Russia-Ukraine war: the vulnerabilities of strategic thinking in Europe

Marion is a second-year International Relations student at King’s College London. With strong interests in diplomacy, strategy, and european politics broadly, she is currently the European editor of International Relations today.

Strategic thinking is “the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.” said Carl Von Clausewitz. The later Russia and the West will understand it, the more Ukraine will serve as another European memorial to war.

Even with 100.000 Russian troops posted at Ukraine’s borders since last November, Putin has achieved a tactical victory in invading Ukraine. While recognising the two self-proclaimed separatist states in the Donbas on 21st February 2022, andinsisting that the Russian troops were being pulled back, Russian forces were deployed in 17 of the 27 Ukrainian regions on 24thFebruary in a ‘special military operation’ which took the West by surprise.

Putin’s revisionist aims, however, were announced from mid-December 2021. Putin’s objectives were clear: freezing Ukraine’s westernisation, destroying NATO’s unity, humiliating the United States, and rewriting the European security architecture. But the West did not seem to have been establishing the kind of war on which they were embarking. They activated the escalation ladder against an enemy that nothing stops. Having core interests at stake, Putin does not want to give NATO the impression that deterrence works. “That’s why I think that the costs of inaction, from Russia’s perspective, are probably greater than the cost of escalating right now,” said Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

Undoubtedly, Putin has galvanised his continental opponents. Europe and NATO have accumulated sanctions against Russia, hoping that Putin would see reason and back down. However, Russian military forces, surrounding Ukraine’s key cities of Mariupol, the Southern Ukrainian port city, Kharkiv, the second biggest city of Ukraine and Kyiv, the capital city since Monday 1st March reveal the contrary. Russia resembles a revisionist state with unlimited aims, slowly moving up the escalation ladder every day and bringing the world closer to a continental war. 

Europe’s sanctions then only stepped up the ladder. In a speech at the European Parliament, President Ursula Von Der Leyen announced dramatic diplomatic pressure on Russia and imposed heavy sanctions against Russia’s financial and political system to deter Putin. Europe disconnected key Russian banks from the SWIFT network and banned the transactions of Russia’s central bank, the single most important financial institution in Russia, froze Russian assets by closing skies to Russian aircraft and made access to oil refineries impossible, as well as suspending the licenses of Russia state-owned media Sputnik Channels to prevent Kremlin’s propaganda. But, if the West’s strategy is to prevent a global armed conflict, the language of total economic war is certainly not the appropriate response. On the contrary,  it can only help the Russian government from a propaganda point of view and make them even more unlikely to back down. 

In the world of diplomatic negotiations, tactical gains carry little weight without long-term strategic thinking. And Putin lacks it. Since the 27th of February, Putin’s nuclear alert has turned the Ukraine war from a crisis involving nuclear powers to an actualnuclear crisis. He sees nuclear weapons as an alternative way to get the political outcome he wants. Yet, the risks raised by this nuclear alert are high. The stability-instability paradox is at play in Ukraine. While preventing nuclear powers from fighting all-out because they fear a nuclear escalation; nuclear weapons paradoxically increase the likelihood of limited nuclear use precisely because of their deterrent effect and the potential mutual damages of an all-out war.

Concluding this first week of war, peace negotiations haven’t made much progress. Negotiations between the French President Emmanuel Macron and Putin only helped Moscow restate its willingness to take full control of Ukraine. “We expect the worst is yet to come,” concluded Macron. 

In the fog of war, the future of Ukraine is at stake. For the Russian government, it justified the war, and for the West, it justified harsher sanctions against Russia. What we have seen up until now is a risky gamble defeating strategy. Lacking air superiority, facing a great Ukrainian resistance and ruining the Russian economy by waging a war costing up to $20 billion per day, Putin may have no other choice than to negotiate if the war continues. But his aims shouldn’t be mistaken, nor turned into something that they’re not: they’re unlimited, and directed at restoring Russia’s greatness, demilitarising and denazifingUkraine, no matter the costs. Then, we can conclude that isolating Russia is more likely to trigger further escalations and increase the number of casualties than to avoid a continental war.

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