“Ukraine is not a Bologna Flask”
By Michael J. Mooney
“In war,” as B.H. Liddell-Hart, observed, “the chief incalculable is the human will.” As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues drag on, this truism regarding the immutable nature of war has become readily evident as the fighting creeps into the suburbs of Kyiv. And one which Russian President Vladimir Putin is either ignorant of, or has purposely ignored: “guts” is more important than “stuff”. More accurately stated, “will” matters more than “means”. While the outcome of this conflict is far from decided – much still could (and mostly likely will) go badly for the Ukraine and its people – that this has been lost on the Russian leader could be his undoing.
War is the realm of danger and uncertainty where both means and will are tested daily. Once the battle is joined, without adequate means how can you compel your adversary to do your will? And lacking the strength of will to prevail and endure, can any amount of means ensure victory? “Means” for this discussion refers to resources such as military manpower and equipment such as aircraft, tanks, etc, and the arena of logistics and infrastructure: ammunition, fuel, food, bridges, airfields, etc. “Will” could be viewed as determination or dedication.
A way to frame this concept of means and will is offered by Carl von Clausewitz in his magnum opus, On War: “If you want to overcome your enemy you must match your effort against his power of resistance, which can be expressed as a product of two inseparable factors, viz. the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will.” Although Clausewitz would vehemently object with this being stated as a mathematical equation, it might be helpful to picture his idea as such: Power of Resistance (PR) = Means (M) x Will (W). While it is dangerous to selectively pull nuggets from On War, there is value in examining this premise, and how it has played out in the past and currently on Ukrainian soil.
History illustrates where each variable seemingly proved to be consequential. As for means being the key, the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War offers a case to consider. Athens’ strength was manifested in their powerful navy. Once the Athenian fleet was annihilated by the Spartan general Lysander at the Battle of Aegospotami in 405 B.C., the Athenians lost the means of defending and providing for their city state. Facing an extended siege and starvation, Athens surrendered a year later.
Another example would be the U.S. war in the Pacific against the Japanese Empire in World War II. The order to conduct unrestricted air and submarine warfare against Japan, issued before the smoke cleared from Pearl Harbor, unleashed a ferocious campaign against the Japanese war machine. Japanese merchant shipping was decimated; their factories, production facilities, oil refineries, and cities were pounded incessantly from the air. The enemy economy, and the ability of Japan to defend itself, was denied of the requisite means and strangled by the cumulative effects of the air and submarine campaign, compelling the Japanese to surrender.
Turning to will, the well documented resiliency of the North Vietnamese people, military, and leadership during the U.S war in Southeast Asia - their singular national strength of will to endure despite tremendous loss of life, privation, and destruction of their military means - enabled them to achieve their political goal and claim victory over a foe who possessed far more numerous, technologically advanced, and lethal means. With a steely resolve, they accepted the losses of “stuff” to achieve their goal of a unified Vietnam. The accomplished author Brian Michael Jenkins, writing in 1972 regarding why North Vietnam would continue to fight stated that the genius of the North Vietnamese people was their “tenacity”; and that it was also “their most terrible weapon.” North Vietnamese men, it has been said, headed south into the fight bearing tattoo’s stoically stating “Born in the North, to die in the South.” That’s will.
However, means and will are not isolated variables, but ones that impact each other. Without attacking the means of your adversary, it is unlikely that the will of your foe can be broken. Likewise, if the will of one’s military and citizenry are not fully committed to the struggle, then it doesn’t matter how much “stuff” you have. Clausewitz elaborates on this further in his writing when he states: “When we speak of destroying the enemy forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must also be considered. The two interact throughout: they are inseparable.” To hammer his point home, he once again states: “Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces that give it life, and the two cannot be separated.” With Athens and Japan, it could be argued that once their means were eliminated, the flame of the “strength of their will” was extinguished and they capitulated. With North Vietnam, although the attrition of their means was significant, it never reached the theoretical “crossover point” in the conflict for which the U.S. military leadership was aiming; the point where the North Vietnamese leadership’s means to resist would be irreparably reduced and weakened, and their will ultimately broke.
This being said, let us return to the opening premise that will is in fact more important than means. Basically, what this debate amounts to is a comparison of the tangible (means) against what is intangible (will). Counting numbers of tanks is simple. In the same vein, the destruction of them is also measurable.
Not so with will. One can see on paper when an armored division has suffered 50% attrition, but how does one measure will? Moral elements, stresses Clausewitz, “…cannot be classified or counted. They have to be felt and seen. The spirit and other moral qualities of an army, a general or a government, the temper of the population of the theater of war, the moral effects of victory of defeat - all these vary greatly. They can moreover influence our objective and situation in very different ways.” Whereas one opponent might be compelled to give in at the first blow delivered, another may last far longer. In fact, the very act of striking your enemy, i.e., killing their soldiers or destroying their cities, can strengthen their will to resist. It is the responsibility of the leader, based upon a sober assessment of the situation, to determine if this is a possibility. “He must guess,” opines Clausewitz, “so to speak: guess whether the first shock of battle will steel the enemy’s resolve and stiffen his resistance, or whether, like a Bologna flask, it will shatter as soon as its surface is scratched…” Which brings us back to the Russian president, and how this relates to his invasion of the Ukraine.
It is fair to say that Putin’s assessment of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s resolve was flawed. Perhaps he figured that this neophyte statesman would panic and flee his country when confronted with the specter of Russian armor bearing down on Kyiv. Likewise, in light of the results of his 2014 land grab in the Crimea, Putin reasoned that the military foe before him was outnumbered, outgunned, and outmatched, and would be dispatched in short order. Putin assessed the Ukraine to be a Bologna flask easily smashed; and that like Hitler, who in his invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, believed, “We only have to kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” He gambled that victory could quickly be accomplished by the destruction and attrition of Ukrainian means; by bombing their cities, killing civilians, and pummeling their military. But the Ukrainian president, military and people have proven that not to be the case.
Isolated in Moscow, I am not certain Putin counted on unarmed Ukrainian citizens trying to stop his invading tanks with their bare hands. One can imagine his chagrin when it was reported of Zelensky’s refusal of an American offer to airlift him from harm’s way. His reply does not sound anything akin to a Bologna flask shattering: “The fight is here; I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.” Or of the Ukrainian soldiers on Zmiinyi Island who responded to a Russian warship’s demand to surrender with the reply: “Russian warship, go f--- yourself.” Or the Ukrainian Lieutenant General who told a British newspaper, “Ukrainians are ready to tear apart Russians with their bare hands.” That is the voice of a country that has ample will to resist. Of course, the skeptic would respond that talk is cheap, and I would agree.
However, it seems that the actions of the Ukraine have matched its rhetoric. Ukrainian resistance has shown to be formidable. Their military has stood their ground and violently lashed back at the invading Russian columns, inflicting heavy casualties. Despite turning the city of Mariupol into the “ashes of a dead land”, the besieged and battered city has refused to surrender to Russian forces. Perhaps fatally, Putin has not realized that in his efforts to reduce the enemy means to zero, he is exponentially increasing the enemy strength of will. Putin’s barbaric actions have super-glued the collective Ukrainian will to resist. If this is so, our theoretical equation (again with apologies to Clausewitz) on power of resistance might read as PR = M x W3, to indicate that will is several times more critical to one’s power of resistance. Possessing such a will, there is hope for the Ukrainian cause. One can hope that the Russian president conducts a reassessment of his political objectives, ceases his invasion of the Ukraine, and immediately returns his forces to Russian soil. But I would not bet on it.
It is especially ironic given the history of the former Soviet Union and their epic struggle against Nazi Germany that Putin would discount the strength of will of a united citizenry to resist an invading power. The events of the “Great Patriotic War” are immortalized throughout Russia, and woven into the fiber of all the Slavic peoples that once composed the Soviet Union who endured them years ago. Why would Putin think the people of the Ukraine would be any different? If that is too far in the past (a notion to which I am confident Putin does NOT prescribe), just turn the page back to events within Putin’s own lifetime: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the outcome of that “incursion”.
Perhaps Putin too is hoping to reach the “crossover point” where the destruction of means will shatter the enemy will and reduce the power of resistance of the Ukrainian to null, just as the U.S. blindly groped for it 50 years ago in Vietnam. Regarding North Vietnamese will, Jenkins further observed, “Hanoi’s apparent determination to go on fighting reflects convictions that in their eyes seem correct – so correct that the alternative to not fighting may seem inconceivable.” One could easily substitute Kyiv for Hanoi in that statement. The result for the U.S. then was not the defeat of the enemy, but the costly, painful legacy of military defeat and the downfall of U.S President Lyndon Johnson. Could Putin suffer the same fate as Johnson? As the numbers of Russian soldiers killed and wounded grow, reports have emerged that the morale of the invading force is in question. In the Motherland, ordinary Russian citizens are protesting their own government’s actions. Although it has become somewhat trite to quip about history not repeating itself but certainly rhyming, I would offer a more eloquent quote from the author George Eliot that may capture what is unfolding before our eyes: “History, we know, is apt to repeat itself, and to foist very old incidents upon us with only a slight change of costume.”
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Naval War College, Department of the Navy, or Department of Defense.