eighteenth century. Back then, rabble-rousing kings like Charles XII or Frederick II were “non-handshakable” for other monarchs, which, incidentally, did not prevent them from clinging to power.

War did not develop according to its own logic, but remained under the control of the “great powers.” Lofty objectives, if any such were postulated, gradually evaporated. Their place was taken by a compromise beneficial to one of the warring parties. Such compromise, however, could never be considered final: the game could always be resumed.

“The war for Ukrainian succession”

In the early 1990s, the United States invented a new type of limited warfare: peacekeeping operations. These wars were used to consolidate U.S. supremacy in conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and Afghanistan. The second Gulf War exposed the limits of this strategy, whereupon Russia and China began to ponder the option of showing force to coerce the United States itself into a deal. The conflicts around Georgia, the South China Sea and Syria were integral components of such strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the Ukrainian conflict has so far resembled the “wars of succession” of the eighteenth century. After the failure of the “reset” in the fall of 2011, Russian-U.S. relations became strained. Both sides sought a pressure point to force the other to the negotiating table. They found it in Ukraine. 

The West supported the February coup in Kiev. Moscow regarded the Maidan uprising as the collapse of Ukraine’s statehood. At stake was the overhaul of the established status quo in the Baltic-Black Sea region.

Officially, both sides postulated “lofty objectives.” Washington and Brussels saw Ukraine’s future in the signing of an EU Association Agreement, which would strike a severe blow to Russia’s Eurasian Union project. Moscow postulated the establishment of “Novorossiya” (New Russia) as a new state in southeastern Ukraine.

But by fall 2014 these two “mighty objectives” had been forgotten. An Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU could not be signed, as Kiev had lost control over half of the Donbas. “Novorossiya” emerged only as a small, unrecognized state covering half of that selfsame Donbas. 

The Minsk II agreements set in writing a strategic stalemate in which neither side could inflict a decisive defeat on the other. The fate of Eastern Europe was gradually reduced to determining the affiliation of Debaltseve and Mariupol — much like the wars of Louis XIV or Frederick II.

In this context, it would not be surprising if NATO were to supply lethal aid to Ukraine. The experience of the eighteenth century teaches us that “cabinet wars” begin as a show of force before turning into a limited war between great powers inside a third country.

The confrontation will not go beyond the “deal-equals-victory” logic. Its outcome will be determined not by brilliant victories on the battlefield, but during the course of tortuous wrangling at the negotiating table, reinforced by effective (or ineffective) demonstrations of power.

Looking ahead

Drawing on the experience of the eighteenth century allows us to make an interesting prognosis for the present day. The limited conflicts of Louis XIV gave way to the larger limited wars of Peter I and Frederick the Great. Despite various deals, they resulted not in a lasting peace, but rather a series of temporary alignments. The upshot was the Seven Years War, the decisive conflict of the era of limited warfare. It was that bloody stalemate that proved the dead-end strategy of limited wars.

Something similar appears to be happening in our time. The wars in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine have not resolved any great power disputes. The outcome in each case looks more like a partial compromise, an attempt to buy time to better prepare for the decisive showdown. The pattern of events is leading the United States into a limited confrontation with Russia and China. However, in the age of “nuclear stalemate” such a war is conceived only in the form of a large-scale clash on the territory of third countries.

This fight will be more intense than today’s limited wars, but overall the “deal-equals-victory” logic will prevail. Will the coming decades see a large-scale limited war for a revision of the post-1991 order? Time will tell.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.