Clausewitz’s Analysis Resonates to This Day
A recently translated text by Clausewitz coincidentally describes an eighteenth-century Russian war in Ukraine and Crimea, which can impart lessons for contemporary students of strategy.
The nineteenth-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote On War, which remains a leading work of military theory down the present. However, he wrote far more: to date, parts of his writings have yet to be translated into English, even if scholars are working to change that. One of his untranslated works is a short history of a Russian war in Ukraine. Clausewitz’s analysis of this eighteenth-century war gives lessons that strategists studying the current conflict in Ukraine would do well to heed. His commentary draws parallels between eighteenth-century Russian practices and the present, and allows us to see continuities in Russia’s aims.
Why Cabinet Wars Matter
But can reading an analysis of a limited conflict fought by men in laced coats and powdered wigs really inform our view of war in the twenty-first century? It can, and it should. Why?
First, Western and Russian commentators like Franz-Stefan Gady, James Lacey, and Valery Alekseev have claimed that Kabinettskriege, or cabinet wars, can provide a window into warfare in the 2010s and 2020s. Lacey has argued:
In any future great power war, it might be helpful to think of objectives such as Taiwan or the Baltics as small territories that are in one camp but are coveted by another great power, like provinces in an 18th-century cabinet war. One side is willing to fight to keep the province (state) within its sphere, while the other side is willing to fight to take it. Neither great state, however, is willing to see itself destroyed or its internal political order overthrown to attain its objective.
Second, these wars are worth studying because they left a significant formative impact on Clausewitz and his most famous book. There are almost as many references to eighteenth-century commanders like Frederick the Great, Daun, and Lacy in On War as there are to Napoleon himself. While acknowledging that the French Revolution had radically changed warfare, Clausewitz still believed the military past could inform future doctrine.
Third, understanding this history matters, as I have argued elsewhere, because Russian president Vladimir Putin is obsessed with it. He views his war as an imperial project, where he is reenacting the conquests of Russian leaders like Peter and Catherine the Great.
So What Does Clausewitz Tell Us?
Years before he would write On War, a younger Clausewitz examined the Russo-Turkish War of 1736–1739 and sketched out a brief description of the four-year-long conflict. At first glance, Clausewitz’s interest in this war might seem odd: why would a Prussian officer concern himself with an Eastern European war that ended over sixty years earlier? In fact, many Prussian officers, including Clausewitz’s principal source of information on the war, Christoph Hermann von Manstein, served alongside the Russians in this war as advisors and volunteers. Wilhelm August von Steuben, the father of the “American” Baron von Steuben, was one of them.
In this war, the Russian Empire, ruler Empress Anna and her ministers, sought, as Putin would 278 years later, to conquer and occupy the Crimean Peninsula. The local inhabitants of Crimea, the Tatars, received military support from a great power of the time, the Ottoman Empire. Much like the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, this war began with vast Russian overconfidence: the Russian commander, Field Marshall Burkhard Christoph von Münnich, asserted that Azov and Crimea would fall in the first year, and that by 1739, that even Constantinople would be under Russian control. What actually followed was four years of indecisive conflict, with repeated Russian invasions, setbacks, withdrawals, and new invasions. By the time the dust settled in 1739, neither side had achieved their goals, and the Russians’ Austrian allies were forced to cede major territorial concessions.
Clausewitz turned to this conflict while studying at the Berlin Kriegsakademie. Sometime around 1801, connected to his studies, Clausewitz wrote a short history of the war. Historian Peter Paret has argued that this text was merely an exercise in narrative history writing, “little more than [an] outline.” Although the narrative is short and follows the major events of the conflict, Clausewitz does provide a number of interpretations, particularly of the first two years of the war. These interpretations, combined with Clausewitz’s brief comments on this conflict in On War, provide notable parallels to the current conflict.
Much like Western observers trying to discern Putin’s motives, Clausewitz was unsure of the true Russian goals in the war. He asserts, “It is uncertain whether the Empress Anna… wanted to conquer Crimea, or just to devastate it… the latter made but little political sense.” Despite this judgment, Clausewitz returns to the theme of devastation again and again in the text, showing that the various Russian armies, put the enemy territory, “under fire and sword,” “destroy[ed] these areas,” waged, “a campaign of raiding,” and “devastate[d] the peninsula.” Clausewitz eventually concluded that these measures were essentially “preventative… namely as a means of distracting and hindering the [Crimeans] so they could not,” take more decisive military action. Modern Russian tactics, such as the strike campaign against the Ukrainian power grid, have confused modern commentators, but experts such as Justin Bronk and Michael Kofman assert they have a similar goal: depleting Ukraine’s stocks of air defense missiles. In other words, in both the 1730s and 2020s, Russia has used devastation against civilian targets to cause chaos, diluting the effectiveness of their enemy’s military response.
Clausewitz was also surprised by the lack of logistical readiness on the part of the eighteenth-century Russian army. He noted that in their first campaign the Russians, “suffered from a lack of water,” that they, were “weakened by disease,” and that, “provisions for the whole campaign were not carried along.” The following year of 1737, they suffered 24,000 losses, “mostly caused by disease and the lack of supplies.” In 1738, “Lack of food, many diseases, [and] massive losses of [pack] animals…caused this campaign to end without results.” In a section specifically analyzing logistical shortfalls, Clausewitz asserted:
There was never a lack of fodder for animals because of the nature of the terrain, but there was often a lack of food. The army was forced to steal herds of sheep from the Tatars, subsisting from the local area. Firewood and water were most wanted.
Clausewitz showed that in three of the four years of conflict, logistical problems handicapped the Russian effort, and made lasting gains unattainable. Once again, there are parallels to the present. Experts on the current war in Ukraine argue that Russia has been significantly hindered by its logistical shortcomings. Indeed, some noted this before the war. Though Münnich and the Russians eventually overcame this logistical failure, it cost the Russians manpower in the opening campaigns of the war.
Clausewitz was critical of the heavy losses the Russians suffered for comparatively little gain. In the first year, he asserted that Russian losses were, “quite expensive for the campaign,” and in the following year, notes that the 50,000 Russian losses were, “far too much for the conquest of a fortress that had to be evacuated… in the next year.” He concluded that the Russians callously succeeded, “at the cost of many thousands of their own men,” and that such losses, “seem[ed] cruel.” It is possible that the Russians lost as many as 200,000 men in this conflict. When adjusted for changes in the Russian population between the eighteenth century and the present, that is equivalent to over 2 million in today’s population. In the eighteenth century, large losses had little impact on the Russian strategy. Russia ended the war when their allies, the Austrians, stopped fighting, and even gained a small amount of territory. Today, journalists seem explicitly focused on the body count, which may or may not impact the immediate duration of the war.
Finally, Clausewitz noted the importance of the “Ukraine Line” in the 1736 war, providing Russian forces a fortified border to withdraw behind, rearm, and reconstitute. In this period, the Russian state constructed extensive fortified positions to protect its southern border. These included the Belgorod and Izium lines of the late seventeenth century and the modernized Ukraine Line of 1731. To man this border, the Russians created a secondary army of 30,000 reservists or Ukrainian Land Militia (ukrainskiy landmilitskiy). These men defended a line of fortified positions that measured just under 300 kilometers. The threat of raids from Crimea convinced men to serve in this force. Important fortified positions on the line include placenames that are well-known today: Izium and Bakhmut. Clausewitz noted that each fall, Russian troops would return to their defensive lines, but each spring, they would launch a new invasion with more manpower than they had the previous year. Today, nuclear deterrence provides the Russian forces with a modern “Ukraine Line.” With the threat of atomic weapons, Russian forces are able to withdraw from campaigns that are failing, reconstitute, and redeploy to other portions of Ukraine. Ukrainian officials have noted that there are more Russian forces currently deployed than were massed last year at the start of the invasion.