Loose Change No. 16: Ukraine Crisis: Welcome to Beaufre's Peace-War
As the crisis in Ukraine forces us to grope for strategic frameworks to understand what’s going on and, hopefully, identify paths to something that resembles victory for the West, we would do well to reach for the writings of France’s mid-century strategic genius General André Beaufre. Beaufre served in France’s general staff as the world hurtled toward disaster in 1938-1940, and then later grappled with how the advent of nuclear weapons affected everything he had learned about military strategy up until that point.
At the heart of his thinking was his contention that nuclear weapons meant the end of direct confrontations among world powers, but that this did not spell the end of confrontation. On the contrary, just as direct war was a thing of the past, so was complete peace. “Major war and true peace will have died together,” giving way to a permanent state he described as “Peace-War.” Sometimes there would be war, but war would have to be indirect because one’s liberty of action was too constrained by the risk of escalation or one’s own relative material weakness to attempt a more direct strategy. In today’s Ukraine, for example, Western powers cannot seriously contemplate a direct attack on Russia anywhere outside the immediate theater of war. No one’s about to open a second front in the arctic or Vladivostok. Nor is the United States likely to transfer entire armored divisions to the Ukraine. Instead, one needs to pursue an “indirect strategy,” which amounts to “the art of exploiting optimally the narrow margin of liberty of action” that still exists to achieve decisive success despite “the sometimes-extreme limits on the military means that can be employed.”
Beaufre focused on ways in which military force could be used to support an indirect strategy. One was what he referred to as an “artichoke maneuver” or grignotage (nibbling), which is what he saw Hitler doing in the late 1930s when he remilitarized the Rhineland and annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia (or, more recently, what Russia did in Crimea and Ukraine in 2014). The basic idea is to conduct calculated “below the threshold” acts of aggression, preferably in a region or against an interest that is not vital to one’s adversary. One needs to act fast to present the international community a fait accompli before it has time to react. One also has to act against relatively peripheral interests. Britain and France in 1936-39, unable to respond quickly, in any event, did not see Austria, Czechoslovakia, or the Rhineland as vital to their interests such that Hitler’s moves there justified full-scale national mobilization.
Peace-War, according to Beaufre, requires mastering what today we call “hybrid warfare,” which he described as a “total strategy” that involves making the coordinated use of all means at one’s disposal to gain an advantage over one’s enemies. It also means being able to have conventional military capabilities that are 1) rapid enough to respond to quick swipes, 2) scalable—because an all-or-nothing military capability encouraged countries seeking not to escalate to total war to do nothing (as Britain and France did in 1938), and 3) serious enough to make clear that the aggressor has to be damned serious and willing to risk escalation. Both sides of course must act with great care, for what neither wants is to find itself having no choice but to escalate. That is tantamount to a loss of liberty of action, which for Beaufre is tantamount to defeat and possibly, in the nuclear age, leads to planetary disaster. Western powers need whatever gives them alternatives to capitulation on one hand, and nuclear Armageddon on the other. European powers above all need to think about whether they have what it takes to counter Putin's actions if the United States, which does have the forces required, opts to sit the crisis out.