War in Ukraine: Strategically What Would Corbett Have Said?

War in Ukraine: Strategically What Would Corbett Have Said?

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December 9, 2022
Posted by: Prof Geoffrey Till
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The author reflects on Corbett’s strategic principles, comparing the situation in Ukraine today with the limited maritime and economic war concept Corbett was so familiar with.

One hundred years ago, on the 21 September 1922, Sir Julian Corbett died. He was, and remains, Britain’s best-known maritime strategist. Andrew Lambert’s recent and definitive biography, The British Way of War, makes the enduring quality of Corbett’s maritime thought crystal clear. But Lambert also underlines the point that “strategy is where… principles meet context.”[1] For Corbett, the context was indeed critical. As a result, Lambert concludes, “Corbett’s strategy met contemporary British needs – not those of other states or other ages.” Nevertheless, he goes on, by “advancing theoretical understanding of war” Corbett’s thinking is still of abiding and more general benefit.[2]

So the question arises, to what extent does Corbett’s thinking actually help us fully to understand something as brutally current as the Ukraine war, a century after his time, when the political, economic, geographic and technological context is so very different? Today’s dilemma provides a severe test of the relevance and the helpfulness of Corbett’s thinking. When we in the West are navigating our way through a critical grand strategic conflict with Russia over the Ukraine war, should we bother to consult Corbett? The argument here is that yes we should – but cautiously.

Reasons To Be Careful

For a start, as a good historian Corbett was very sensitive to the uniqueness of every situation because of its contextual setting. So it doesn’t follow that what he demonstrated successfully worked in one time and place will necessarily do so in another. Modestly, Corbett will have assumed we realised that. 

Another reason for caution is that Corbett’s main focus was on the actual conduct of naval war, while of course assuring the conditions that would enable his target, the British, to fight it in the best way possible. Being aware of the critical extent to which the diplomatic and economic context shapes the fight was essential. “[T]he Admiralty,” Corbett wrote “never had a clean slate upon which to work out their plan of campaign. They were always hedged in by political and diplomatic considerations, which prevented them from following purely strategical lines.”[3] The context provides not just the reason for a shooting war but also the opportunities to fight it on the most beneficial (or least harmful) of terms.   

Russia and Ukraine are indeed intent on fighting this kind of war, but we are not. By contrast, we do not want to get into a shooting war with Russia. Instead, we are engaged in a lower-level conflict inside what Corbett called the “marchland within which the frontier of peace and war existed but which could never be traced.” In this shadowland of “hostile intercourse short of war” we want to win without fighting, or at least not lose. Accordingly, players in this potentially deadly contest engage in mutual ‘reprisals’ accepting that these could easily slide into operations that are “scarcely if at all distinguishable from full hostility.”[4] Successful contestants in this grey-zone sub-war conflict will sufficiently achieve their objectives, at bearable cost and with managed risk while avoiding full-throated war. 

To some extent Corbett explored such grey-zone issues, for example in the first hundred pages of his great work on the Seven Years War 1756-63. Nonetheless, his main effort was on the conduct of military, economic and diplomatic policy after the war had started, rather than on the twilight period before it did so. In the nuclear age, however, the grey zone has become even more important because  the costs and risks of such all-out war could be truly horrendous. Their use would rob the contestants of any prospect of achieving anything even remotely resembling the kind of victory possible in Corbett’s day. For this reason, we and other contestants aim to secure as much advantage as possible while avoiding full-scale war.

In Corbett’s time, the extent of risk was different and so he was more prepared than we are to contemplate the necessary conduct of full-scale war. Certainly he proposed that, as a predominantly maritime power, Britain had, and should maximise, options for cost-effective limitations in the conduct of war.[5] Nonetheless, he accepted the prospect of full scale war (so long as allies were more than sharing the burden), in a way that we cannot. This is a crucial difference that needs to be borne in mind. While we want to secure as much strategic advantage as possible in Ukraine, we do not want a full-scale war with Russia. Thus, when thinking how best to conduct grey zone operations, we have to be more risk-averse than Corbett might have suggested we should be.

These two reasons for caution in simply applying Corbettian thinking to today’s dilemmas, however, should already help us steer a sensible course through the ramifications of the Ukraine war. They underline the differences between then and now, and the complexities that follow. They point up the possibility that there is a risk that we may get things badly wrong. By assuming that taking on the rest of Ukraine would be as easy as seizing the Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin has already provided us with a text-book example of this. By drawing our attention to the inescapable fact that because we are all ‘looking through a glass darkly’ uncertainty is the only certainty; this modern-day application of Corbett’s already seems of value.

But it has much more to offer than this. Corbett’s studies of war identify four main forms of pressure that apply in peace, war and the shadowlands between the two. They are political/diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, moral/legal pressure and military pressure. Each of them has a contribution to make to the securing of strategic advantage, but as Corbett repeatedly demonstrated each also has its intrinsic disadvantages.

Political/Diplomatic Pressure

Throughout his historical career, Corbett emphasised the importance, for maritime Britain especially, of allies and partners, especially when having to deal with the superior resources of a continental adversary such as Napoleonic France. Assuring and managing allies consumed much of Britain’s strategic effort. Corbett’s treatment of the Trafalgar campaign showed that their individual circumstances and very possibly conflicting aims made building coalitions of allies and partners, and agreeing to a combined way ahead, far from easy.[6] It still is. The longer a conflict goes on, moreover, the more difficult the challenge gets. The consequent diversity of approach can be a real disadvantage when dealing with a single-minded adversary, robbing diplomatic and political pressure of much prospect of decisive effect.

Despite the much vaunted, impressive and perhaps unexpected display of Alliance solidarity within NATO and the European Community and between them and the wider diaspora of like-minded countries around the world, there are very real limits to its extent and strategic effectiveness. Russia’s Security Council veto and the extent of its involvement (and that of China and its other ‘allies’) in other UN activities undercuts that organisation’s strategic agency. Much of the rest of the world has dependencies and preferences that preclude it from condemnation of Russian activities, let alone support of Western counter-measures. In both the United States and Europe there are gradations of opinion and approach with some seeking justice and others peace through accommodation of some sort.[7] Even the Pope, it seems, has his reservations about the Western position.

The extent to which Mr. Putin is engaging in a battle of the narratives for world opinion and to split his adversaries shows, implicitly, how important Russia thinks diplomatic and political pressure can be. For the time being at least, he can also hold the line on domestic opinion through his control of the media and his appeal to old-fashioned Russian nationalism. Autocrats do have advantages in the extent to which they can commandeer and control all levers of national power, when compared to the shifting preoccupations of their liberal counterparts. So, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that diplomatic and political pressure on its own will not resolve the situation. For the West, it will be at least as much, and very possibly more, of a challenge to keep the show on the road.[8] Even if not decisive, political pressure clearly matters, especially when backed up with something else.       

Economic Pressure

Economic pressure is one of the commonest forms of that ‘something else’. With an elder brother successfully working in the City of London, Corbett was well aware of the critical role of economic pressure in all its forms. “Indeed,” he said, “such pressure may be the only means of forcing the decision we seek… wars are not decided exclusively by military and naval force. Finance is scarcely less important… it is the longer purse that wins.”[9] Trade can be weaponised in many ways, by blockade and sanctions campaigns, and by direct attacks on the adversary’s war economy and the protection of your own. It is why “the control of communications…is the object of naval war.” Indeed, if you believe in the speculations of ‘the other Lambert’ economic pressure can be so “fearsome” and decisive as to make conventional military pressure seem unnecessary.[10] Its potential impact explains why countries such as Japan and South Korea are setting up important new governmental institutions specifically to deal with “economic security.”[11]

On the face of it, the parlous state of much of the Russian economy should make it uniquely vulnerable to this form of pressure. Nevertheless, Mr. Putin may prove right in believing, extensive though the sanctions are,[12] that his country is much more resilient than his adversaries think, and the West much less so. In the first place, many countries even in Europe and certainly elsewhere have levels of dependence on Russian oil and gas that make them resistant to calls for their rapid cessation. Indeed, India is now buying more Russian oil than it was before. Secondly, cuts in the availability of such commodities result in higher prices. This has increased Russian oil revenues, by an estimated $93 billion this year, further strengthening an already substantial accumulated Russian war chest.

In the West, and indeed around the world, the consequent inflation undermines living standards, reducing public attention to, if not support for, the Western response to Russian aggression. Finally, sanctions campaigns and blockades, if they work at all outside a formal state of war, always take a long time to do so. In sum, this kind of economic pressure has rarely proved decisive on its own because its effects are indiscriminate and harder to control than to evade. Illustrating the point, Russia has already shown agility in dealing with the oil embargo through a campaign based on shell companies, constant re-flagging and oil transhipments at sea that also helps protect its compliant customers.     

Moral/Legal Pressure

This becomes especially difficult where second-order victims are, in every sense, non-combatants living in areas remote from, and probably disinterested in, events in Ukraine. When life becomes still harder for the poor in the under-developed world apparently because of the West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West itself can become a subject for blame when the much needed grain and fertiliser fails to arrive and when weak governments (like Sri Lanka’s) struggle with the raging inflation that reaches down to them in a global economic system based on Western institutions. 

Why is it, such countries may well also ask, that the West seems to care so much more for dispossessed Ukrainians than it does for the refugee victims of famines and man-made disasters in other even less fortunate parts of the world? In contrast to the West, authoritarian Russia, paradoxically, seems comparatively impervious to such criticism. No-one expects the Russians to be at the forefront of the defence of liberal values and quite a few can’t afford to care.

Corbett only really dealt with this issue by looking at its legal element. He had, after all, legal training and so was well aware of the importance of the legal side of things. His chief interest was in the need for ‘lawfare’ especially over ‘belligerent rights’ as a critical element in maritime strategy. Re-establishing secure Black Sea SLOCs for the export of Ukrainian grain would do much to aid the Western cause, for example, but currently the prospects for this seem dim. Moreover, in some ways, the full application of international law, as over war crimes for example, seem likely to make things worse by stiffening Russian resolve.

This is not to deny the importance of the battle for the moral/legal high ground; these difficulties in securing even the acquiescence of neutral opinion do, however, continue to limit its decisive effect. This leaves military pressure, which was Corbett’s main focus of interest. 

Military Pressure

The problem here is the fact that we do not want to get into a direct shooting war with Russia. This hugely reduces the prospect of securing our objectives simply by exerting decisive military pressure on Russia’s forces, tempting though that might be. It also seems, at first glance, to limit the salience of Corbett’s work, except of course to the Russians and the Ukrainians who are already at war.

Because of this, we are limited to two main military approaches, neither of which currently seem at all likely to be decisive in the short run. The first is to seek to force Russia to devote its forces to areas other than Ukraine. This is a very Corbettian device, very much in line with his interest in the advantages that he thought maritime powers had by virtue of their capacity to control the sea. They could land forces anywhere, or threaten to, thereby forcing a land-bound adversary to allocate its forces to the defence of every inch of coastline, or to accept uncomfortable levels of strategic risk. But we do not control the Black Sea or currently aspire to do so. Hence NATO displays of resolve are limited to impressive naval exercises in the Mediterranean, Baltic and the high North. Hence also the reinforcement and, with the likely inclusion of Finland and Sweden within the alliance, the extension of other parts of the NATO/Russia front line. This will undoubtedly help but it won’t be decisive, firstly because the Ukrainian war is absorbing so much of Russia’s military capacity that a reduction of force levels in these other areas is more likely than their responsive reinforcement, and secondly Putin, Gerasimov and the  Main Operations Directorate already knows that NATO will not in fact attack because its leaders have said so; accordingly the level of strategic risk is low. Of course it cannot be excluded altogether because a general war could well start by accident, but that is more likely in the main theatre.

The second device is equally Corbettian, and that is to make it possible for Allies with their own reasons to fight, in this case the Ukrainians, to do so by supplying them with the weaponry and the resources (such as intelligence and money) they need. The course of events in the Donbas at the time of writing underline the problems with this line of strategy as well. The Russians have learned enough of the lessons of their first campaign to resort instead to a slow but remorseless attritional style of warfare that maximises their current advantages in numbers, acceptance of loss and superior firepower. Moreover, the Western Allies themselves are running out the Cold War weaponry that the Ukrainians are using and it will take time, and very possibly too much time, to supply and train them up with the more advanced equipment now available in the West. And even here NATO’s risk aversion increases its reluctance to supply Ukraine with its more advanced weaponry because of its escalatory potential.

These probable limitations on the decisiveness of effect do not mean that these military approaches are pointless, of course. Russia’s problems in overcoming Ukraine will firstly weaken it for the time being and the immediate future. It will also draw the attention of thinking professionals in the Main Operations Directorate to the level of challenge presented by the much more capable forces of a newly energised, extended and re-armed NATO. Combined, these factors may reduce the level of Russian truculence in the future – a clear win for the West.

This level of support may well not prove decisive in the Ukrainian campaign itself, however, especially if Ukrainian aims extend to the recovery of lost territory. There is also the risk that the high costs of dealing with such enhanced conventional military responses will encourage the Russians to indulge in greater reliance on the dangerous delusions of the sub-strategic use of nuclear weapons (not, as yet, that there are any serious indications of this). Perceptions of excessive NATO risk-aversion on this point though may, paradoxically, make it more likely. Such are some of the imponderables of 21st Century conflict that Corbett never had to worry about. Unlike him, though, we do.

Applying Corbettian thinking to today’s problems, like this, seems nevertheless worthwhile because the discovered differences between Corbett’s ‘then’ and our ‘now’ are so important.

Integration: The Power of Combination

As a maritime strategist Corbett may not have contemplated the effects of weapons of mass destruction but he did continually emphasise the need for land and sea power to be effectively co-ordinated because he was so conscious of the impact of naval operations on the land, and vice versa.[13] The war so far shows that the Russians and Ukrainians are both perfectly well aware of this. But Corbett went further, as we have seen. Nor, he argued, should naval/military operations be conducted in isolation from the diplomatic, economic and legal aspects of policy.

All four types of pressure need to be properly coordinated and integrated. He constantly showed that they all had, and have, their own individual weaknesses, which mean they would usually not be able to achieve decisive effect on their own. They could though do so collectively through the power of combination. Weaknesses in one area could possibly be compensated for by strengths in another. Hence the importance of weaving a tapestry in which each colour complements and strengthens the effect of others. For this reason, Corbett would certainly have heartily approved of the emphasis given to the integration of all lines of national effort currently, if belatedly, emphasised in UK and US thinking. “The challenge for the strategist,” the latest US Joint Doctrine tells us, “is to coordinate the various levers of national power in a coherent and smart way.”[14]

This may sound like a blinding glimpse of the obvious, but often in Western experience such strategic synergy has proved difficult to achieve. Speaking after his exposure to the highest levels of Allied policy-making during the Second World War, US General Albert C. Wedemeyer had his doubts about the level of Allied success. “Our strategy,” he said, “was defective in that it was incomplete. We failed to relate or to integrate the military factor in strategy with political and economic considerations.”[15] If Wedemeyer was right, the West’s strategy-makers should have read their Corbett more! Perhaps, then, Afghanistan and Iraq would have gone better.

A Russian example illustrates how this process of integration builds on the inherent connectivity of these differing types of pressure and can be made to work. Moscow supplies arms to India and Vietnam (the military dimension) and builds up good will and enduring strategic dependencies that prevent both countries from outright condemnation of Russian policy (the diplomatic dimension) and (much worse) supporting the West’s economic sanctions. In consequence the Russian war economy and, so, its military capacity benefits. That Russia is now altering its doctrine to facilitate the militarisation of its merchant, fishing and polar explorations fleets just illustrates its awareness of the need to get its act together in this way.[16] The West meanwhile responds in like manner. What follows is a competition between the two sides as to who can better orchestrate the instruments in this deadly competitive concert. Success will attend the side that does the better job for longer.

Conclusion:  Corbett’s Abiding Value?

Quite apart from this useful reminder of the need for continued and concerted action there are other reasons for us to consult Corbett even when considering a situation utterly unlike anything he studied, and, moreover, one that currently excludes us from direct naval conflict with our adversary. The first is the very Clausewitzian point, that Western policy-makers need properly to understand, and even more to the point, agree, on the nature of the (quasi) war they are in, and on what this requires of them. “What,” asked Corbett, “is the policy which your diplomacy is pursuing ?”[17] The aim of the exercise has to be determined, and from that its needs, over time.

The apparent simplicity of this requirement, contrasts strongly with the complexities of satisfying it. As conflicts evolve so do the aims of contestants. Continuing to reconcile and balance the two is one of the biggest challenges of effective statecraft. It is all too evident that the aims of Ukraine and the rest of the West, let alone the rest of the world, are constantly changing and have a constant tendency to diverge. Corbett’s approach to the study of war showed that assuring this unity of effort should command the highest priority.

This is also a reminder of the importance of context, since this is where aims originate. The connection between ends and means needs to be understood. “By careful collation of past events,” he wrote, “it becomes clear that certain lines of conduct tend normally to produce certain effects.”[18] The point though has already been made that Corbett’s time and the past that he made use of, have some similar points of comparison, but some very substantial differences too.

Both the perceived similarities and differences add value. Corbett’s major message is that what happens at sea matters because it has strategic effect, even in a terrestrial conflict between neighbours. By extolling the benefits of the maritime approach, Corbett reminds us of the advantages that we could derive from its fullest use, should we care to, and what Ukraine might lose if deprived of it.

This latter is a critical issue because the Russians have now, in deed if not in word, transitioned since late May from conducting ‘a special military operation’ to fighting a war (as exemplified by the deployment of a theatre commander, the first effective strategic use of missile and air power, limited conscription in addition to mercenaries, and the sustained conduct of a battle style that suits them). If successful, this provides them with further longer-term options. One of these might well be a campaign to turn Ukraine into a land-locked as well as a much weakened country. This raises the issue of what the West should do, and to what lengths it should go, to prevent this happening. Because such an aim has been discussed in Russian circles it, it is clearly something that needs thinking about.

Secondly, by emphasising that his was a uniquely British approach to war, that was not easily exportable, Corbett, unwittingly or not, makes the crucial point that one country’s thinking about war is not necessarily the same as another’s. Because of its unique context and circumstances, he argued, Britain had a distinctive strategic culture and way of looking at war. It colours not only what we do, but also our expectations of the adversary. But exactly the same applies to them as well. Russia too has its distinctive ‘way of war’ with its own assumptions, rules, approaches and expectations. Putin is not alone in thinking that Russia has a natural and historic right to expect deference from countries in its near abroad whose sovereignty is compromised by cultural illegitimacy and/or limited capacity to defend itself. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been so shocked by Russian intentions or by the lengths to which they are prepared to secure them. There was nothing new about either of these things. But, it seemed, we needed reminding of the extraordinary dangers of mirror-imaging and misperception as Corbett’s articulation of the British Way of War implicitly does. If for no other reason, his thinking remains of abiding strategic value, even when applied to the apparently very different case of the Ukraine war – and we shouldn’t neglect it.


[1] Andrew Lambert, The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the British Battle for a National Strategy. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021)., 12

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Address to the Historical Association, 7 Jan 1916 quoted in introduction by Eric Grove to the 1988 reprint of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988)., xiv

[4] Julian Corbett, England in the Seven Years War: A Study in Combined Strategy (London: Longmans Green and Company, 1907)., 32, 64.

[5] These are most clearly laid out in chapters 3 and 4 of Some Principles.

[6] Lambert, 250-1.

[7] John Sawers (ex Boss of MI6) ‘Macron is playing a risky game on Ukraine’ Wall Street Journal, 8 June 2022.

[8] Ellen Francis, ‘As Prices Rise, Europeans Divided over how Ukraine War should end’ Washington Post, 15 June 2022.

[9] Some Principles, 102.

[10] Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War. (Cambridge. Mass: Harvard University press, 2013)., 15. It has to be said that not everyone agrees with the main thesis of this book!

[11] Wang Juyong, address to ROK-US Strategic Forum, 6 June 2022.

[12] Emily Kilcrease et al., Sanctions by the numbers: Economic Measures Against Russia Following its 2022 Invasion of Ukraine’ CNAS publication, 16 June 2022.

[13] Julian S. Corbett, Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905. Vol2,Reprint by US Naval Institute Press, 1994., 382.

[14] DOD Washington: Joint Doctrine, 2018, 25 April 2018. Note 1-18, 1-1.

[15] Quoted in Niall Barr, Eisenhower’s Armies. (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017)., 462.

[16] Atle Staalesen, ‘Russia outlines militarisation of fishing fleet and icebreakers.’ Barents Observer; https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2022/05/russia-militarizes-its-fishing-fleet-and-icebreakers

[17] Some Principles, 18.

[18] Some Principles, 9.