Not The Question--When Will Ukraine Attack?
The Ides of June
John T. Kuehn
When will the Ukrainian offensive begin? My Shakespeare professor once told me as an undergraduate, Hamlet asked the wrong question. It was not to be or not to be, it was “should I plot my revenge and kill my father’s murderer?”
Volodymyr or Vladimir? That is the question. Western, or rather American-European pundits, are looking at the current situation in Ukraine through the wrong lens. They should be looking at the war through the lens of these two men, and their respective strength of character and will power. And that is the key to how Ukraine should proceed.
First, the situation hangs on what we historians call “great man history,” on the wills of two men, two leaders, one a ruthless autocratic who has deliberately concentrated the power of the state in his own hands, the other a man who was thrust into that power and had the presence of mind to seize it. “Great man/woman history” is often a flawed lens for analysis, but in this case it is not. Individuals can have agency, sometimes quite a bit of agency. Also, readers must know that this odd personal dichotomy of decision-making is a rare circumstance—that in today’s age of structuralism and collectives it is unusual for two men to have so much power to make all-important decisions on behalf of so many. It is also contingent. Of the two, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the one with the more precarious hold on individual decision-making power—as one would expect of a nominally democratic government backed by a consortium of democratic, mostly NATO nations. NATO, jokingly, is often said to stand for “not able to organize.”
Putin is the far more firm in his hold on power and decision-making. Yet both leaders retain, in the words of Clausewitz, “an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to the truth; and…the courage [or stubbornness in Putin’s case] to follow this faint light where it may lead.” [On War, Book 1:3, emphasis original] This sort of determination, on the part of both men, is one reason the war has lasted more than a year (or 9 years if we go back to 2014), and will likely continue beyond whatever offensive lies around the next corner.
So what about the much-anticipated 2023 offensive? We must understand that Zelensky, and his advisors, seem to be exercising that rare thing in war, strategic patience. What will happen if he decides to wait until the Fall, or the Winter, or even next Spring to go on the offensive? How will his situation be worse? And how much worse would it be compared to that if he squanders his carefully built up reserves against Putin’s prepared defenses? Why not let Putin stew in the cage with his “bears?” Putin seems to be the one with less strategic patience, why not let him lose patience and launch another fruitless offensive as at Bakmut? The problem is that this war is attritional, something Western “manueverists” abhor—but which war as a phenomenon seems to tend to. Maintaining what one has is the cheaper, better alternative. But it makes for a boring mini-series or news story. Right now both sides are on the strategic defense, although Russia continues its immoral and illegal strategic missile bombing campaign.
An even better question is, “Who will lose patience first?” The “third man” at this table is Zelensky’s NATO backers. Will they lose patience and cut off his support because what he is doing does not match their expectations of warfare? Clausewitz also stated: “defense in general (including of course strategic defensive) is not an absolute state of waiting and repulse….it is permeated with more or less pronounced elements of the offensive.” (Book 7:2) In other words, that military power need not be employed in the kinetic offense to achieve a result. Is the real offensive, as Zelensky builds power and his people endure, the offensive against Putin’s will?