The over-stretched vision of Putin to gain control over Ukrainian territories has rattled Europe’s peacetime since the end of World War 2. Ukraine, as per Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin “has no geopolitical meaning,” and one thing is clear the conflict was a long war coming’ even Samuel Huntington called the Ukrainian issue an “enduring problem.” These hefty claims allow reconceptualization of Chinese commander Sun Tzu’s Art of War and where Putin went wrong? In such troubling times, it is useful to reach out to direction from scholarly works, and for which Art of War by Sun Tzu is no exception. He rightly pointed out that “War is of vital importance to any state.” No one can stay aloof from it.
Which sovereign is imbued in the moral law? This question by Sun Tzu finds its relevance in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, where Ukrainians have shown a resolve of an unparalleled level. Many conscripts have joined the war and are proving their will to fight against Russian soldiers, who as per the reports, are proving to be of low morale. The news of the death of four Russian Generals has allowed Ukraine to gain leverage over the war because it is indeed these generals “on whom it depends whether the nation shall be in peace or peril.” It was a great blow to the Russian military. For instance, Russian strategist Gerasimov is killed. His doctrine, introduced in 2013, showed a different version of the Russian hybrid war strategy.
Sun Tzu questions that “Which of the generals has the most ability?”
Russian generals are observing difficulties despite their numerical advantage. This is why, “In war, numbers alone confer no advantage” therefore, the prestige of the Red Army is getting dissolved with each underperformance to advance into Ukrainian territory. Hundreds of Russian tanks, SPCs, fighter aircraft, and airborne troops are all in play on Ukrainian soil. However, the images of abandoned vehicles, surrounding Russian troops, and shot down of Russian choppers by portable AA system represent a miscalculated strategy from Putin’s end. Low moral conscripts are shelling on civilians to allure them to surrender shows that their military is just not very good. On the other side, the strategic edge that Ukrainian forces have felt is infused by the ‘will of the people to bleed’ and the constant support of arms by NATO members.
In logistical terms, Sun Tzu said, “without bases of supply,” the army is “lost,” and so will the weakening logistics chain in the Russo-Ukrainian war, and the failure at the tactical level is observable. Irrefutably, General John J. Pershing was right when he said, “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.”
Sun Tzu claimed that states must avoid siege warfare since, for him, “The worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities,” but from the current status, Russia has sieged Kyiv and Kharkiv. Sun Tzu claimed, “if you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength.” History confirms that a siege against an enemy who has a committed population, who is fighting with honor, has a sufficient supply of arms, food, and medicine from within and outside support, it is hardly possible to conquer that state.
Moreover, Russian revanchist behavior will have dangerous ramifications for Ukraine in terms of the food security crisis, mass migration, killing of a segment of the civilian population, rehabilitation processes, and a shattering economy in Eastern Europe. Undoubtedly, the wanton destruction of historically rich sites and the Bucha massacre act by Russian forces while retreating from certain areas in Ukraine highlights the illegal and illegitimacy of the invasion under international law. Bloomsburg has reported that public execution is a possibility in captured cities of Ukraine by Russia.
The cunning maxim, “winning a war without fighting,” as per Sun Tzu, is the “acme of skill.” This approach is observable in the Russian doctrine of subversive warfare that they kept on using cyber warfare, protests by populations, the pro-Russian government in Ukraine before Volodymyr Zelensky’s rise, and the use of Russian Gibridnaya Voyna. Putin waited for a long period by using these tactics to subdue Ukraine’s will to fight by using the pro-Russian factions in Donbas and Luhansk – the Trojan horse of the Kremlin. However, the last resort was to invade, considering the rising concerns over Ukraine joining the EU, NATO, and its pro-western government’s rhetoric against the Russian threat.
Sun Tzu’s famous aphorism, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles…” is pertinent in the Ukrainian crisis. Putin was aware of his enemy; Irrespective of the fact that the mighty image of the Russian army is observing faults in their stars, they knew that the European nations and that NATO would not put boots on the grounds. Such a level of understanding, as per Sun Tzu, is required to avert the strategy of the adversary. But what about the support Ukraine is receiving from the West – was Moscow ready for it? On the other side, Ukraine has closely observed the year’s long efforts of Russia by using conventional and non-conventional methods during the Crimean crisis hence preparing them for asymmetrical warfare.
In the post-truth era, the game of narratives has shaped world politics
Irrespective of one’s position over the Ukrainian conflict, one thing is clear – Ukraine is the one that has political sympathy and is the center of attention of the international public. These efforts are part of the element of propaganda to justify the action of one side, thus psychological war plays a vital role for which Sun Tzu asserts, “If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things” and since “all warfare is based on deception” all we get to know about war from a war zone cannot be true, which is why propaganda works as a tool of deception to shape the perception of the people.
Moreover, another aspect of “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” in modern warfare and the current Russo-Ukraine crisis is the use of sanctions. Sanctions allow great powers to avert the practical dual and win wars without a fight which is the “acme of skill.” The cancelation of Nord Stream 2, removal of Russia from the SWIFT banking system, and freezing of Russian central bank assets allowed embargos to act as an effective deterrent tool. Especially considering Russia’s observable grand strategy to revive the Russian Empire, for which these sanctions might avert Kremlin from eyeing Moldova, Sweden, and Finland.
Overall, from the current postulates that are coming out of the conflict, cornering Russia won’t be the solution that the west should be looking for. Sun Tzu’s painted such a position by asserting that “if you make the enemy cornered, and don’t give him an exit route, he is apt to strike out with everything he has.” Besides, this means that the use of hypersonic missiles or the threat of nuclear threshold misbalancing from the Kremlin is not just a rhetorical term? Could these actions be a possibility because Russian military doctrine viewed the use of tactical nuclear weapons as a possibility in case of further expansion of NATO against CSTO? Therefore, the West should not isolate Russia, which might reinforce massive strategic outbursts against the West.
Sun Tzu’s wisdom on victories paves a classic depiction of the art of war, but in the serious world, his notion to win a war without fighting finds constraints when holding guns always remains a better option to achieve political ends. Overall, the devastating impact of the conflict has rattled the global economy and jolted the geopolitical order in and for Eurasia. The real question is that even with the 21-century firepower that is carried by states still, the world is witnessing another prolonged warfare display. Thus the question emerges is anyone sure when the war ends? I believe even Putin doesn’t have an answer!