Originally published in TomDispatch.
In Western military circles, it’s common to refer to the “balance of forces” — the lineup of tanks, planes, ships, missiles, and battle formations on the opposing sides of any conflict. If one has twice as many combat assets as its opponent and the leadership abilities on each side are approximately equal, it should win.
Based on this reasoning, most Western analysts assumed that the Russian army — with a seemingly overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment — would quickly overpower Ukrainian forces. Of course, things haven’t exactly turned out that way.
The Ukrainian military has, in fact, fought the Russians to a near-standstill. The reasons for that will undoubtedly be debated among military theorists for years to come. When they do so, they might begin with Moscow’s surprising failure to pay attention to a different military equation — the “correlation of forces” — originally developed in the former Soviet Union.
That notion differs from the “balance of forces” by placing greater weight on intangible factors. It stipulates that the weaker of two belligerents, measured in conventional terms, can still prevail over the stronger if its military possesses higher morale, stronger support at home, and the backing of important allies. Such a calculation, if conducted in early February, would have concluded that Ukraine’s prospects were nowhere near as bad as either Russian or Western analysts generally assumed, while Russia’s were far worse.
And that should remind us of just how crucial an understanding of the correlation of forces is in such situations, if gross miscalculations and tragedies are to be avoided.
The Concept in Practice Before Ukraine
The notion of the correlation of forces has a long history in military and strategic thinking.
Something like it, for example, can be found in the epilogue to Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace. Writing about Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, Tolstoy observed that wars are won not by the superior generalship of charismatic leaders but through the fighting spirit of common soldiers taking up arms against a loathsome enemy.
Such a perspective would later be incorporated into the military doctrine of the Russian Bolsheviks, who sought to calculate not only troop and equipment strength, but also the degree of class consciousness and support from the masses on each side of any potential conflict. Following the 1917 revolution in the midst of World War I, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin argued, for example, against a continuing war with Germany because the correlation of forces wasn’t yet right for the waging of “revolutionary war” against the capitalist states (as urged by his compatriot Leon Trotsky).
“Summing up the arguments in favor of an immediate revolutionary war,” Lenin said, “it must be concluded that such a policy would perhaps respond to the needs of mankind to strive for the beautiful, the spectacular, and the striking, but that it would be totally disregarding the objective correlation of class forces and material factors at the present stage of the socialist revolution already begun.”
For Bolsheviks of his era, the correlation of forces was a “scientific” concept, based on an assessment of both material factors (numbers of troops and guns on each side) and qualitative factors (the degree of class consciousness involved). In 1918, for example, Lenin observed that “the poor peasantry in Russia… is not in a position immediately and at the present moment to begin a serious revolutionary war. To ignore this objective correlation of class forces on the present question would be a fatal blunder.”
Hence, in March 1918, the Russians made a separate peace with the German-led Central Powers, ceding much territory to them and ending their country’s role in the world war.
As the Bolshevik Party became an institutionalized dictatorship under Joseph Stalin, the correlation-of-forces concept grew into an article of faith based on a belief in the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras of the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet leaders regularly claimed that world capitalism was in irreversible decline and the socialist camp, augmented by revolutionary regimes in the “Third World,” was destined to achieve global supremacy.
Such optimism prevailed until the late 1970s, when the socialist tide in the Third World began to recede. Most significant in this regard was a revolt against the communist government in Afghanistan.
When the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party in Kabul came under attack by Islamic insurgents, or mujahideen, Soviet forces invaded and occupied the country. Despite sending ever larger troop contingents there and employing heavy firepower against the mujahideen and their local supporters, the Red Army was finally forced to limp home in defeat in 1989, only to see the Soviet Union itself implode not long after.
For U.S. strategists, the Soviet decision to intervene and, despite endless losses, persevere was proof that the Russian leaders had ignored the correlation of forces, a vulnerability to be exploited by Washington. In the 1980s, under President Ronald Reagan, it became U.S. policy to arm and assist anticommunist insurgents globally with the aim of toppling pro-Soviet regimes — a strategy sometimes called the Reagan Doctrine. Huge quantities of munitions were given to the mujahideen and rebels like the Contras in Nicaragua, usually via secret channels set up by the Central Intelligence Agency.
While not always successful, these efforts generally bedeviled the Soviet leadership. As Secretary of State George Shultz wrote gleefully in 1985, while the U.S. defeat in Vietnam had led the Soviets to believe “that what they called the global ‘correlation of forces’ was shifting in their favor,” now, thanks to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere, “we have reason to be confident that ‘the correlation of forces’ is shifting back in our favor.”
And yes, the Soviet failure in Afghanistan did indeed reflect an inability to properly weigh the correlation of all the factors involved — the degree to which the mujahideen’s morale outmatched that of the Soviets, the relative support for war among the Soviet and Afghan populations, and the role of outside help provided by the CIA.
But the lessons hardly ended there.
Washington never considered the implications of arming Arab volunteers under the command of Osama bin Laden or allowing him to create an international jihadist enterprise, “the base” (al-Qaeda), which later turned on the U.S., leading to the 9/11 terror attacks and a disastrous 20-year “global war on terror” that consumed trillions of dollars and debilitated the U.S. military without eliminating the threat of terrorism.
American leaders also failed to calculate the correlation of forces when undertaking their own war in Afghanistan, ignoring the factors that led to the Soviet defeat, and so suffering the very same fate 32 years later.
Putin’s Ukraine Miscalculations
Much has already been said about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s miscalculations regarding Ukraine. They all began, however, with his failure to properly assess the correlation of forces involved in the conflict to come and that, eerily enough, resulted from Putin’s misreading of the meaning of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Like many in Washington — especially in the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party — Putin and his close advisers viewed the sudden American withdrawal as a conspicuous sign of U.S. weakness and, in particular, of disarray within the Western alliance. American power was in full retreat, they believed, and the NATO powers irrevocably divided. “Today, we are witnessing the collapse of America’s foreign policy,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of the Russian State Duma. Other senior officials echoed his view.
This left Putin and his inner circle convinced that Russia could act with relative impunity in Ukraine, a radical misreading of the global situation.
In fact, along with top U.S. military leaders, the Biden White House was eager to exit Afghanistan. They wanted to focus instead on what were seen as far more important priorities, especially the reinvigoration of U.S. alliances in Asia and Europe to better contain China and Russia. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” the administration affirmed in its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance of May 2021. Instead, the U.S. would position itself “to deter our adversaries and defend our interests… [and] our presence will be most robust in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.”
As a result, Moscow has faced the exact opposite of what Putin’s advisers undoubtedly anticipated: not a weak, divided West, but a newly energized U.S.-NATO alliance determined to assist Ukrainian forces with vital (if limited) arms supplies, while isolating Russia in the world arena. More troops are now being deployed to Poland and other “front-line” states facing Russia, putting its long-term security at even greater risk. And perhaps most damaging to Moscow’s geopolitical calculations, Germany has discarded its pacifist stance, fully embracing NATO and approving an enormous increase in military spending.
But Putin’s greatest miscalculations came with respect to the comparative fighting capabilities of his military forces and Ukraine’s. He and his advisers evidently believed that they were sending the monstrous Red Army of Soviet days into Ukraine, not the far weaker Russian military of 2022.
Even more egregious, they seem to have believed that Ukrainian soldiers would either welcome the Russian invaders with open arms or put up only token resistance before surrendering. Credit this delusion, at least in part, to the Russian president’s unyielding belief that the Ukrainians were really Russians at heart and so would naturally welcome their own “liberation.”
We know this, first of all, because many of the troops sent into Ukraine — given only enough food, fuel, and ammunition for a few days of combat — were not prepared to fight a protracted conflict. Unsurprisingly, they have suffered from strikingly low morale. The opposite has been true of the Ukrainian forces who, after all, are defending their homes and their country, and have been able to exploit enemy weaknesses such as long and sluggish supply trains to inflict heavy losses.
We also know that Putin’s top intelligence officials fed him inaccurate information about the political and military situation in Ukraine, contributing to his belief that the defending forces would surrender after just a few days of combat. He subsequently arrested some of those officials, including Sergey Beseda, head of the foreign intelligence branch of the FSB (the successor to the KGB). Although they were charged with the embezzlement of state funds, the real reason for their arrest, claims Vladimir Osechkin, an exiled Russian human rights activist, was providing the Russian president with “unreliable, incomplete, and partially false information about the political situation in Ukraine.”
As Russia’s leaders are rediscovering, just two decades after the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan, a failure to properly assess the correlation of forces when engaging in battle with supposedly weaker foes on their home turf can lead to disastrous outcomes.
China’s Faulty Assessments
Historically speaking, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been careful indeed to gauge the correlation of forces when facing foreign adversaries. They provided considerable military assistance, for example, to the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, but not so much as to be viewed by Washington as an active belligerent requiring counterattack. Similarly, despite their claims to the island of Taiwan, they have so far avoided any direct move to seize it by force and risk a full-scale encounter with potentially superior U.S. forces.
Based on this record, it’s surprising that, so far as we know, the Chinese leadership failed to generate an accurate assessment of either Putin’s plans for Ukraine or the likelihood of an intense struggle for control of that country. China’s leaders have, in fact, long enjoyed cordial relations with their Ukrainian counterparts and their intelligence services surely provided Beijing with reliable information on that country’s combat capabilities. So, it’s striking that they were caught so off-guard by the invasion and fierce Ukrainian resistance.
Likewise, they should have been able to draw the same conclusions as their Western counterparts from satellite data showing the massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders. Yet when presented with intelligence by the Biden administration evidently indicating that Putin intended to launch a full-scale invasion, the top leaders simply regurgitated Moscow’s assertions that this was pure propaganda.
As a result, China didn’t even evacuate thousands of its own nationals from Ukraine when the U.S. and other Western nations did so, leaving them in place as the war broke out. And even then, the Chinese claimed Russia was only conducting a minor police operation in that country’s Donbas region, making them appear out of touch with on-the-ground realities.
China also seems to have seriously underestimated the ferocity of the U.S. and European reaction to the Russian assault.
Although no one truly knows what occurred in high-level policy discussions among them, it’s likely that they, too, had misread the meaning of the American exit from Afghanistan and, like the Russians, assumed it indicated Washington’s retreat from global engagement. “If the U.S. cannot even secure a victory in a rivalry with small countries, how much better could it do in a major power game with China?” asked the state-owned Global Times in August 2021. “The Taliban’s stunningly swift takeover of Afghanistan has shown the world that U.S. competence in dominating major power games is crumbling.”
This miscalculation — so evident in Washington’s muscular response to the Russian invasion and its military buildup in the Indo-Pacific region — has put China’s leaders in an awkward position, as the Biden administration steps up pressure on Beijing to deny material aid to Russia and not allow the use of Chinese banks as conduits for Russian firms seeking to evade Western sanctions.
During a teleconference on March 18th, President Biden reportedly warned President Xi Jinping of “the implications and consequences” for China if it “provides material support to Russia.” Presumably, this could involve the imposition of “secondary sanctions” on Chinese firms accused of acting as agents for Russian companies or agencies.
The fact that Biden felt able to issue such ultimatums to the Chinese leader reflects a potentially dangerous new-found sense of political clout in Washington based on Russia’s apparent defenselessness in the face of Western-imposed sanctions.
Avoiding American Overreach
Today, the global correlation of forces looks positive indeed for the United States and that, in a strange sense, should worry us all.
Its major allies have rallied to its side in response to Russian aggression or, on the other side of the planet, fears of China’s rise. And the outlook for Washington’s principal adversaries seems less than auspicious. Even if Vladimir Putin were to emerge from the present war with a larger slice of Ukrainian territory, he will certainly be presiding over a distinctly diminished Russia. Already a shaky petro-state before the invasion began, it is now largely cut off from the Western world and condemned to perpetual backwardness.
With Russia already diminished, China may experience a similar fate, having placed such high expectations on a major partnership with a faltering country.
Under such circumstances, it will be tempting for the Biden administration to further exploit this unique moment by seeking even greater advantage over its rivals by, for instance, supporting “regime change” in Moscow or the further encirclement of China.
President Biden’s March 26th comment about Putin — “this man cannot remain in power” — certainly suggested a hankering for just such a future. (The White House did later attempt to walk his words back, claiming that he only meant Putin “cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors.”)
As for China, recent all-too-ominous comments by senior Pentagon officials to the effect that Taiwan is “critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific” suggest an inclination to abandon America’s “one China” policy and formally recognize Taiwan as an independent state, bringing it under U.S. military protection.
In the coming months, we can expect far more discussion about the merits of such moves. Washington pundits and politicians, still dreaming of the U.S. as the unparalleled power on planet Earth, will undoubtedly be arguing that this moment is the very one when the U.S. could truly smite its adversaries. Such overreach — involving fresh adventures that would exceed American capacities and lead to new disasters — is a genuine danger.
Seeking regime change in Russia (or anywhere else, for that matter) is certain to alienate many foreign governments now supportive of Washington’s leadership. Likewise, a precipitous move to pull Taiwan into America’s military orbit could trigger a U.S.-China war neither side wants, with catastrophic consequences. The correlation of forces may now seem to be in America’s favor, but if there’s one thing to be learned from the present moment, it’s just how fickle such calculations can prove to be and how easily the global situation can turn against us if we behave capriciously.
Imagine, then, a world in which all three “great” powers have misconstrued the correlation of forces they may encounter. As top Russian officials continue to speak of the use of nuclear weapons, anyone should be anxious about a future of ultimate overreach that will correlate with nothing good whatsoever.