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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- When Waging War Costs Less

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 September 1999 -- Moscow's decision to use air power rather than ground troops against Chechnya, a tactic that promises to limit the number of Russian casualties, is part of a worldwide shift in military strategy that appears likely to alter the international system and make the use of force more rather than less likely.

Until recently, most governments, especially those whose authority was based on democracy or a claim to democracy, felt constrained from using military force lest the resulting casualties among their own forces entail serious domestic political costs with their own populations.

Indeed, in many democratic countries, decisions to use force depended on the answer to the question -- is this particular situation worth the life of a single one of that country's soldiers. Moreover, decisions about strategy and tactics once a country was involved often reflected a passionate and understandable desire to limit the number of casualties on one's own side while increasing them on the other.

But now in the wake of NATO's campaign in the former Yugoslavia, a military action that claimed virtually no casualties on the allied side even as it inflicted massive numbers on the other, Russia has decided to bomb rather than invade Chechnya, an indication that ever more governments may soon decide that they can engage in military action without the normal domestic political costs.

To the extent that happens, three developments appear almost certain to take place, each of which is likely to make the world a more dangerous place in which the number of casualties from military action will rise rather than fall over the next decade.

First, freed from the constraints of casualties, more governments are likely to be willing to consider a military option and to consider it sooner than would otherwise be the case. As a result, governments may become increasingly willing to see the use of force as a first option rather than a last one, and they may even be able to count on domestic support for just such a step.

After all, the populations of many states have regularly shown that they lack patience with diplomacy and are unwilling to support assistance if a quick use of force by their government is seen cost-free for their side. And because that is so, political leaders may come to see casualty-free military actions as a useful means of generating domestic political support.

Second, precisely because governments may take the military step more quickly, those against whom such forces are likely to be deployed and who will suffer enormous casualties from massive bombing are likely to change their tactics in response.

Such groups seem certain to conclude that the only way to impose a political cost on governments using casualty-free force against them is to take the war to the populations of those governments through terrorist actions.

In the short term, such actions will almost certainly cause the governments which employ air power to gain domestic support against "terrorists" and "bandits." But over the longer haul, victims of terrorism may come to be a kind of surrogate for deaths on the battlefield and thus limit the willingness of governments to use force.

At the very least, the possibility that this might be so seems certain to tilt the balance in favor of the use of terrorist activities in the calculations of those who are being attacked by governments seeking to avoid any casualties at all. To the extent that happens, the use of force by governments confident that they can avoid casualties among their own people could mean that the number of casualties might actually prove to be larger.

And third, military efforts designed to avoid all casualties among the forces of those who launched them seldom achieve the goals those who do so. On the one hand, bombing can't occupy a country or region; only ground forces can do that. And when they are committed, the victors are likely to take losses or to find that they can only impose their will through further actions in which casualties among themselves become more likely.

And on the other, the use of air power may often prove to be like throwing water at a grease fire. It will do little to change the minds of those who now oppose the position of those using such force; indeed, it may make them more hostile than before.

But even more significantly, it may cause these groups to conclude that states which seek to avoid casualties among their own forces lack the will to act decisively. And if they draw that conclusion, they may be willing to take chances precisely because of their own willingness to die for their causes.

Such conclusions on the part of these groups may also make the world a more dangerous place -- particularly for those who now assume that the world has entered into a new era in which they can wage wars without victims on their own side.