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Alexei Fenenko

Doctor in Political Science, PhD in History, Professor at School of world politics of MSU, RIAC expert

The anniversary of the Victory in World War II is an occasion to reflect on the danger of a new war breaking out between great powers. The end of World War II ushered in the nuclear era. Ever since that time scholars have been ceaselessly debating two problems. First: Is a direct military showdown between the nuclear powers possible? And if so, will they dare use nuclear weapons? Second: Can nuclear war be interpreted according to the Clausewitz formula whereby “war is the continuation of politics by other means”?

The anniversary of the Victory in World War II is an occasion to reflect on the danger of a new war breaking out between great powers. The end of World War II ushered in the nuclear era. Ever since that time scholars have been ceaselessly debating two problems [1]. First: Is a direct military showdown between the nuclear powers possible? And if so, will they dare use nuclear weapons? Second: Can nuclear war be interpreted according to the Clausewitz formula whereby “war is the continuation of politics by other means”?

There is also a third view point that I find appealing: the emergence of nuclear weapons did not cancel out the category of war, but made it archaic [2]. The military conflicts of the “nuclear era” are more reminiscent of the wars of the early Modern Times than the world wars of the last century. The presence or absence of nuclear weapons is an ancillary factor. The key factor here is not whether or not a side possesses nuclear weapons, but rather what the political leaders consider to be a victory.

Two Models of Victory

Back in the 1820s, the German military thinker Carl von Clausewitz distinguished two types of war – total war and limited war.

They differ, according to Clausewitz, not in the number of dead and the scale of military actions, but in the model of victory [3]. The aim of total war is to destroy the adversary as a political subject. The aim of limited war is to coerce the adversary into a desired compromise. In the former case, victory is capitulation of the enemy; in the second case, it takes the shape of a deal that favours the winner more than the loser.

Over a period of 150 years, most wars fought in Europe were of the total character (from the Napoleonic wars to the Second World War.) Their main characteristics were as follows:

    The political goal was to crush the enemy and make them incapable of resisting;
  • War was predominantly ideological in nature, with the warring sides perceiving their confrontation in terms of the struggle of Good against Evil;
  • The focus on mobilization on the part of the warring armies (the ideal of military reform was the introduction of universal conscription).

The wars before the French Revolution were different in nature. After the total Thirty Years’ War of 1618–1648 (a “total” war by Clausewitz’s scheme), the logic of limited wars prevailed in Europe for 150 years. The main features of these wars were:

  • The pursuit of a political goal consisting in the conclusion of a favourable peace;
  • The largely non-ideological character of war, with the warring sides viewing their struggle in terms of geopolitical rivalry;
  • The limited character and scale of hostilities: as a rule, wars were not waged on the territories of “great powers” and took the shape of a demonstration of military muscle in border regions;
  • Military actions tended to be conducted by small contingents of professionals (the ideal of military reform was the creation of a small and mobile army of mercenaries).

Wars in the second half of the 17th and 18th centuries brought two novel features. First, battles were rare, with the opponents often taking years to prepare for them. Second, strategic manoeuvres became an art form themselves, and the ability to redeploy armies over long distances to gain a strategic advantage over the enemy increased. As Carl von Clausewitz attested, the recognized great military commanders of the 18th century (from Maurice de Saxe to Frederick II) lost battles, but invariably surpassed their enemies in terms of quick manoeuvres. Clausewitz himself, who lived during the era of Napoleonic Wars, wondered why these commanders chose not to deliver a quick knock-out blow at the enemy [4]. The reason was that the military commanders of the time were thinking in terms of “victory as a deal.”

Alexander Savelyev:
Nuclear Weapons and War in 100 Years

The strategy of Louis XIV, which was adopted by other European powers, was a prototype of the modern concepts of “indirect actions” and “hybrid wars” [5]. The main components of the wars of that period were the use of non-regular units, the support of separatist movements and the tendency, if necessary, to distance themselves from the quasi-ally. Such actions left the enemies room for diplomatic manoeuvre.

Limited War is Back

Strange as it may seem, the advent of nuclear weapons gave a new lease of life to the strategic concepts of the second half of the 17th century. Initially, nuclear strategy developed as part of the doctrine of “air power,” in which strategic bombings played the key role [6]. The situation changed, however, when the USSR developed means of delivering nuclear weapons to the territory of the United States. The possibility of nuclear weapons being used against the United States presented the country’s elites with the question of the price of using nuclear weapons against the USSR [7]. U.S. experts wondered how solid the security guarantees the United States offered its allies were. They thought that the Kremlin could force the United States to make a choice between a total nuclear war and a local retreat, knowing in advance that the U.S. leaders would choose the second option.

In the 1940s, British strategists were pioneers in the development the theory of the limited use of nuclear weapons [8]. Eventually, though, a full-fledged theory of “limited nuclear war” was developed by U.S. experts in the late 1950s. Its founders, Henry Kissinger [9], Robert Osgood [10] and Herman Kahn [11], believed that nuclear weapons could be used on a limited scale on one or several theatres of hostilities. In their opinion, such a war would involve:

  • Forcing the enemy to make clearly defined political concessions;
  • Targeting of primarily military facilities;
  • The possibility of concluding with the enemy a kind of (overt or tacit) convention on the limited use of nuclear weapons.

The proponents of the “limited nuclear war” theory expressly turned to the legacy of the early Modern Times [12]. Henry Kissinger drew attention to two features of the wars waged by Louis XIV: (1) the limited use of force to achieve a definite political objective; and (2) a commitment to military actions having as little impact on the civilian population as possible. Robert Osgood believed that the experience of the “wars of succession” in the 18th century could come in handy in the nuclear era: limited use of tactical nuclear weapons would force the enemy to sit down at the negotiating table. Herman Kahn’s concept of escalation was also based on the campaigns of the 18th century. His concepts of “escalation control” and “escalation dominance” meant that the demonstration of U.S. military superiority would force the enemy to negotiate rather than turn a limited clash into a total war.

These ideas formed the backbone of the 1961 U.S. concept of “flexible response,” which based on three premises: (1) it is possible to use nuclear weapons against a limited range of targets to induce the enemy to make a political compromise; (2) conventional warfare between nuclear powers is admissible (“a high nuclear ceiling”); and (3) emphasis is shifted to limited military conflicts in the regions. The latter implied the possibility of engaging the enemy in a “proxy war” through trusted allies. This approach essentially harked back to the strategy of the second half of the 17th century when the great powers artificially limited the theatres of hostilities.

Soviet military thought was moving in a similar direction. Officially, the USSR rejected the concept of “limited nuclear war.” However, in the 1960s, Soviet military journals were full of debates on whether it was possible to keep a future military conflict at the pre-nuclear level. Soviet military experts, like their U.S. counterparts, agreed that nuclear weapons could be used on a limited scale and military actions could be confined to one or several theatres of hostilities.

“Less Bloody, but More Costly”

One factor that gave a boost to the concept of limited wars was that the USSR and the United States were far removed from each other geographically. In the event of a total war the two sides would face the technical challenge of moving and providing logistical support for their armed forces on the other side of the planet. The only realistic scenario of total war was to exchange nuclear strikes. But this mode of military actions made it impossible to parlay them into a political victory, i.e. the occupation of the USSR or the United States.

An alternative could be limited clashes to achieve local political objectives on limited theatres, i.e. in the Third World countries. Moscow and Washington demonstrated their readiness to use force, including nuclear weapons. Regional conflicts gave the superpowers a chance to test new types of weapons. The superpower leaders could demonstrate their success in spreading communism (in the case of the USSR) or liberalism (in the case of the United States). The USSR and the United States, acting through their regional allies, sought to fragment each other’s resources (the underlying logic was: “We say South Vietnam has lost, but we mean that the United States has lost”).

These confrontations dictated the character of military development in the United States and (with a bit of a lag) the USSR. Just like the middle of the 17th century, mobilization armies came to be replaced with the actions of highly mobile contingents of military professionals. By the same token, the role of technically sophisticated (and exceedingly complex) systems capable of selectively hitting targets and demonstrating military-technical superiority increased. It would be naive to say that history repeats itself. And yet, just like after the Thirty Years’ War, the world saw “less bloody, but more costly” wars after 1945.

On the Way to “Wars of Succession”

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Alexey Fenenko:
Modern Conflicts as a Reflection of Past Wars

The adoption by the United States of a new deterrence concept contributed to the development of the concept of regional wars. Since 1990, the key task of U.S. policy has been to build a new world order. During the Cold War, the nuclear deterrence policy was defensive: deterrence was based on the threat of nuclear retaliation in response to certain actions carried out by the opponent. It was now replaced with offensive deterrence or “coercion” [13]: the ability to force the enemy to take actions it would not like to take.

However, U.S. military experts were aware that there were still countries in the world that possessed major military potential. These included Russia, which is still capable of technically destroying the United States, and the People’s Republic of China, which seeks to build up a big military potential. Then followed a group of regional countries that are trying to create large military potential. All this naturally limits the capacity of the United States to project power. Thus, U.S. leaders, while not ruling out a limited military clash between Russia and the United States, have committed to using force against patently weak subjects [14]. The aim of these sure-fire actions was to set up a series of precedents to punish undesirable regimes, disarm them and even topple them.

It is notable that in most such actions the model of victory has remained the same, i.e. achieving a deal that favours the winner. The Desert Storm operation of 1991 forced Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait and dismantle its programmes for developing weapons of mass destruction. The war against the Bosnian Serbs forced them to accept the Contact Group plan; the war against Yugoslavia enabled NATO troops to be introduced into Kosovo. Where the aim was to destroy the enemy (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) the Americans and their allies found themselves in a dead end. The “war to punish,” as it came to be called in U.S. strategic planning, involves presenting a regime with a series of demands followed by the destruction of its infrastructure.

The situation began to change in around 2004, when other great powers, notably Russia and China, began thinking whether regional conflicts could be used to force compromises on the United States. Because the United States stubbornly refused to recognize the right of Russia and China to have their own interests close to their borders, this led to a series of proxy clashes.

The first instance was Georgia. The 2008 “five-day war” between Russia and the Saakashvili regime was essentially an instance of coercion perpetrated by the United States. What was really at stake was the Americans’ chance to have a third missile defence position. The war ended with the conclusion of a major deal. Russia chose not to take Tbilisi, but recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Western countries, in turn, shored up the Saakashvili regime and did not recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A year later, ostensibly for a different reason, the United States dropped the plan of a “third positioning area” for ballistic missile defence.

The next episode was the conflict in South-Eastern Ukraine. Officially, the parties proclaimed “great goals”. Washington and Brussels saw the future of Ukraine as implementation of the Association Agreement with the European Union, which would put the Russian Eurasian Union project in deep crisis. Moscow postulated the creation of Novorossiya (“New Russia”) as a new state entity in South-Eastern Ukraine. However, both “great goals” were forgotten by the autumn of 2014. The movement towards an Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union was put on hold. Novorossiya ended up as a tiny unrecognized entity on half of the Donbass area. The Minsk-2 Agreement sealed a state of strategic stalemate. The destiny of Eastern Europe practically hinged on the affiliation of Debaltseve and Mariupol, much like it had been during the wars of the late 17th century.

The Russian operation in Syria can shed light on the emergence of new types of wars in the future. The more probable types are likely to be:

  • Aerial showdown between two countries (for example, “a no-fly zone” over the territory of a country);
  • Conflict in the shape of supplying air defence systems to one of the conflicting parties;
  • Conflict through special proxy groups on the territory of a third country.

This trend, if it develops, may lead to a situation that U.S. experts had warned about back in 1995, namely, a clash of limited contingents of great powers on the territory of a third state. This type of war would be strikingly similar to the “wars of succession” in the 18th century. At the time, great powers were fighting on the territory of a third country that was living through a serious crisis of statehood. For the most part, the territory of that state was the main theatre of hostilities. Fighting was more intense than in the wars during previous centuries, but its aim was to bring about a deal to adjust the balance of forces between great powers.

Looking into the Future

REUTERS/Toru Hanai
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Premonition of Nuclear Threat

In making forecasts for the 21st century, two possible scenarios stand out. First: current trends continue, i.e. the militaristic wave develops in the framework of limited “wars to achieve a deal”. Second: a dramatic turnaround of the trend happens and we see a return to mobilization wars. Let us take a closer look at each of them.

Scenario 1

If the current trends hold, the outlook for the current century would be reminiscent of what happened during the 18th century. At the time, the limited conflicts of Louis XIV and Peter I were replaced by larger-scale limited “wars of succession” and then the wars of Frederick the Great. Although a series of deals was struck, they ended not with lasting peace but rather with a series of temporary combinations. The result was the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) as the key conflict in the limited wars era: in terms of the character and intensity of military actions it resembled total wars, but in terms of goals, it was still a limited war. It highlighted the futility of limited wars and caused strategists to revert to planning total wars.

Under present-day conditions this scenario would mean expanded regional conflicts. The line of clashes between the armed forces of the great powers would become increasingly blurred, while the use of force against each other’s territories would remain taboo. Great powers would marshal resources for such clashes, developing mobile paratrooper units, air and missile defence, and space information systems. Mercenary structures would flourish. The result would be a major conflict between great powers, in which victory would be deemed to be the signing of a “major deal”.

Scenario 2

This option would bring back the system of mobilization wars. Given the existence of strategic nuclear weapons, a repeat of 20th century world wars is unlikely. But one can imagine wars between nuclear powers similar to the ones in Italy during the 16th century or the Thirty Years’ War, when battles took place once every several years. George Orwell described the hypothetical wars of the future in which great powers would seek to wear each other out by being in a constant state of war and mobilization and clashing in the open sea or in the Third World. This, if anything, is the logic of total wars in the nuclear age.

This scenario is not as unrealistic as it may appear at first glance. The current attitude to nuclear weapons, including the “nuclear taboo,” is the product of the strategic culture of nuclear deterrence. Yet the attitude to weapons of mass destruction need not necessarily be like this. The First World War saw the limited use of chemical weapons. During the Second World War, chemical weapons were ruled out by all the warring parties. I can imagine a future strategy that combines the use of large armies with the limited use of tactical nuclear warheads and missile defence complexes.

The fact that the revival of mobilization wars would imply the collapse of the current “air power” concept is another matter entirely. Modern air defence and missile defence systems cannot beat off a massive air attack or a missile strike. It would call for a new weapon that can secure a country’s territory against enemy aviation and high-precision weapons. Defensive must again become superior to offensive means. This is hard but not impossible to imagine, considering the experiments with anti-satellite weapons and missile defence.


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Modern limited wars and the limited wars of the early Modern Times share an interesting feature: they coincided with long periods of military-technical stagnation. The main weapons of armies in the 17th and 18th centuries – rapid fire artillery, barrel-loaded flint-lock rifles and Anthony Dean frigates – remained practically unchanged from the time of the Thirty Years’ War until the Napoleonic Wars. A transition to total wars was made possible only by the military-technical developments of the 1770s: the appearance of howitzer artillery and air balloons. These innovations made it possible to switch from linear to scattered tactics which, coupled with progress in medicine, enabled great powers to field massive mobilization armies. Something similar is happening today. The shelves in bookshops are filled with literature about “revolutionary changes in military affairs.” In reality, the last military-technical revolution took place in the latter half of the 1960s: the appearance of multiple independently targeted warheads, cruise missiles with laser, infrared and television self-targeting, anti-missile and anti-satellite weapons. Conventional forces continue to develop in the paradigm laid down during World War II: automatic weapons, armour and aircraft with guided missiles and bombs. Some progress can be recorded only in introducing air-mobile units, but these are mainly based on the military-technical solutions of the late 1940s. The introduction of space information technologies in the 1970s can be described as a revolution. However, the pace and scale of that “revolution” can hardly be compared with the military-technical revolution in the first half of the 20th century, which saw a transition from armies with rifle-bore weapons to strategic aviation and ballistic missiles. The creation of a weapon that neutralizes “air power” would be a true revolution in military affairs. Present-day air defence complexes are so far capable, like in the 1940s, of covering individual strategic targets. They are designed to destroy costly enemy assets by inflicting unacceptable damage on them. The appearance of full-fledged “anti-air power” could neutralize the current superiority of means of destruction over mobilization. The future “military revolution” will see progress in defence and not destruction. Only such a technological breakthrough could make it possible to abandon the current model of “victory as a deal.”

1. Kokoshin, A. A. Nuclear Conflicts in the 21st Century (Types, Forms, Possible Participants). Moscow. Media Press, 2003 (in Russian).

2. Goldstein, Joshua. Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age. New Haven, 1988; Tsymbursky, V. L. Super-Long Military Cycles and World Politics // Polis. 1996. No. 3.

3. Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Moscow: Gosvoyenizdat Publishing House, 1934 (in Russian).

4. Solntsev, N.V. Clausewitz and the Patriotic War of 1812. // Voprosy istorii. 2013. No. 1. pp. 73–81 (in Russian).

5. Borisov, Y. V. The Diplomacy of Louis XIV. Moscow. 2002 (in Russian).

6. Overy, R. J. Air Power and the Origins of Deterrence Theory Before 1939 // Journal of Strategic Studies. Vol. 15. No. 1. March 1992, pp. 73–101.

7. The theory which claims that nuclear weapons cannot be used is often linked with the popular, though debatable concept of “nuclear winter” of the 1980s. In reality, it was pioneered by the American military strategist Bernard Brodie, who called the nuclear weapon “the Absolute Weapon” back in 1946. See: The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order / Ed. By Bernard Brodie (editor and contributor), Harcourt, 1946.

8. Trukhanovsky, V. G. English Nuclear Weapons (the Hisstorico-Political Aspect). Moscow, Mezhdunarodniye Otnosheniya, 1985 (in Russian).

9. Kissinger, Henry. Nuclear Weapons in Foreign Policy. New York: Harper Far Council on Foreign Relations, 1957.

10. Osgood, Robert. Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.

11. Kahn, Herman. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961; Kahn, Herman. On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios. New York: Preaeger, 1965.

12. For more detail see: Clark, Ian. Limited Nuclear War. Political Theory and War Convention. Oxford: Martin Robinson.

13. Freedman, Lawrence and Efraim Karsh. The Gulf Conflict. 1990–1991: Diplomacy and War in New World Order. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

14. See my article: Fenenko, Alexei. Modern Military-Political Concepts in the United States // Mezhdunarodniye protsessy. 2009. vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 66–83 (in Russian).

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