Since February, some of the most intense and continuous fighting in Ukraine has been around the village of Shirokino, just east of Mariupol. Now, the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko, has declared that the village has ‘no military value whatsoever’.
Muzhenko’s statement drew howls of protests from Ukrainian soldiers and political activists, angry at the suggestion that blood had been shed for no purpose, but he is probably right. And Shirokino is hardly an isolated example. It is a sad fact that war often descends into bloody struggles for territory which has no tactical or strategic value, only symbolic importance. War is not a very rational endeavour, if one measures rationality in terms of material costs and benefits. Rather, as I examined in my book Military Honour and the Conduct of War, it is about honour as much as anything else. Why else keep attacking Passchendaele? Why else throw the Sixth Army deeper and deeper into Stalingrad? Why else keep on fighting the Taliban long after it has become obvious that you’re never going to defeat them? The answer is that honour, under whatever name you choose to give it – face, prestige, credibility, reputation, self-respect, pride – is at stake, and so you keep on at it, however unsuccessful it may be.
According to Clausewitz, war is a means of achieving a political objective. The tactics chosen will thus reflect the objective in question, which may change as the war develops. At the start of the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s object was to recapture its lost territories. It therefore focused its attention on capturing land and on strategic manoeuvres designed to destroy the enemy occupying that land. Now, though, it is quite obvious that recapturing the entirety of Donbass by military means is impossible. The objective, therefore, has changed. After the humiliating defeats at Ilovaisk in August 2014 and Debaltsevo in February 2015, restoring lost pride is the only objective achievable. And so, the Ukrainian Army fights over villages which have ‘no military value whatsoever’ because they come to symbolize that pride. It is, in a way, rather more logical than it initially seems.
This, then, is what the war in Ukraine has come down to: restoring Kiev’s damaged pride. Ever since the Minsk-2 agreement in February this year, both sides have been shelling each other daily, probing each other’s lines, and exchanging small arms fire, without gaining more than a few yards here and there. From a military point of view it doesn’t make sense. But from a political point of view, abiding strictly by the terms of Minsk-2 would have meant that Kiev would have had to accept a political settlement forced upon it by a victorious enemy. The current small-scale fighting doesn’t bring Ukraine any closer to a military victory, but it prevents that humiliation. If the warring parties in Ukraine weren’t fighting over Shirokino, they would have just have to fight over something else. In essence, fighting itself has become the aim. Muzhenko’s comment suggests that the General Staff don’t like this very much, and as a former army staff officer, I thoroughly sympathize. But given the prevailing political mood, I fear that there is very little that the General Staff can do about it, and the struggles over useless objectives will continue for some time yet.