How the World’s Not-So-Great Powers Are Miscalculating on Ukraine

In Western military circles, it’s common to refer to the “balance of forces” — the lineup of tanks, planes, ships, missiles, and battle formations on the opposing sides of any conflict. If one side has twice as many combat assets than its opponent, and the leadership abilities of each side are roughly equal, it should win. Based on this reasoning, most Western analysts assumed that the Russian army — with a seemingly overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment — would quickly overpower Ukrainian forces. Of course, things haven’t exactly turned out that way. The Ukrainian military has actually fought the Russians until a near-standstill. Military theorists will debate the reasons for this for many years. When they do so, they might begin with Moscow’s surprising failure to pay attention to a different military equation — the “correlation of forces” — originally developed in the former Soviet Union.

That notion differs from the “balance of forces” by placing greater weight on intangible factors. It states that the weaker of the two belligerents can still win if it has a stronger military, better support at home, or the backing of important allies. Such a calculation, if conducted in early February, would have concluded that Ukraine’s prospects were nowhere near as bad as either Russian or Western analysts generally assumed, while Russia’s were far worse. This should remind us just how crucial it is to understand the correlation of forces in such situations. If gross miscalculations or tragedies are to be avoided,

The Concept in Practice before Ukraine

The concept of the correlation of forces is a common strategy and military idea. Something like it, for example, can be found in the epilogue to Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. Writing about Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Tolstoy observedThe fighting spirit of common soldiers who take up arms against an evil enemy is what wins wars.

This perspective would be later incorporated into the military doctrines of the Russian Bolsheviks. They sought to calculate not just troop and equipment strength but also the degree and support of the masses on either side of any potential conflict. Following the 1917 revolution in the midst of World War I, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin argued, for example, against a continuing war with Germany because the correlation of forces wasn’t yet right for the waging of “revolutionary war” against the capitalist states (as urged by his compatriot Leon Trotsky). “Summing up the arguments in favor of an immediate revolutionary war,” Lenin said, “it must be concluded that such a policy would perhaps respond to the needs of mankind to strive for the beautiful, the spectacular, and the striking, but that it would be totally disregarding the objective correlation of class forces and material factors at the present stage of the socialist revolution already begun.”

For Bolsheviks of his era, the correlation of forces was a “scientific” concept, based on an assessment of both material factors (numbers of troops and guns on each side) and qualitative factors (the degree of class consciousness involved). In 1918, for example, Lenin observed that “the poor peasantry in Russia… is not in a position immediately and at the present moment to begin a serious revolutionary war. To ignore this objective correlation of class forces on the present question would be a fatal blunder.” Hence, in March 1918, the Russians made a separate peace with the German-led Central Powers, ceding much territory to them and ending their country’s role in the world war.

As the Bolshevik Party became an institutionalized dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, the correlation-of-forces concept grew into an article of faith based on a belief in the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras of the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet leaders regularly claimed that world capitalism was in irreversible decline and the socialist camp, augmented by revolutionary regimes in the “Third World,” was destined to achieve global supremacy.

This optimism lasted until the late 1970s when the Third World socialist tide began receding. The most significant example of this was the revolt against the communist government of Afghanistan. When the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party in Kabul came under attack by Islamic insurgents, or mujahideen, Soviet forces invadedThe Soviet Union invaded and occupied the country. The Red Army sent ever more troops to the country and used heavy firepower against the mujahideen supporters. However, the Red Army was eventually defeated and forced to return home in 1989.

The Soviet decision to intervene in the war and its persistence despite losing so many was evidence that the Russian leaders had not considered the correlation of forces. This vulnerability could be exploited by Washington. In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, it became U.S. policy to arm and assist anticommunist insurgents globally with the aim of toppling pro-Soviet regimes — a strategy sometimes called the Reagan Doctrine. Huge amounts of munitions were handed to rebels and the mujahideen. the ContrasNicaragua, usually via secret channels set-up by the Central Intelligence Agency. These efforts, while not always successful in the end, were generally unsuccessful for the Soviet leadership. George Shultz, Secretary of State wrote gleefully in 1985, while the U.S. defeat in Vietnam had led the Soviets to believe “that what they called the global ‘correlation of forces’ was shifting in their favor,” now, thanks to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, “we have reason to be confident that ‘the correlation of forces’ is shifting back in our favor.”

And yes, the Soviet failure in Afghanistan did indeed reflect an inability to properly weigh the correlation of all the factors involved — the degree to which the mujahideen’s morale outmatched that of the Soviets, the relative support for war among the Soviet and Afghan populations, and the role of outside help provided by the CIA. But these lessons are not the end. Washington never considered the implications of arming Arab volunteers under the command of Osama bin Laden or allowing him to create an international jihadist enterprise, “the base” (al-Qaeda), which later turned on the U.S., leading to the 9/11 terror attacks and a disastrous 20-year “global war on terror” that consumed trillions of dollarsWithout eliminating terrorist threat, the U.S. military was left with a crippling problem. The American leaders failed to calculate the relationship of forces in their own war in Afghanistan. They also ignored the factors that led the Soviet defeat and suffered the exact same fate 32 years later.

Putin’s Ukraine Miscalculations

Much has already been done said about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations regarding Ukraine. They all began, however, with his failure to properly assess the correlation of forces involved in the conflict to come and that, eerily enough, resulted from Putin’s misreading of the meaning of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

Like many in Washington — especially in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party — Putin and his close advisers viewed the sudden American withdrawal as a conspicuous sign of U.S. weakness and, in particular, of disarray within the Western alliance. They believed that America’s power was in complete retreat and that the NATO powers were irreparably divided. “Today, we are witnessing the collapse of America’s foreign policy,” saidVyacheslav Volodin is the speaker at the Russian State Duma. His view was shared by other senior officials.

Putin and his close circle were convinced that Russia could act relatively unassisted in Ukraine. This was a radical misinterpretation about the global situation. Biden White House wanted to leave Afghanistan, and was joined by top U.S. military officials. They wanted to concentrate on the more important priorities, including strengthening U.S. alliances across Asia and Europe to better control China and Russia. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” the administration affirmedIn its Interim National Security Strategic Guidedance of May 2021. Instead, the U.S. would position itself “to deter our adversaries and defend our interests… [and] our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.”

As a result, Moscow has faced the exact opposite of what Putin’s advisers undoubtedly anticipated: not a weak, divided West, but a newly energized U.S.-NATO alliance determined to assist Ukrainian forces with vital (if limited) arms supplies, while isolating Russia in the world arena. More troops are now being deployed to Poland and other “front-line” states facing Russia, putting its long-term security at even greater risk. And perhaps most damaging to Moscow’s geopolitical calculations, Germany has discarded its pacifist stance, fully embracing NATO and approvingAn enormous increase in military spending.

But Putin’s greatest miscalculations came with respect to the comparative fighting capabilities of his military forces and Ukraine’s. His advisers and he believed they were sending the Red Army of Soviet times into Ukraine, not the much weaker Russian military of 2022. Even more shocking is the fact that they seem to have believedThe Ukrainian soldiers would either openly welcome the Russian invaders or resist them with token resistance before surrendering. Credit this delusion, at least in part, to the Russian president’s unyielding belief that the Ukrainians were really Russians at heart and so would naturally welcome their own “liberation.”

We know this, first of all, because many of the troops sent into Ukraine — given only enough food, fuel, and ammunition for a few days of combat — were not preparedto fight a long-running conflict. They have suffered, it is not surprising. strikingly low morale. The opposite is true for the Ukrainian forces, who are defending their homeland and country and have been able exploitTo inflict severe losses, enemy weaknesses include slow supply trains and long supply lines.

We also know that Putin’s top intelligence officials fed him inaccurate information about the political and military situation in Ukraine, contributing to his belief that the defending forces would surrender after just a few days of combat. He later arrested some of these officials, including Sergey Beseda who was the head of the foreign intelligence branch (the successor to KGB) of FSB. They were accused of embezzlement, but the real reason for their arrest was not. claims Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist, was providing the Russian president with “unreliable, incomplete, and partially false information about the political situation in Ukraine.”

As Russia’s leaders are rediscovering, just two decades after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, a failure to properly assess the correlation of forces when engaging in battle with supposedly weaker foes on their home turf can lead to disastrous outcomes.

China’s Faulty Assessments

The Chinese Communist Party leadership has always been very careful to assess the relationship of forces when faced with foreign adversaries. They provided significant military assistance to the North Vietnamese, for example, during the Vietnam War. However, Washington did not view them as an active belligerent that would require counterattack. They have also not yet made any attempt to seize Taiwan by force, despite their claim to it. This would put them at risk of a full-scale confrontation with the U.S. forces.

Based on this record, it’s surprising that, so far as we know, the Chinese leadership failed to generate an accurate assessment of either Putin’s plans for Ukraine or the likelihood of an intense struggle for control of that country. China’s leaders have, in fact, long enjoyed cordial relations with their Ukrainian counterparts and their intelligence services surely provided Beijing with reliable information on that country’s combat capabilities. So, it’s striking that they were caught so off-guard by the invasion and fierce Ukrainian resistance.

Likewise, they should have been able to draw the same conclusions as their Western counterparts from satellite data showing the massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. Yet, presentedWith intelligence from the Biden administration indicating that Putin intended a full-scale invasion, the top leaders simply regurgitated Moscow’s assertions that this was pure propaganda. China became the victim of this propaganda. didn’t even evacuateIt had thousands of its own citizens from Ukraine when the U.S., and other Western nations did so. They remained in place as the war broke down. The Chinese were able to retake many of their Ukrainian nationals. claimed Russia was only conducting a minor police operation in that country’s Donbas region, making them appear out of touch with on-the-ground realities.

China may also have underestimated the strength of the U.S.-European response to the Russian attack. Although no one truly knows what occurred in high-level policy discussions among them, it’s likely that they, too, had misread the meaning of the American exit from Afghanistan and, like the Russians, assumed it indicated Washington’s retreat from global engagement. “If the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?” askedThe state-owned Global TimesAugust 2021. “The Taliban’s stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan has shown the world that U.S. competence in dominating major power games is crumbling.”

This miscalculation — so evident in Washington’s muscular response to the Russian invasion and its military buildup in the Indo-Pacific region — has put China’s leaders in an awkward position, as the Biden administration steps up pressure on Beijing to deny material aid to Russia and not allow the use of Chinese banks as conduits for Russian firms seeking to evade Western sanctions. President Biden spoke on March 18th during a teleconference. reportedly warned President Xi Jinping of “the implications and consequences” for China if it “provides material support to Russia.” Presumably, this could involve the imposition of “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms accused of acting as agents for Russian companies or agencies. The fact that Biden felt able to issue such ultimatums to the Chinese leader reflects a potentially dangerous new-found sense of political clout in Washington based on Russia’s apparent defenselessness in the face of Western-imposed sanctions.

Avoiding U.S. Overreach

The global correlation of forces today looks very positive for the United States. This should, in a strange way, worry us all. Its major allies have rallied to its side in response to Russian aggression or, on the other side of the planet, fears of China’s rise. And the outlook for Washington’s principal adversaries seems less than auspicious. Even if Vladimir Putin does emerge from the current war with a larger portion of Ukraine’s territory, he will be presiding over a significantly diminished Russia. It was already a fragile petro-state prior to the invasion, but it is now cut off from the West and condemned to be so. perpetual backwardness.

China may suffer the same fate after Russia’s decline. China has placed high expectations on a major relationship with a weakening country. Under such circumstances, it will be tempting for the Biden administration to further exploit this unique moment by seeking even greater advantage over its rivals by, for instance, supporting “regime change” in Moscow or the further encirclement of China. President Biden’s March 26th comment about Putin — “this man cannot remain in power” — certainly suggested a hankering for just such a future. (The White House did later attempt to walk his words back, claiming that he only meant Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors.”) As for China, recent all-too-ominous comments by senior Pentagon officials to the effect that Taiwan is “critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific” suggest an inclination to abandon America’s “one China” policy and formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state, bringing it under U.S. military protection.

We can expect more discussion on the merits of such moves over the next few months. Washington politicians and pundits still believe that the U.S. is the greatest power on Earth. They will be arguing that this moment is when the U.S. can truly defeat its enemies. Such overreach — involving fresh adventures that would exceed American capacities and lead to new disasters — is a genuine danger.

Seeking regime change in Russia (or anywhere else, for that matter) is certain to alienate many foreign governments now supportive of Washington’s leadership. Likewise, a precipitous move to pull Taiwan into America’s military orbit could trigger a U.S.-China war neither side wants, with catastrophic consequences. The correlation of forces may now seem to be in America’s favor, but if there’s one thing to be learned from the present moment, it’s just how fickle such calculations can prove to be and how easily the global situation can turn against us if we behave capriciously.

Imagine, then, a world in which all three “great” powers have misconstrued the correlation of forces they may encounter. As top Russian officials continue to speakAnyone who is concerned about the use of nuclear weapons should be worried about a future of overreach that will lead to nothing good.