And now? On the Possibility of an All-out War

The war in Ukraine is in full swing. The order for the “partial mobilization” of Russian army reservists and part of the male population to go and fight in Ukraine, and the concomitant organization of pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories, have aroused a mixture of indignation and denigration in the West: the ballots would be null and void; the “partial mobilization” would already have pushed to its limits. In other words, the decision taken by Vladimir Putin, allegedly isolated at the international level, would be a “headlong rush”. Rather, it should be seen as an escalation, as this war, which some would like to be distant and peripheral, could gain in intensity.

If the “partial mobilization” decreed by Vladimir Putin seems to be a half measure, the quotas to be filled given to the governors and local authorities, at the origin of indiscriminate roundups of men of fighting age, already give substance to this “ukase” (the total figure would be over 300,000 men). There are and will be failures and setbacks, and there are also many questions about the training and equipment of these men, their degree of motivation and their level of competence in the face of a Ukrainian army whose valor and value have been demonstrated during the seven months of war1. Similarly, the military-industrial complex has exposed its flaws in the production of armaments, especially since the Western sanctions decided upon as early as 2014 have hampered the modernization of the Russian army. All this is true and weighs on the translation into military and industrial terms of the decisions taken by the master of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the worst must be considered.

Burning its Ships to Create the Irreversible

To scoffers, it is important to remember this transhistorical truth stated by Jacques Bainville: “Everything has always gone wrong.” In Russia, more than anywhere else, where negligence rhymes with imperialism, things are done in the greatest disorder, in a “go as I push you” way. But they could be done. In the absence of a major offensive in the short term, volunteers and “mobilized” troops will give the Russian general staff the theoretical possibility of plugging the holes and closing the gaps, with an intense campaign of bombardment of Ukrainian civilian infrastructures simultaneously saving time and destroying what cannot be conquered: from the point of view of military history, the Russian army is never more than a super-artillery, supported by waves of people2. In a few months, provided that the defensive lines in the Don basin and southern Ukraine are reconstituted and consolidated, a new Russian offensive could then be conducted (in Spring 2023?).

The meaning of this partial mobilization — “meaning” in the double sense of direction and significance — is that of an escalation, of a movement toward a full-scale war, defined as an armed and bloody conflict in which the belligerents mobilize all their resources, material, moral and spiritual, a long-lasting war3. From the outset, this war was for Ukraine a conflict of a total and existential nature: the fate of the nation and the state was at stake. For Russia, it was a “war with an absolute goal” (Hans Delbrück), the object not being an armed rectification of the border with Ukraine but to erase the Ukrainian national state from the political map of Europe. However, this war did not have a total and existential character. In Putin’s mind, a “special operation” in Ukraine and a combination of coercive diplomacy and hybrid warfare against NATO could have been enough at first.

After the destruction of Ukraine, pressure had to be brought to bear on the Baltic States and Romania, from one end of the Baltic-Black Sea isthmus to the other. Following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin was convinced that the fruit was ripe: the United States would quickly disengage from a Europe condemned to “Finlandization.” The formation of a Euro-Asian geopolitical grouping “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” was to rebalance the de facto alliance between Russia and China. Its diplomatic and military know-how, supported by the European industrial apparatus, would compensate for the immense demographic and economic superiority of China. In perspective, a Great Sino-Russian Eurasia, united against the demonic Anglo-Saxon thalassocracy. This is when a war of planetary scope could have occurred. At this stage, in Putin’s mind, Ukraine would have been long since subdued and assimilated (Ukrainians would be only “little Russians” with minds distorted by Western propaganda).

In accordance with the law of heterotelia that governs history, things did not turn out as planned. After a succession of military setbacks, the two terms of the alternative were either to outline a withdrawal movement, to look for a way out, or to escalate the scale of armed violence. In dynamic terms, Russia is now engaged in a total war which will not spare Russian society and all those who wanted to look the other way, as long as death in battle did not touch them either from near or far. The rise to extremes is all the more likely because the holding of pseudo-referendums in the districts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporijjia and Kherson (September 23-27, 2022) is intended to turn these territories into pieces of the “sacred land” of Greater Russia-Eurasia. This sleight of hand, which claims to transform a military aggression into a defensive war, is supposed to justify the use of nuclear weapons in case the Russian conventional military apparatus collapses. It is also possible to imagine a Russian ultimatum, once these territories are annexed: the Ukrainian army would be summoned to withdraw from the retained or reconquered positions, failing which the worst case scenario would materialize. In fact, the master of the Kremlin implicitly referred to nuclear weapons (“all means” will be required), with Dmitri Medvedev then writing the subtitles (such seems to be the function of the deputy chairman of the Security Council).

Simple “bluff”, as many in Europe think? The Putinian denial of September 21, 2022 — “I’m not bluffing” — would then have Freudian value. As a matter of principle, however, we must consider the worst: deterrence is not a law of the world4 and it is quite possible that Putin, hoping for an effect of stupefaction in Kiev and in the Western capitals, will seriously weigh the advantages and disadvantages of a tactical nuclear strike. As for believing that the master of the Kremlin fears to see Russia considered as a “pariah state” … He would rather see it as a sign of election and has previously expressed himself in this sense (Russians will go to heaven and Westerners to hell)! Let’s just hope that he also takes into account the personal risks he would take in this scenario: American officials are worried about the nuclear or chemical threat and they send explicit “messages”5.

Finally, a total war led by Russia would also extend to the ecological environment. Perhaps this is how the possible sabotage of the Nord Stream I and II gas pipelines in the Baltic, in Danish and Swedish waters, should be interpreted: as an extension of the field of struggle to ecosystems; as a pretext for deploying the Russian navy in the Baltic Sea; as a threat to Western infrastructures (other “tubes” and transatlantic submarine cables, for example). When will there be an open threat to Western satellites? Note that on November 15, 2021, Russia fired an anti-satellite missile (a test aimed at one of its old satellites). Tens of thousands of pieces of debris were generated in an area not far from the International Space Station (ISS).

In short, the decisions and announcements of the master of the Kremlin are more a matter of obstinacy and repetitive compulsion than of a headlong rush. The annexation of new Ukrainian territories (let’s not forget Crimea) and the “partial mobilization” consist in burning his ships to forbid any reversibility of the process engaged, and in pushing the fires. The tactical and operational problems faced by the Russian army in Ukraine would be solved by intensifying the war and expanding the geostrategic framework: “More is in you” (characteristic of Putin’s psychology, this line has been taken since the outbreak of a second war in Chechnya in 2000, after terrorist attacks that remained unexplained). The excesses of Putin and his followers are underpinned by a “dark ontology” (will to power, sad passions and resentments) that the proponents of rationalist political science have neglected for too long.

Faced with the prospect of an upward spiral of war, a number of observers seem to expect a lot from Russian society. The images of sporadic gatherings, of drunken brawls in the places where reservists and “mobilized” soldiers are gathered, or of recriminations in their ranks (a kind of recruiting officer quickly silenced them), are hardly convincing. Perhaps we have not yet seen anything6? However, by nature, the masses are amorphous and apathetic, especially since the Putin regime has had two decades to destroy the Russian civil society that had emerged during the Gorbachev period from top to bottom. Even the Memorial organization, described as an “agent of foreigners” and criminalized, has been destroyed. In matters of rebellion and revolution, everything starts from individualities and singularities, at least most often (Heraclitus: “One, if he excels, is worth more than ten thousand”). But the personalities who could make a difference are locked up in camps (see the case of Alexei Navalny, whose poisoning and imprisonment were warning signs) or have gone into exile, with “partial mobilization” now amplifying the flows. The “red man” type reigns supreme; those who can, flee by air or land. One thinks of Albert Hirschman’s book Exit, Voice and Loyalty (Harvard University Press, 1970) 7. The most conscious, active or reactive Russians choose the exit door. This exodus particularly affects the age groups between twenty and thirty, in a context of demographic recession. The images of the lines of cars heading for Finland, Georgia or Armenia speak for themselves. And Istanbul airport is becoming a Russian “hub”, with the phenomenon beginning at the start of the “special operation”, with Russian oligarchs taking the “road to Byzantium” (the Tsargrad of the Panslavists) to house their wealth. In total, 261,000 men have fled Russia-Eurasia since the proclamation of “partial mobilization” (an FSB estimate reported in Novaya Gazeta Europe, September 26, 2022).

What About China?

The possibility of an all-out war invites us to change the level of analysis, as such a prospect could worry Moscow’s allies and partners. One thinks in particular of China, linked to Russia-Eurasia by a diplomatic and strategic partnership, and a thousand links of an energy, technological, commercial and financial nature. Over time, this complex of relations has taken on the appearance of an informal alliance (there is certainly no mutual defense clause), with a military dimension that has been strengthened over the past several years: we can see the increasing size of military exercises, joint air patrols over the Korean peninsula and maneuvers on the approaches to Japan, and military-industrial cooperation, even in the area of anti-missile defenses (early warning satellites). It is not so much a question of side-by-side as of back-to-back, the intermediate objective being to force the United States into a geostrategic elongation, from Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait (see the “strategic overstretching” of the historian Paul Kennedy, at the origin of the decline of empires according to his geohistorical analyses). In the longer term, Beijing and Moscow share the idea that Western hegemony has come to an end, with the world balance shifting toward Asia. Roughly speaking, all that remains is to finish off the beast8.

There are signs that this informal alliance is unraveling, as Xi Jinping is preparing to let go of his good friend Putin. From Samarkand to New York, Chinese officials have called for a cease-fire and stressed their commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, principles that they are otherwise misrepresenting in order to martyr Tibetans and Uighurs (that’s another question). But isn’t this what they have been constantly reminding us of since February 24, 2022, and as early as 2014, during the Russian operation in Crimea and Donbas? By constantly coming back to territorial integrity and sovereignty, Beijing mainly wants to signify that the island of Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China. Unless Chinese diplomats have been more precise and unambiguous in their talks with their American counterparts, there is nothing new and noteworthy for the moment. As things stand, the absence of explicit condemnation of the Russian war, the increase in the value and volume of Russian oil and gas purchases, the surge in Chinese exports of “chips” and electronic components to Russia, constitute objective support for the war desired and conducted by Putin9. One should also ask whether Russian purchases of ammunition and shells from North Korea could be made without Beijing’s approval. In such a case, it would be indirect military support for Putin’s war.

It is quite possible that the Chinese leadership is uncomfortable with the present situation. On the one hand, the war that was “sold” to them during the meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping on February 4, 2022, the day of the proclamation of “unlimited friendship”, has not kept its promises; the Russian military machine is being held in check and the conflict is having serious repercussions on a Chinese economy that has just come out of its “Forty Glorious Years” (thirty would be a better word). On the other hand, if Beijing and Moscow share the same general objective of destroying Western hegemony, Putin has imposed his rhythm and tempo on a China whose means and temporal perspectives are much broader. The repeated threats to use nuclear weapons are worrying. It is likely that some in China’s political leadership view the Kremlin’s master as an electrician casually handling high-voltage cables. The rumors, by definition uncertain, about the trip of Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, to China, and the rumors about a coup de théâtre during the next congress of the Chinese Communist Party — preparation of a coup de force against Putin or against Xi Jinping, depending on the interpretation of Patrushev’s trip — are all signs of a malaise in Sino-Russian relations10.

That said, diplomatic and military history shows that alliances are marked by mutual doubts and recriminations, contradictions and dirty tricks. They are not based on altruism or on heroic-sacrificial dispositions, but on the perception of shared interests, without total alignment. On this point, we refer to the work of Albert Sorel, the great historian of European diplomacy at the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire11. The People’s Republic of China and Russia-Eurasia are experiencing this historical truth, but this does not mean that their informal alliance is obsolete. If Putin storms against his Chinese counterpart whom he considers too timid, especially at the time of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (August 2, 2022), he obviously has no great alternative ally (India is content with transactional diplomacy and doing business, as is Turkey). He gives guarantees to Beijing (quasi-unconditional support for the claims on Taiwan) and, simultaneously, seeks to trap his ally by accelerating the pace of history: Putin is an Aufbrecher, his black revolutionism escaping, however, some conservatives in Europe and the United States. The challenge is to force the Chinese president to engage forcefully in a great hegemonic conflict that would tip the world balance.

But if Xi Jinping persists in his “Chinese dream” (a “libido dominandi” wrapped in marshmallow), does he have other strategic options? He cannot envisage a major showdown with the United States — in the Taiwan Strait, the “Asian Mediterranean” (South and East China Seas) and the Western Pacific — without first consolidating the strategic depth provided by his Russian alliance and the formation of a Eurasian bloc. If this alliance were to break down, which is a possibility, it would have to put aside its nightmarish imperialist project and its rhetoric on the theme of Tianxa (“All under one sky”). He would lose face, power, and much more. In other words, such a geopolitical turnaround would require a change in the leadership of the Chinese party-state, or it would lead to it rather quickly. In truth, all this is hypothetical, and the interpretation of the Chinese vision is likely to turn quickly into a Rorschach test (the challenges facing Sinology are as great as those of old Sovietology).

In sum, it is important not to confuse its politico-strategic expectations with military, strategic and geopolitical configurations, whether it be the level of determination of the Russian political leadership, the cohesion of the “Russian system” and the strength of its partnerships and alliances. Of course, the existence of a certain number of determinants and profound factors of international politics does not mean that one should sacrifice to determinism: despite its mass, the “poor power” that is Russia has been defeated several times in the course of history, and the alliances woven with the sole perspective of sharing the spoils are based on a sort of theology of victory — the victor is the favorite of the gods — and hardly resist military defeat. However, a Russian defeat is conceivable on the Ukrainian front. More broadly, determinism implies the arbitrary choice of a determinant among others, considered as having absolute value.

By Way of Conclusion

While we must seek to identify the vulnerabilities of such alliances, in order to dissociate the scourges, and to do so by using the performative — i.e., acting as if the objective of a decorrelation between Russia-Eurasia and People’s China had almost been achieved — let us keep in mind (even if we have to divert it) the old Stoic maxim: “There are things that depend on us and others that do not” (Epictetus). Maintaining and amplifying the political, diplomatic and military support to Ukraine, so that its armies thwart Putin’s objectives and destroy the Russian military device, before it is reinforced, depends primarily on Western powers. This is within their power and responsibility. It is not a question of predicting the victory of Ukraine but of wanting it.

Indeed, it is the clear military defeat of Russia-Eurasia, the internal geopolitical shock that would follow and a demonstration by the fact with regard to Moscow’s allies and partners, that could ward off the worst. It is therefore urgent to provide Ukraine with the armaments required to move forward, to give it the means to exercise a form of conventional deterrence in order to protect its infrastructure, and to guarantee Putin the most severe retaliation if he were to risk crossing the nuclear threshold. In short, with the benefit of hindsight, these seven months of war appear to be the beginning of a beginning and the perils are rising on the horizon. It will take freshness of spirit and determination. Let us remember Flaubert: “Only the fool concludes.”

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

Footnotes

  1. The “partial mobilization” was decided after the failure of a mobilization based on volunteers, launched last June, through the constitution of “regional battalions.” From now on, the process is coercive. It is supposed to concern only category 1 reservists: the youngest and those with specific technical skills. The abuse is probably linked to the existence of unofficial quotas and the existence of recruiters who set up a lucrative business. See Cyril Gloaguen, Note sur la mobilisation partielle (forthcoming).
  2. On the entry into action of Iranian drones (Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6), see the bombings in the Kharkiv sector and in Odessa on September 23 and 25.
  3. Putin and his people are trying to set up a war economy. Denis Manturov, Russian Minister of Industry, was promoted to the post of Deputy Prime Minister in charge of industrial policy (July 15, 2022) and, ten days later, was given the vice-presidency of the Military-Industrial Commission (VPK).
  4. Let us recall in substance Raymond Aron’s words: “Who dissuades whom, how and under what circumstances?” In the present context, Putin is not implementing a strategy of nuclear deterrence but a strategy of nuclear coercion (see the concept of “aggressive sanctuarization”).
  5. “We’ve been very clear with the Russians, publicly and privately, to stop talking about nuclear weapons,” U.S. diplomatic chief Antony Blinken said in an interview with CBS News broadcast on September 25. “It’s very important that Moscow hear from us and know from us that the consequences would be horrific (…) Any use of nuclear weapons would have catastrophic effects for, of course, the country using them, but for many others as well.” Earlier in the day, the White House National Security Advisor had already warned of “catastrophic” consequences if Moscow used nuclear weapons. “We have the ability to talk directly at a high level (to the Russians), to tell them clearly what our message is and hear theirs,” Jake Sullivan had also said on NBC. “This has happened frequently in recent months, it has even happened in recent days,” he had said, without wanting to specify the nature of the channels of communication employed in order to “protect them.” See “Les États-Unis ont averti la Russie, via canaux privés, de cesser son discours de menace nucléaire sous peine d’une réponse sévère”, AFP – Le Point, September 26, 2022.
  6. One will have to be particularly attentive to the effects and reactions in Russia’s “internal foreign” (the Caucasian and Muslim republics, and even the Siberian “subjects” of the Russian Federation). See Benoît Vitkine, “Tensions sociales et politiques en Russie après la mobilisation ‘partielle’ décrétée par Poutine”, Le Monde, September 26, 2022
  7. Albert Hirschman’s work was translated into French in 1972. See Défection et prise de parole, Fayard, 1972.
  8. See Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Le triangle États-Unis / Russie / Chine et l’improbabilité d’un renversement des alliances”, Desk-Russie, June 19, 2021.
  9. Chinese financial institutions and companies involved in the American market or directly exposed to the “dollar risk” remain cautious in their exchanges with Russia, but one can think that Beijing’s know-how in circumventing international embargoes (see the cases of Iran and North Korea) will eventually benefit Russia. It is a question of time and adaptation.
  10. Patrushev’s visit, on September 19,2022, coincided with the opening of the 17th round of consultations on strategic security between China and Russia. As for the rumors, which are very present on Indian websites, see Suchet Vir Singh, “Rumors swirl about coup against President Xi Jingping. Wishful thinking, say China experts”, The Print, September 25, 2022
  11. See the eight volumes of L’Europe et la Révolution française, published between 1885 and 1904. Somewhat forgotten in France, Albert Sorel is considered in the United States as a master of “Applied History”.

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