NATO Intervention in Ukraine: Pundits Cling to Fantasy as Reality Sets In


by Aurelien

As the military phase of the crisis in Ukraine enters its long final stage, with the broad outcome now unmistakeable for all with eyes to see, you would hope that pundits, whatever their personal views on which football team they would like to win, would nonetheless accept reality, and start punditing about Europe and the world after a Russian victory. Yet such is the grip of conventional thinking and the fear of letting go of hallowed beliefs about the world, that this is hardly happening. Indeed, from all points of the ideological compass we hear of a menacing new stage in the evolution of the crisis, that of NATO intervention, or, as I suppose we should write it, NATO INTERVENTION. For some, the only way to “defeat” Russia and to “stop Putin,” is for NATO to “get involved,” whereas for others such intervention is a desperate US imperialist expedient which will simply provoke World War III and the end of the world.

If you have read some of my past essays, you will realise that both of these arguments are completely false. But although I, and other much more eminent and widely-read writers have been saying that for some time, it hardly seems to have registered. So this is an essay I thought I would never need to write, but now seems necessary. It goes into what you might call excruciating detail, but then in this kind of subject the devil is in the detail, or even the detail of the detail. That said, there are a lot more levels it doesn’t cover, on which people who are much greater military experts than I am can comment, but rather sticks to the big picture. So….

While I was thinking about how to tackle this essay, I ran into the ghost of the great Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz and, slightly against my expectations, he readily agreed to provide some opening thoughts. I made a note of our conversation afterwards, and it went roughly like this:

Aurelien: Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to my site, especially since I’ve invoked you a number of times before.

Clausewitz. Oh, not at all. You see, people have been completely misunderstanding and misquoting me for two hundred years now, and it’s not getting any better. This is in spite of the fact that I don’t think Book I of On War—the only one I ever really completely finished— could be much clearer, and you can read and absorb it in an afternoon.

Aurelien. And what’s the essential message that you think people are not getting now?

Clausewitz. Look, it’s very simple. Military action it itself is a technical affair that can go well or go badly, but that result only has importance insofar as it’s attached to some political objective you want to achieve. By “political”—since we’re speaking in English—I don’t mean party politics, I mean the policy of the state itself: in other words what the government is trying to make happen. (In German it’s the same word.) But the absolute pre-requisite is that the government has a picture of what it wants to achieve, and some idea about how that might happen. In particular, it has to identify what I called the Centre of Gravity, which is to say the single most important target against which you direct your efforts, and which will achieve that objective for you. In my time, it was often the enemy army, but it might also be the capital city, the strength of a coalition or even the morale of the population. So what you are really targeting, in the end, is the decision-making process of the enemy. As I said in my book, war is about forcing our enemy to do what we want, not just mindless destruction. These days, we don’t talk so lightly of war, and we don’t always have simple enemies, so I would say “any military operation has to have an ultimate, non-military purpose, or it’s a waste of time.”

Aurelien. So where do we go from there?

Clausewitz: Well, of course it’s not enough to have a strategic plan, no matter how well defined and sensible. You need the military capability, both in terms of equipment and units and also training and professional skills, to implement the plan. So we say that, below the Strategic level, and the strategic planning, comes the Operational level, where you try to bring all of the more-detailed Tactical-level activities of your individual forces together, in a coherent plan, to achieve a result that makes the Strategic objective possible. And historically, from the days of Alexander onwards, that’s always the most difficult part.

Aurelien: And in the present war?

Clausewitz: Well, the simplest way to put it is that, whilst both sides have had strategic objectives of some sort, only the Russians have actually had proper strategic and operational plans. The West has wanted to bring down the current system in Russia for a long time, and more recently its leaders have also been afraid of growing Russian military power. But all of this has been very incoherent, and seems to be hopelessly and paradoxically mixed up with beliefs about racial and cultural superiority over the Russians. The result is that there’s never been a proper strategic plan, beyond the hope that strengthening Ukraine, for example, would somehow weaken the Russian system. And as for Ukraine itself, well, the West has never really had a strategic plan, still less an operational one: just a lot of posturing and disconnected initiatives. If you like, it just amounted to keeping the war going in the hope that Russia would collapse. That’s no way to prosecute a war in my opinion: the bits are simply not connected together, and in that case you can’t win. And now I have to go and argue with Tukaschevsky and Patton, who are still obsessed with manoeuvre warfare in Ukraine.

And that’s where the conversation ended. But it made me start thinking that the most fundamental obstacle to any NATO “involvement” in Ukraine is conceptual. Nobody really knows what it’s for or what it would look like. Nobody knows what it would be intended to accomplish, or what the “end-state,” in technical language, would be.

This has been pretty much the case since the beginning. At all points, at least from the end of 2021, the West has been surprised by Russian actions, and has had to scramble to keep up. The draft treaties of December 2021 were not anticipated, and there was no coherent western response to them. The subsequent build-up of Russian forces was misunderstood: some thought no invasion was being planned, others misunderstood the nature of the invasion itself and what the objectives were. Ever since, the West has been at least one step behind, continually surprised and reacting to Russian moves. In addition, many of its own moves have been based around doing what is actually possible (attacking Crimea, sending certain types of equipment) rather than moves that might help the West and Ukraine catch up with the Russians, let alone take the initiative. This all offends against one of the eternal principles of War, which is Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. The West has been unable to identify any aim in its involvement except that which is by definition impossible militarily (restoration of the 1991 borders of Ukraine) or that which is just a political fantasy (removal of Putin from power.) It would be fairer to say that the West has no objectives, as such, but rather a series of loosely-defined aspirations.

There’s a slightly technical but interesting example which has been very influential in clarifying this kind of situation, so let me make a short diversion into it. During the Korean War, there were a number of engagements between American F-86 fighters, and MiG-15s flown often by Chinese and sometimes Russian pilots. The technical characteristics of the aircraft were very similar, and the difference in the skill of the pilots was not great. Yet the F-86 emerged victorious most of the time. John Boyd, then an officer in the US Air Force, studied the problem and realised that, in a situation where kills could only reliably be obtained by getting behind the enemy, that required turning more tightly that your opponent. It emerged that the F-86 had a small, but actually vital, advantage, and that, after a number of rounds of manoeuvres, it was generally able to position itself behind the enemy aircraft. The importance of this was that the US pilot retained the initiative, whereas the enemy pilot was always trying to shake the F-86 off his tail.

Boyd later systematised this process, by dividing it into four steps. The first is Observation (“what can I see?”), the second is Orientation (“what does that mean?”), the third is Decision ‘(“what am I going to do?”) and the last, of course, is Action. And then you start again. Collectively, these stages are known as the Boyd Cycle, or more colloquially the “OODA Loop.” But what Boyd realised was that whoever reacts quickest can actually get inside the enemy’s Loop, such that by the time the enemy is ready to take action, the situation has changed and the process of deciding what to do has to start all over again. This applies pervasively, from the original plane-to-plane combat up to the strategic level.

This is, in effect, the situation the West has been since the start of the crisis: running to catch up. The Russians have proved themselves (to no-one’s surprise if they study history) to be quick to adapt their tactics, and modify and introduce new weapons. The West has not. Thus, we now see the Ukrainians frantically transferring forces this way and that to meet the latest attack, and neither they nor their western sponsors are sure which attacks are real and which are feints. Indeed, it’s doubtful whether Ukraine and the West have ever had the initiative in this war: even the celebrated offensive of 2023, I would suggest, was essentially forced on Ukraine by the Russians as a way of further depleting their own military, and the western aid they had received.

Now one explanation for this disparity actually takes us back to technical characteristics: not of aircraft, this time, but of organisations. The loose Greater West group that has been supporting Ukraine is divided among itself, and its most influential actor, the United States, is divided within itself. Russia is a single power, with an evidently high degree of coherence. (Unity of Command, by the way, is a military principle in some traditions.) Even under ideal circumstances, therefore, the West is going to be slower to react than the Russians, and circumstances are far from ideal. The Russians thus have, and will have for the foreseeable future, the initiative, and the advantages of a faster OODA Loop.

Because the West had no strategic plan at the beginning, and only very vague strategic aims, and because it has never had the initiative and cannot react as fast as the Russians, talk of NATO “getting involved” is essentially empty. It’s true, at one level, that NATO could disarm itself even more quickly by sending some units to Ukraine, to be annihilated by glide-bombs and long-range missiles without seeing the enemy, but that doesn’t answer the question of what the deployment of any such forces would actually be for.

As often, when confronted with this kind of problem, political leaders retreat into a cloud of generalities. We will be told that some deployment or other is to “show Putin he can’t win” or “demonstrate NATO’s determination to resist aggression.” The problem, of course, lies in translating that kind of cloudy aspiration (since it isn’t even properly a strategic objective) into the kind of operational and tactical plans that Clausewitz was talking about. In practice, this generally amounts to Doing Something for the sake of Doing Something, which is an infallibly bad idea, and often results in decisions being taken through the tripartite pseudo-syllogism I’ve often cited: We must do something, This is something, OK, let’s do it.

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So when will they start defending the Homeland instead of other Nations?