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Sun Tzu’s Seven Searching Questions for the War in Ukraine

Sun Tzu’s Seven Searching Questions for the War in Ukraine

Ukrainian civilians practice throwing Molotov cocktails to defend the city of Zhytomyr as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued on March 1, 2022.

Most of you will have heard of Sun Tzu- the Chinese author and military tactician who rose to prominence in the 4th century BC. Some of you may be familiar with his most prominent work- The Art of War. 

By now, you have heard about Vladmir Putin’s unwarranted aggression and despicable drive towards conquest in Ukraine. This expansionism has led to levels of violence in Europe that have not been seen since World War II,  and has forced the entire global community into a heightened state of military readiness. When troubling times like these arise, it can be useful to turn to trusted sources of guidance, and Sun Tzu’s Art of War is no exception.

While the Ukrainian force have achieved early successes in slowing Putin’s advance, the bulk of the fighting is yet to take place and the end result is far from determined. In the very first chapter of The Art of War Sun Tzu provides Seven Searching Questions through which he suggests we evaluate the outcome of a conflict. 

First, we are told to ask “Which sovereign is imbued with the moral law?” I understand this as a way of assessing morale and discipline. Which leader has the ability to rally and unify their nation behind their efforts?

Here, there can be little doubt that the advantage goes to the Ukranians, who have shown a resolve beyond the world’s highest expectations. Reports suggest that Ukranians both young and old, men and women, have rallied in support of their nation’s defense and have begun to form local militias and take on the auspices of military order. On the other hand, there are consistent reports about the lack of both training and low morale among Putin’s forces on the front and growing domestic dissent from all walks of life in Russia. The Ukranians appear far more unified behind President Zelensky than the Russians seem committed to Putin, and the loyalty that Zelensky has earned comes from respect rather than through fear.

Second, we are asked, “Which of the generals have the most ability?” There is no misunderstanding about  what Sun Tzu is asking here, but we do not yet quite know the answer as it pertains to this conflict.

There have been reports that Putin’s forces have been consistently undersupplied and that Putin’s generals struggle to communicate honestly with him. More than that, Putin’s forces have underperformed relative to their numerical advantage. Needless to say, these failures have resulted in the slow Russian advance that we have seen in the early days of the conflict. The quality of Ukrainian tactical leadership, however, is yet to be fully put on display. The United States and other democratic partners can aid Ukrainian generals by supplying timely, relevant battlefield information. With full engagement from democratic partners, Ukrainian generals may rise to the occasion, but we would be overly optimistic to assume that Putin will not address these early failures in tactics and logistics over time.

Third, Sun Tzu asks “With whom lie the advantages of the heaven and the earth?” Here, we are being asked to assess the battleground on which the conflict is being fought and the impact that weather will have on the fighting. 

Though Sun Tzu’s words may need parsing, there is no doubt that the Ukrainians, fighting from their homes (sometimes too literally) have a better sense of the terrain and are better prepared to use it to their advantage. Urban warfare is notoriously bloody, just as it is notoriously difficult for the aggressor. Similarly, as winter turns to spring, mud will increase the difficulty of Putin’s heavy artillery movements. Both literally and figuratively, the heavens and earth side with Ukraine’s defense.

Fourth, Sun Tzu asks us “On which side is discipline most rigorously enforced?” Unfortunately, this question continues the trend of Sun Tzu’s most direct questions resulting in our most murky answers.

Where the Ukrainian resistance is concerned, the idea of “discipline” as Sun Tzu means it is tough to evaluate. The formal Ukrainian military’s early success in deterring Putin’s aggression suggests that the troops are disciplined, but as the fighting takes place more and more in the streets, individual Ukranians defending their homes will likely lack a formal sense of “military discipline”. Russia’s sense of military discipline is more conventional, but there are serious questions about what that discipline entails and from where it originates. Certainly some (though not all) Russian soldiers on the front lines of the fighting have shown the “discipline”(however corrupted that sense of discipline may be) to carry out war crimes. However, if this discipline is derived from fear that Putin’s regime will punish desertion, it may falter as the Putin regime shows increasing signs of domestic cracks. Ultimately, time will tell if the righteousness of the Ukrainian cause will make up for their lack of formal military training. In either case, Ukraine’s democratic partners can bolster Ukrainian discipline by highlighting the righteousness of their cause in opposition to Putin’s growing list of war crimes. 

Fifth, we are asked the most direct question- “Which side has the stronger army?”

Putin has the stronger army– barring direct involvement from Ukraine’s democratic partners.  For those of us hoping to see a successful resistance to Putin’s aggression, this is by far the most challenging obstacle to overcome. This advantage is so flagrant that it has allowed Putin’s forces to maneuver in ways that would be easily punishable by a more heavily equipped foe- most notably the ever growing military caravan that has begun to surround Kieve. A Ukrainian resistance might still prove successful, but it will take place with a disadvantage of both soldiers and weaponry

Sixth, we are asked “On which side are the officers and men more highly trained?”. For those of us not seated in  the Pentagon, Kieve, or Moscow this is yet another difficult question to answer, but there are publicly available reports that can shed some light on the matter.

Reports suggest that Ukraine’s forces are relatively small, but highly effective. Many regiments of the Ukrainian army have undergone training with American partners following the 2014 invasion of Crimea, and stand prepared to face Putin’s offensive. Russian forces, on the other hand, appear to be largely conscripts, some of whom were brought to the front lines under false pretenses. The size and munitions possessed by Putin’s forces may eventually overwhelm the smaller Ukrainian force, but reports suggest that the average Ukrainian soldier has undergone more rigorous training than the average Russian fighting to advance Putin’s wicked cause. As the conflict rages on, democratic partners can aid the Ukrainian cause by providing tactical assessments and training exercises to maintain a heightened degree of readiness.

Seventh, Sun Tzu asks what might be his most important question, “In which army is their greater consistency in both rewards and punishment?” Yet again, we are being asked to consider the military motivation of both armies. 

More than that, we are being asked to evaluate how the stakes presented by the conflict will inspire the fighting that takes place on the ground. The stakes for the Ukrainian people could not be more clear- they are fighting for the future of their homeland as a free, independent, and democratic nation. As the fighting continues, their fighting will be inspired by the destruction of their homes and their desire to avenge loved ones who were killed or wounded in this senseless conflict. Both reward and punishment are crystal clear for Ukrain’s resistance. Individual Russians on the front lines are fighting for something somewhat less clear. Many are being told that they are fighting a “denazification” campaign, though that justification falls apart upon meeting with any honest intellectual resistance. Beyond that, individual Russians are fighting and dying for the deranged ambitions of a tyrant who has led their nation to economic ruin and global disrepute. 

On the basis of Sun Tzu’s Seven Searching Questions, the Ukrainians have three clear advantages- a “sovereign imbued with moral law”, “the advantages of heaven and earth”, and “greater consistency in both rewards and punishments”. Putin’s invading force has one clear advantage- its superior size. 

The remaining three matters – good generalship, discipline, and training all remain to be seen. However, in each instance Ukraine’s democratic partners can support the Ukrainian effort without a direct military intervention- through intelligence, international support, and armed assistance respectively. If the world’s democracies can turn these “toss-ups” into Ukraine’s favor, The Art of War may provide a pathway for Ukraine’s valiant defenders to win the day over Putin’s imperialistic ambition.

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association