Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 March 2014

Ukraine and the Powell Doctrine

The Powell Doctrine and its rare success
The changing nature of war
The problem of nationalities
How Putin has applied the Doctrine
Can Russia apply it to Eastern Ukraine?

The Powell Doctrine and its rare success

Remember Colin Powell? He’s fully retired now. But he solved two knotty problems and made our world a better place.

As our Secretary of State, he solved our spy-plane crisis with China by the simple expedient of apologizing to China. The apology cost nothing, either economically or militarily. But it got our spy plane and its crew back without further incident, and without starting a new cold war with China. As we assess the geopolitical risks of the rapid deterioration of our relations with Russia today, we have to admire Powell’s good judgment.

But his judgment in that brief but risky incident was nothing compared to his judgment in Gulf I. That short war is our single unequivocal military success in six decades, since the end of the Korean War. It is also the shortest significant military effort in our entire history: we were in and out of Kuwait and Iraq in less than two months, although the buildup took an additional five months.

Powell presided over this rare success as Chairman of our Joint Chiefs. Not only that, he gave it shape and a doctrine. His “Powell doctrine” has become a template for successful military action in the twenty-first century.

The doctrine has four elements: (1) a clearly defined and limited goal, (2) the application of overwhelming force that is (3) strictly limited to the goal, and (4) a clear exit strategy. The doctrine is a superb template for achieving a goal by military means and avoiding unpleasant consequences and entanglements. Its combination of overwhelming force and restraint in the use of force is the only way any nation will “win” a war in the twenty-first century.

The changing nature of war

As you look around the world today, you can see a big difference from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We humans no longer fight over natural resources. At least not nearly so much.

Why? Because we have a global free-market economy. If you want oil or natural gas, or lithium for electric-car batteries, you can buy it on the global free market at a fair and nondiscriminatory price. There is no reason to sacrifice your nation’s youth and devastate a neighbor’s territory to get at natural resources, as nations did so disastrously in the First and Second World Wars.

There are some caveats. Russia is using its energy as a political weapon, and China is threatening a reversion to military power, if not conquest, as a means of resource acquisition in the South China Sea. But even these deviations from trade as the sole means of resource allocation are minor compared to the twentieth century’s mad dash to control resources by conquest.

As for imperialism—trying to seize another country’s territory by force—it’s all but dead. It’s just too costly in the nuclear age. Even conventional war has become too costly in a world where ubiquitous global media make its pain, horror and brutal losses so vivid and plain to non-participants.

In our own Yankee wars, the casualty rates have dropped by two orders of magnitude in half a century. We lost half a million in World War II, fifty thousand in Vietnam, and less than five thousand in Iraq.

Today higher casualty rates are simply unacceptable to the ordinary people who have to fight, suffer and die in wars. They might be acceptable if required for national survival. But they aren’t acceptable just for grabbing another nation’s territory or resources.

You don’t even need complete democracy to see this effect. Russian mothers’ little known letter-writing campaign stopped the Soviet Union’s adventure in Afghanistan as much as the Stinger shoulder-fired missiles that the West gave the mujahedin.

So, except for small border clashes, major powers have not fought each other on their own territory since 1945. Next year, we will have had seventy years of peace between major powers, at least insofar as big wars of imperialism are concerned. That salubrious change looks as if it’s here to stay.

The Problem of Nationalities

So what causes wars today? Why do we humans still fight? Nearly all wars today, as well as most terrorism, arise from what Russians call “the nationalities problem.”

The term “nationalities” in Russian is much broader than its English counterpart. It encompasses differences in ethnicity, race and religion, as well as national origin. Russians use it as an all-purpose term for tribal differences that can create conflict.

I use the term in this essay, in all its Russian breadth, for two reasons. First, it’s a handy shorthand for dangerous tribalism. Second, today the problem has the greatest actual and potential danger in Russia, it’s “near abroad,” and its general neighborhood.

The Ukraine crisis is, in essence, a nationalities problem involving ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, with Crimean Tatars as terrified bystanders. The annihilation of Syria arose out of a nationalities problem involving Assad’s Alawites and others. The millennial Sunni-Shiite conflict, which animates much of the conflict in the Middle East, is a nationalities problem, as is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with slight overtones of imperialism).

Oddly enough, the problem is much diminished in our Western Hemisphere. The reason is our history. The vast majority of people in the Western Hemisphere, or their ancestors, came from elsewhere. They came from many different places, so they had to learn to get along from the start. With their better weapons and technology and huge population pressure, they suppressed and sometimes slaughtered the native people, but eventually learned to treat them benignly.

So after committing and regretting near-genocides of native people, the mostly immigrant people of the Western Hemisphere have learned to get along. As least they haven’t emulated the worst alternatives. They abhorred the attempted genocides of Jews by Hitler and of Armenians by Turks. And they never repeated their forced relocation of native peoples in the nineteenth century. Stalin’s deportation of minorities all over the Eurasian continent (of which the Crimean Tatars are just one example) was and is an anachronism, even for the twentieth century.

Notions of human equality from the European Enlightenment helped, too. Those ideas got incorporated into our Yankee Declaration of Independence. Eventually, they produced a Yankee President half of whose genes come from a race of people who once were slaves here.

And few in France even notice that Nicolas Sarkozy is a Jew of Hungarian extraction. The French have come a long way from the Dreyfus affair of the nineteenth century, so vividly described in Emile Zola’s famous pamphlet “J’ Accuse.”

But we Westerners don’t have a lot to brag or congratulate ourselves about. It took us Yanks four centuries to get where we are today, and it took the French over a century. We Yanks brought our prejudices to a new continent and only began to abandon them after the bloodiest war in our national history. We can be proud of the result, but not of the process or the time it took.

How Putin has applied the Doctrine

So what does all this have to do with the Powell Doctrine? Putin has used that very doctrine to resolve the nationalities problem in Georgia and in Crimea. We Westerners may not like the means, but both the means and the result are a whole lot better than genocide, Stalin’s mass deportation, or prolonged civil war.

Russians’ chief causus belli in Georgia was discrimination against and mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A second motivation was intimidating Georgia’s leader Mikhail Saakashvili, who had been a constant thorn in Putin’s side. Putin’s blitzkrieg invasion caught Georgia completely by surprise; within days it had captured the key central crossroads town of Gori. Russia’s force was overwheming.

But Russia followed the Powell Doctrine in other respects, too. It could have tried to occupy the entire country, provoking a civil war that might have lasted a decade or more, as in Iraq. But it didn’t. It stuck to its limited goal of protecting the Russians in their two ethnic enclaves and intimidating Saakashvili. Then it withdrew from the rest of Georgia in six weeks, recalling the wisdom of Colin Powell and Bush Senior in not invading Baghdad.

Putin’s strategy in Crimea was similar. His force was so overwhelming that it didn’t even have to fight. In fact, as Putin observed in his speech on the subject, he didn’t even have to invade. Overwhelming Russian force was already in Crimea, as part of the Black Sea Fleet and its “force protection” auxiliaries. (Russia did bring in some additional troops surreptitiously, for good measure.)

You might say that Putin’s objective—annexing Crimea—was less limited than its goal in Georgia. But how else could he have protected the Russian majority in Crimea from abuse by the resentful Ukrainian majority in Kiev and in the rest of Ukraine? Although edgy and risky, in this unusual case annexation was a “clear exit strategy” in keeping with the Powell Doctrine.

Can Russia apply it to Eastern Ukraine?

So what does all this mean for Ukraine’s future? Are the Russian troops massing threateningly on Ukraine’s Eastern Border a mere warning to Kiev not to mistreat the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine? Or are they an invasion force?

There is no doubt that the Russian forces now massing there are overwhelming. Ukraine has nothing that could match them, and there is little prospect for immediate reinforcement or arming of Ukrainian forces.

But what about the Powell Doctrine’s other elements: the limited objective, proportionate force, and clear exit strategy? All three would be lacking in the case of an invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

While Russia’s immediate objective would be to protect the Russian minority and Russian business interests in Eastern Ukraine, that goal would be subject to inevitable “mission creep.” Ethnic Russians are a minority in Eastern Ukraine, not a majority as in Crimea. So Russia would have to impose minority rule on the majority.

There is only one way to do that: by force. That’s exactly what Assad is trying to do in Syria, with catastrophic results. Just as in Syria, in the likely event of Ukrainian armed or guerrilla resistance, Russia’s use of force could not be limited. To remain in control, Russian troops would have to take draconian measures, thereby increasing local discontent and motivating more terrorism, in an endlessly escalating spiral.

Eastern Ukraine would become Chechnya on steroids, or Syria. So much for the Powell Doctrine’s third element: force proportionate to the limited objective.

It goes without saying that the doctrine’s fourth element would fail, too. There would be no clear exit strategy in the likely event of adamant resistance by Ukrainians, working together with non-Russian ethnic minorities. Russian troops would have to become like Assad’s forces in Syria.

Here the demographic differences between Crimea and Eastern Ukraine would be decisive. Russians are in the minority throughout Eastern Ukraine, and minority rule is not a stable system, as Syria’s self-destruction so sadly proves.

Russians come close to, but do not reach, a majority in two easternmost provinces only: Donetz and Luhansk. Could Putin invade and annex those two provinces alone?

That is certainly where the danger of miscalculation is greatest. The two provinces are geographically contiguous, and both border on Russia. So militarily, Russia might take them. But keeping them, and keeping them peaceful, would be another story entirely. The risks of a prolonged guerrilla conflict, like that in Chechnya—not to mention the risks of destroying the social cohesion and inter-tribal cooperation and intermarriage that characterized the region before this crisis—are high.


So far, the new Russian Federation’s only two foreign military adventures (in Georgia and Crimea) are consistent with the Powell Doctrine. They have been successful for Russia, at little cost in bloodshed (virtually none in Crimea) and with strong support from Russia’s people.

Any attempt by Russia to invade Eastern Ukraine would not be so successful. It would not fit the Powell doctrine because Russia’s commitment to use force would have to be indefinite and unlimited in both extent and time. And there would be no clear exit strategy, as any annexed territory would be an embattled new province of Russia itself.

No matter now supportive the Russian people might be initially, they would soon tire of a prolonged insurgency—the almost inevitable result of a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine. They can tolerate the mayhem in Syria only because Arabs, not Russians, are dying, and then only far beyond Russia’s “near abroad.” When Russian troops start dying in an immediate neighbor that Russians always thought of as a peaceful and close ally, Russian public opinion will turn on a dime.

Does Putin see all this? He’s a very smart man, whom the West consistently underestimates. But we can’t be sure.

If he does see all this, his troops just across the border will be there for some time, as an eminently credible warning against mistreating the Russian ethnic minority or neglecting Russian business interests in Eastern Ukraine. Likely the troops will stay, as a menacing bargaining chip, for as long as it takes Ukraine to organize a peaceful, even-handed, forward looking modern government that respects minority rights and promotes harmony among the nationalities and protects Russian business interests.

Even if Putin’s “invasion force” remains only a threat, the threat has to be credible to work for Russia. So we can expect those troops and their field hospitals to remain in place for months, if not years.

In the meantime, we in the West can’t be sure of Putin’s intentions. So we should increase the chances of Putin and Russia acting rationally by making credible threats of our own. We can move stores of appropriate arms and materiel into staging areas on Ukraine’s Western border (for example, in Poland), if not into Ukraine itself. (It would be better to wait to move them into Ukraine until we are sure of Ukraine’s government and stability.)

What weapons would be appropriate? They must meet two criteria. First, they should be hard to use in harassing or oppressing the Russian minority or the general population. Second, they should be effective in making a Russian invasion very costly. Hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons would meet both criteria. Unlike tanks and aircraft, they also have the advantages of being easy to transport and conceal.

In Syria, the objection to giving rebels such weapons has always been that they might fall into terrorists’ hands. But our President reportedly is reconsidering that objection and may soon give Syrian rebels the modern equivalents of Stingers.

Perhaps the reason is that technical means have reduced the risk of terrorists’ aquisition of the latest generation of hand-held anti-aircraft weapons. Perhaps the weapons self-destruct harmlessly after a short time, or perhaps technical means limit their use to specific geographical areas, just like regionally-limited DVDs.

If so, then the same weapons should be made available, on a contingent basis, to support continued Ukrainian independence. The rationale for doing so is even stronger than in Syria, as their supply to Ukraine would remain only a threat, to counter the threat of Putin’s forces just over the border from Eastern Ukraine.

Putin is a smart man and a careful calculator. Likely he will not want to spoil his clear and bloodless victory in annexing Crimea with a bloody conflict in Eastern Ukraine. But we in the West should do what we can to make sure his calculation is accurate and in the best long-term interest of all concerned.



  • At Sat Mar 29, 03:33:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    some comments:

    (1) I agree with the Powell Doctrine. While the legacy of man himself is questionable due to his effective defense of the Iran Contra affair and the purposely exaggerated and untrue (i.e., false) evidence presented for the second Iraq War, the doctrine is wise an straightforward. The bit about the apology to China was a pleasant surprise- the US could begin to re-establish our credibility (when speaking about the present and past) by making such an apology to Iraq, for instance.

    (2) the section on the changing nature of war contains a minor oversignt- "except for small clashes" ? Add up the casualties on both sides from all the cold war proxy wars and evil dictators brought to power under the guise of preventing the takeover of communism/capitalism since WWII. The arithmetic may reveal that the "era of peace" was just a trick of accounting, where the fighting on the edges of the empire was simply not counted.

    (3) the section on nationalities contains a glaring whitewash of "tribalism" and "imperialism" right here. Who harvested and processed the food you eat? Who checks out your groceries at the supermarket? Who washes the dishes when you go out to eat? Who assembled most of the automobile you drive? Who cuts the grass in your neighborhood? There's a good chance it was natives, who we not call Latinos. There still is tribalism in the US, I think.

    Another sign of this is the effortless way you and much of the American public and media at the time, ignored casualties on the other side in the Iraq war. Tribalism is what makes this kind of thinking possible. Remember all the talk of towelheads, "kill them all and let Allah sort them out", on Fox News in the early 2000's?

    (4) Putin and the Powell Doctrine. This makes a lot of sense, is a useful analysis, and I want to thank you for writing this.

    (5) the strategy of handing out powerful weapons. Spectacularly stupid. Just a few short months ago, we were making a serious push to drum up sopport for handing out guns and money to Al Quaeda in Syria. Words fail me at a time like this. Criminally insane would be how I would describe such a policy. Whoever thought of it should be muzzled and put in a straightjacket.

    Similarly, you can't help but notice that the violent vanguard of the Ukranian Nationalist movement that overthrew Yanukovich and is currently in power, is composed of ultra right wing militant extremists, who have a habit of dressing up in Nazi paraphenelia, and making youtube videos of themselves intimidating their rivals. And we want to give them anti-aircraft weapons? Wow. Once again, a straightjacket and retirement in a locked room with padded walls is the only rational response to such suggestions.

    Incidentally, the electronics on most everything hacked. You can get your Verizon Iphone "jailbroken (unlocked for use outside the phone company that sold it to you). This service is availible everywhere, sometimes right in the middle of a shopping malls, at one of those stands where they sell sunglasses and replace broken cel phone screens. Similarly the electronic safeties on the missiles we hand out would be figured out and defeated before long.

    Anyways thanks for the article. Peace and Blessings!

  • At Sat Mar 29, 05:44:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a long and detailed comment.

    Such careful thought (name-calling aside!) deserves a careful response. So here we go, focusing only on points of nuance or disagreement, with your own paragraph numbering for reference:

    1. I hope you meant Iran, not Iraq. We did depose Saddam, and there is a chance that Iraq’s new, more democratic government will eventually produce a better life for Iraqis, although doing so may take decades.

    In contrast, I can't see any redeeming value in our policy toward Iran since we helped the Brits overthrow its duly elected government in 1953. My reasons are too long to explore in a comment but are fully elaborated beginning here. While our efforts in Iraq were well-intentioned, if clumsy, our policy in Iran seems to have been motivated by malice throughout.

    2. You misread this section. I was explicitly writing about “major powers [fighting] each other on their own territory,” and not ignoring (consciously or unconsciously) proxy wars. I elaborated the distinction at more length in an earlier essay.

    3. Again, I think you misread the post. Imperialism was the subject of the previous section, and it focused only on hot wars between major powers. Colonialism, including gunboat diplomacy, is a different phenomenon with a different name.

    Distinctions are important, and so are levels of exploitation. Being paid a low wage is not the same as being deliberately extinguished by smallpox in blankets or being one of the millions of young men in Europe who perished horribly in World War I for reasons that no one finds valid today.

    As for comparisons with between our Western and other hemispheres, I stand by them. Since the nineteenth century, nothing like the Holocaust, the regular pogroms in the Soviet Union and Russia, Stalin's mass deportations, the Turks' genocide of Armenians, the Cambodian genocide, or the Rwandan genocide has happened here. The closest things, but on a much smaller scale, were the forced marches of native peoples onto reservations in the nineteenth century and the much earlier near-genocides of the Conquistadores in Mexico and Peru.

    Scale and time period matter. If you go back to the Mongol Era or ancient Rome, a whole lot of things that are totally unacceptable today were regular and accepted occurrences, including the Roman genocide of Carthage, which many historians recite to Rome’s credit.

    And BTW, I have never ignored casualties on the other side of the Iraq war. For example, see this post. But again, there is a difference between a war, however misguided and mismanaged, which might eventually have some good results, and a war like World War I, which did nothing but destroy an entire generation of European youth.

    4. You and I agree.

    (reply continues below)

  • At Sat Mar 29, 06:02:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    5. I couldn’t disagree with your name-calling more, for reasons best explained at length in this post. (Hint: when you resort to name-calling, it’s a good sign that you know you don’t have any better arguments.)

    In the last 150 years, our species has gone from relatively accurate personal weapons to weapons of mass destruction, including cluster bombs, massive land mining, chemical weapons and nuclear weapons. As that happened, civilians moved into the bulls eye, with the ultimate irony that our entire species was at risk in October 1962.

    The recent trend toward more accurate weapons (including drones) that kill at retail, not wholesale, is a good countertrend that may help our species survive. The weapons I cited in the post above (hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons) are the exact opposite of weapons of mass destruction.

    In fact, they are the ”great equalizer“ in military armament. They neutralize the military effectiveness and terror-sowing effect of tanks and planes. Because they are small and light and mobile, they let ordinary people with guts defeat tyrants like Assad. And they produce far fewer casualties than the weapons they neutralize.

    Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles kept the Soviets from occupying and annexing Afghanistan; they could bring Assad to the bargaining table; and they could keep the Russians from invading Eastern Ukraine. The only thing that has kept us from handing them out is the risk of terrorists using them to shoot down innocent civilian aircraft.

    If we can reduce that risk with technology, these weapons can empower oppressed people worldwide. And they don’t have to sow mass destruction to do so. Probably downing between ten and twenty aircraft would be enough to ground Assad’s air force and bring him to the bargaining table.

    As for hacking missile locks, you confuse hacking loadable, easily accessible software with hacking multiple independent protections encoded in the silicon structure of integrated-circuit hardware. That's a totally different technology, not designed to be open or modifiable.

    Finally, I'm not unaware of the risk of neo-Nazis and Russophobes in Ukraine. In fact, I posted a very recent essay about them. That’s why I recommend storing the weapons in Poland until we can vet the new Ukrainian government and be sure of it.

    The alternative is doing nothing, and making no credible threat, and so inviting the Russians to invade Donetz and Luhansk, probably starting a bloody civil war.

    Call me crazy, but I think it's better to face them down and avoid any invasion and civil war. Hand-held anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and perhaps even the mere threat of their use, could have that effect.

    Given time, peace, and both Russian threats and Western pressure, Ukrainian society should be able to marginalize its extremists and settle down, just as every other society has done if given time and peace to think. And it would be a shame to tar a whole people with the sins of a few without solid evidence that they can’t control the few.




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