Putin, Ukraine and the paradox of strategy

[Version in French]

Strategy is a complex art governed by a paradoxical logic where failure can lead to success and vice versa. The Russian attack on Ukraine offers a good illustration of this nature.

In five days of war, Vladimir Putin managed to revive NATO, to unify Europe, to put an end to thirty years of German pacifism, to destroy all the image he had taken twenty years to develop among the intelligentsia and the European political class, to seriously question the credibility of his army, to unify Ukraine behind an improbable president, a country whose identity he was still denying a few days before the invasion, to push neutral Sweden and Finland to accelerate their integration into NATO and, worst of all, to give back a sense of meaning and a purpose to Europe, indeed to the West, which had lost them long ago. He also blew up the prestige earned 70 years ago when Russia successfully contributed to beating the Nazis, and that the Soviets then Russia had been using successfully ever since. In short, after his surprise attack, all his worst nightmares are coming true one after the other, a strategic fiasco of great magnitude. This is very surprising from a man who has been a fine strategist for quite some time. What is the reason for this? Some believe that the man isolated himself or went mad. But perhaps it is more simply linked to the paradoxical logic of strategy put forward by Edward Luttwak, a military strategy specialist who has been writing on the subject for a long time.

Tactics and strategy do not always mix

The first paradox is between tactics and strategy. A tactical victory on the ground can create strategic problems. In 1962, China invaded the territories of Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, on its border with India. China had annexed Tibet in 1951 and tensions were high between the two countries. The Indian army was badly equipped and badly prepared, and could not resist. It was a clear victory for China. But since then, this territory remains a subject of discord that prevents any rapprochement between the two countries, despite repeated Chinese attempts. Similarly, Luttwak rhetorically plays with the idea that a Japanese airplane pilot on his way to Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, if he had really had his country’s interests at heart, would have voluntarily crashed his plane into the ocean. A great tactical victory, the attack was in fact strategically disastrous since it led to the annihilation of Japan four years later. In the Ukrainian case, it seems that Putin was counting on a rapid collapse of the Ukrainian power to install an accommodating leader. But the attack, badly executed, had the opposite effect. It galvanized the population and international opinion, transforming the Ukrainian president from a largely underestimated former actor into a hero of international resistance to the Russian aggressor. Tactical inadequacy led to a major strategic problem.

Good strategy / Bad strategy (Source: Wikipedia)

The paradoxical logic of strategy

But more profoundly, strategy is traversed by a paradoxical logic. If you want peace, prepare for war, as the old popular saying goes. The best way to attack is perhaps the worst: let us imagine that an officer has the choice between two paths to attack the enemy. One is direct and well protected. The other is a detour along a steep hill. At first sight, he should take the first one. But choosing the second one would take the enemy by surprise. Hence the bad choice might be the right one and vice versa.

A good example of the paradoxical nature of strategy is countermeasures, characterized by the link between utility and performance. Normally, the two are identical in the sense that a tool that performs better is always more useful than one that performs worse. But this is only true in the world of inanimate objects. During World War II, whenever the Allies developed a better guidance system, it was quickly countered by the Germans. The Allies came to understand that the introduction of new equipment should only be done for a major campaign, so that the enemy would not have time to respond. It can therefore be strategic not to use a more effective tool, especially to mislead the enemy. This example illustrates a key factor of strategy, which seems obvious, but which is nevertheless largely ignored: the fact that we deal with an enemy who reacts to our actions, which makes it difficult to pursue optimality. Strategy is above all a dialectic. This is precisely why the more successful a strategy is, the more likely it is to be exhausted and eventually fail, because the enemy learns and modifies his own. No strategy is therefore eternal.

Centralized versus decentralized system

One of the factors that plays into the paradox of strategy is the nature of the enemy. Here we have an autocrat against a rather large and loosely defined system: besides Ukraine, of course, there are the neighboring countries, then the EU and NATO, to name but just a few. It is a decentralized system, whose members have quite divergent interests, and who have historically been disunited against the actions of Russia, which is an ultra-centralized system. For a long time, Putin has had the advantage. This is because, as Nassim Taleb notes, decentralized responses take longer. But they are effective in stages. In the short term, the centralized system has the advantage: the decision is faster, the vision clearer. The gain from an action is concentrated while the losses are diluted for others, reducing the incentive to act. But as for countermeasures, the decentralized system learns, if slowly. Insidiously the conditions are changed until a triggering event occurs that takes the autocrat by surprise. He overplays his hand and ends up unifying his enemies. From now on, the decentralized system plays to its full strength: multiplicity of responses, efficient local adaptations, robustness linked to the absence of a unique center that makes targeted destruction impossible; the dynamic feeds itself thanks to a system that is both decentralized and possesses a strong emerging identity (“the free world” for example). What matters now for this system is not to forget in turn the paradoxical logic of strategy, and to know when to stop, and in particular to leave an exit door to Vladimir so that things land calmly.

🔍 This article is based on the two books by Edward Luttwak that cover the paradox of strategy: The Rise of China vs. the logic of strategy and Strategy: The logic of war and peace.

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