Nineteenth Century Grand Strategy Wargaming May Explain the Twenty-First Century War in the Ukraine
By Jim Rohrer
Russian aggression in the Ukraine has all the earmarks of 19th century geopolitics. Prior to the first Great War, war was an extension of diplomacy. Nations took territory or otherwise expanded their spheres of influence without regard to whether the targets of their aggression had stronger claims to autonomy and control. Some commentators expressed shock when Russia invaded Ukraine, saying they believed the world had outgrown war as a means of achieving national objectives. How they arrived at that assumption is not clear. The purpose of this essay is to apply the core concepts of a 19th century computer simulation war game to the current war in the Ukraine. The drivers appear to fit the situation and may allow analysts to model developments over time.
Prior to the Great War, military aggression on the part of a Great Power (GP) usually did not trigger strong reactions from other GPs. If the target of the aggression was an ally of a GP, then a larger war might result, but if the target was not allied with a GP, as in the case of the Ukraine, then usually GPs would not intervene. Intervention on the side of a small nation that had not started the war was an option, but not likely unless the aggressor was on a rampage. After all, the other GPs were pursuing their own objectives through armed aggression or, perhaps, resting and recovering between wars.
Allies were an important dimension of the 19th century environment. If a nation was attacked, its allies would be called for assistance and most will respond, or risk loss of prestige. With strong allies, even a small nation could be secure. With no allies, even a strong nation could be taken down by an enemy alliance.
Prestige was essential for GP status. Prestige, along with military strength and economic strength were the three pillars of GP rankings. Some infamy as an aggressor was to be expected and even useful because it projected military strength.
The description of the 19th century perspective presented in the preceding paragraphs appears to explain Russian aggression in the Ukraine. The Ukraine is formerly a Russian territory and so it can be regarded as rightfully belonging in the Russian sphere of influence. Any threats to a GPs sphere of influence might trigger invasion, in the 19th century. In addition, Ukraine is situated between Russian and the NATO threat. Far better for Russia if NATO must invade through Ukraine rather than from Ukraine.
Ukraine’s ability to repulse the invasion depends on population dynamics, industrial strength, internal politics, and diplomacy as well as military deployments. The interplay between these elements can be captured by a complex computer simulation running of a detailed data base of demographic data for each province in the entire world as well as projections of the flows of trade goods and investments in manufacturing. This sounds like an impossible task. However, a popular computer wargame from Paradox, Victoria II, does all that. The game is fifteen years old, so the price is shockingly low.
The primary drivers in the program are population, production, politics, budget, diplomacy, and military. In the remainder of this article, I will seek to show how each can be applied to the current war in the Ukraine. In this game, we must choose a nation to play. The reader can assume the player is the Ukraine.
Population. Each province is characterized by counts and percentages of various demographic groups. This includes education levels, occupations, age groups, poverty levels and ethnicities. These are important because they determine how many recruits will be generated for miliary service and how likely they are to rebel against the government if policies are not reflective of its values, if the ruling party loses a war, or if economic hardship lowers living standards. In the case of Ukraine, Ukrainian nationalists might be expected to rebel against Russian occupiers in some locations. The probabilities of rebel spawning increase over time. Pro-Russian rebel groups might form in western Ukraine for the same reasons. In the real world, these groups might engage in a program of sabotage or perhaps outright terrorism. Inside the borders of Russia, pro-Ukrainian groups, and any other aggrieved demographic group, might spawn rebels as the war drags on.
Politics. Governments frequently experience pressure from dissatisfied groups for changes in policy. This is true particularly during times of hardship such as high unemployment. However, demands for policy change might also be ideological. Ignoring those demands increases militancy in the population. Reforms, either in the direction of more liberal benefits, increased levels of democracy, or movements toward more conservatism, might affect the national budget and hence the funds available for the military.
Economic Production and the National Budget. The Ukrainian government has some control over tax revenues, by raising taxes to support the war effort. However, eventually squeezing the taxpayers will bleed them dry and generate push back. Furthermore, industry does not operate in battle-ground provinces and infrastructure often is destroyed. The Ukrainian government can take loans to finance the war, but this raises the specter of eventually being declared bankrupt. Friendly nations can help to defray war costs, but some will be less generous than their rhetoric even the most supportive will eventually stop giving. If Ukraine is bankrupt after the war, even if the war ends in stalemate, a change in government can be expected.
Diplomacy. Ukraine does not have formal allies. Its alliances are informal and do not bind any nation to sending armies to aid in the defense. Trying to join the European Union and NATO are important initiatives for Ukraine but the timing of those changes might be too late to make a difference in the war. In addition to alliances, diplomacy includes public opinion in other nations. By working to increase public opinion, resources might be obtained. A GP might be able to add a smaller nation to its economic sphere of influence, thus gaining essential trade goods. Ukraine has been masterful in its efforts to court western public opinion and discredit Russia. However, commitment tends to wane over time, especially if supporting Ukraine causes economic hardship at home. President Biden blamed inflation in gasoline prices on Russia; this may have resulted in some loss of enthusiasm for prolonging the war. When the NATO countries suffer from a lack of energy for home heating this winter, their citizens might call a halt to support for the war effort.
Russia has informal allies also. The level of commitment from China and North Korea is not clear at this point. Volunteer fighters have arrived from North Africa. Will Iran provide assistance in some way?
A declaration of war starts a timer. Each war starts with a war goal and more might be added. War goals must be achieved in a reasonable period of time. If the goal is mostly achieved, then points are added to a war score over time. One side might be winning then the other side might gain the advantage. Hot wars cannot go on forever.
Presumably, Russia’s initial war goal was to regain Ukraine as a puppet regime. Russia was not seeking to annex Ukraine. When the initial war goal seemed unattainable, Russia’s new war goal was to ‘free’ the people of the Donbass region. Since Russia occupies a large part of Donbas, it at appears to be slowly winning at this writing. However, that could change if they start to lose ground.
Ukraine has declared war goals also. It intends to regain the Donbas region and the Crimea. If they accomplish this, they will have humiliated Russia, an implicit war goal. If neither side is able to achieve its war goals, then war exhaustion may cause them to settle for the status quo. This is known as a white peace in Victoria II.
Overall, the 19th century model built into the Victoria II simulation appears to fit the situation to a large extent. The fit is not perfect. For example, NATO nations have supplied weaponry rather than just cash; this is not explicitly taken into account in the simulation. On other hand, transfers of weapons always are described in monetary terms (e.g., “X million dollars’ worth of military support were supplied by the USA this week…”).
The model forces us to consider the importance of not just weapons but also war exhaustion, economic factors, political unrest, and erosion of public opinion abroad. These factors are at work in both Ukraine and Russia. Clearly, a timer or clock is ticking as both sides strive to achieve their goals.
If the 19th century model fits the war in the Ukraine, then we must ask if the same dynamics apply elsewhere in the world. Does it explain the behavior of China, for example? China regards Taiwan as part of its “core”. Having a core in another nation is a de facto justification for war from the perspective of the aggressor nation. No provocation is necessary nor is any effort manufacture a justification for war when a core is involved.
To some extent, the behavior of the European Union also is explained by a 19th century model. Expansion of the EU’s economic sphere of influence is driven by self-interest. Encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence is natural because competition between GPs is inevitable. Sometimes that competition involves war.
The 19th century model is the model for the current century and possibly for eternity. Hopes for a world without war are laudable and peacemaking is a noble activity. Meanwhile, maintain a strong military, just in case. Be cautious about alliances because some are necessary, but they are a two-edged sword; they might drag your nation into a conflict that does not serve the national interest.