The “Culminating Point” in Clausewitz’ “Vom Krieg”

When I was at the US Army War College one of my favorite things was to “hang out” with Dr. Michael Handel, the resident Clausewitz Scholar. We had many productive discussions.

Among the topics discussed was the culminating point of a battle or campaign. This is the point in an offensive action at which the positive factors in an advance are outweighed by the negatives.

Clausewitz postulated that an offensive could be pressed past its culminating point by the advancing force but that past that point the offensive force becomes more and more susceptible to a sudden reverse and defeat.

IMO, the Russian armed forces in Ukraine are approaching or may have already gone past the culminating point of their effort. pl

Culminating point – Wikipedia

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26 Responses to The “Culminating Point” in Clausewitz’ “Vom Krieg”

  1. plantman says:

    It looks like Col Lang is right. The Russians are changing their tactics because things are not going according to plan. I found this at Southfront:

    ” the total number of Russian armed forces in Ukraine is objectively insufficient for fast and decisive flank coverage and encirclement of thousands of Ukrainian troops in fortified positions. Therefore, the Russian military changed its initial tactics of a “cavalry charge” to the systematic destruction of enemy forces and means by using its advantages in aviation and artillery.”

    This sounds to me like the gloves are coming off.

    • Bill Roche says:

      If Russian forces have already gone beyond the “culminating point” and still have not entered Kharkov, Ki’ve, or Odessa then a change is in order. Putin could quit and say forgive me, this was just a great mistake. No? Then he could proceed to demolish the cities and go in street to street and find out if the “Babushkas” are any good w/a AK 47. He could have his own Stalingrad moment. No again? Then he must destroy the remaining Ukr AF so he can safely bring his artillery to the border of Poland, Hungary, and Romania. There he must completely stop the flow of mat’l from the west to the Ukr. Army. To do this he must travel 300 miles west over roads defended doggedly by Ukrainian forces and deploy more artillery and grunts then he brought to the war! I readily admit I don’t know the art of war but Putin will have to call up more troops. Russia can not be bested by Ukraine. An effective Ukr AF is key to preventing the Russians from blocking off supplies. The US must some how find a rationale for getting those Polish MIGs to the Ukies. We are entering a very dangerous period.

      • Leith says:

        Bill –

        I don’t know about the AKs, but I understand Ukrainian Babushkas are expert sharpshooters when throwing pickle jars from balconies.

        A new dawn perhaps in the technology of low level air defense.

      • TTG says:

        Bill and Leith,

        Just read this:

        “Anatoliy Kulheyko was the head of the Hunting & Fishing Association in Ripky village, Chernigiv region. Occupiers broke into his house, demanding a list of all hunters in their org, apparently for further repressions. He refused & detonated a hand grenade. RIP”

        This reminds me of a common occurrence among soldiers in the Lithuanian Freedom Army. One grenade was kept in case they were about to be captured. They would blow away their hands and faces so they couldn’t be identified, leading to reprisals against their families. All part of the strategy of national resistance.

        • Bill Roche says:

          OH c’mon TTG; inside every Slav beats a heart yearning to be Russian!! That’s what many people w/o Slavic blood seem to think. They don’t understand the revulsion that grows out of generations of being forced to be good “little” Russians. A Litvak is not a Russian. So too for a Ukie, Bulgar, or Hungarian. In the fall of ’70 I spent some TDY time in Helsinki. I was shopping on the main drag, and walking (Mannerheim Blvd? did that just come back to me?) b/h some Finns when three Russian soldiers came down the street from the opposite direction. The Finns turned and showed their backs to the Russians. I was walking w/a Finn who explained it was not uncommon for Finns to show their displeasure w/Russians in Helsinki. I keep saying the same thing; Slavs won’t put up with being Russia’s underclass anymore. Putin has done more to drive Finns into NATO than any NATO propaganda. Balts are taking their defense seriously and Poland has b/c the N.E. bulwark of NATO. Just tell the Ki’van Babushka to point and shoot. She’ll bag her share.

          • TTG says:

            Bill Roche,

            I guess we agree on that point, although I thought you were accusing me of some kind of Pan-Slavism in your first line. You must know I’m of Lithuanian ancestry, certainly non a Slav, more akin to the Finns who you walked amongst. I’m very familiar with the extreme national pride held by the many peoples of the region as well as the both rational and irrational resentments and hatreds of those people towards Russians. Putin’s fever dream of a greater Russia just stokes those resentments and hatreds.

      • Aidan says:

        Really not convinced those Migs are needed. The Russian air force doesn’t seem to be doing much – I’m guessing a combination of lack of guided weapons, combined with a lot of Ukr air defence plus the occasional Ukrainian plane has meant that they can’t attack without taking unacceptable losses. I think less glamorous stuff may be more useful – plenty of ATMs, ammo and general supplies, plus artillery and counter battery radar. I think Russia hopes to hold on what territory it has taken, and pressure for a ceasefire (without Russian withdrawal) by battering the cities.

  2. Sam says:

    Col. Lang,

    It is beyond my circle of competence to evaluate this article. It presents a Russian point of view of the invasion.

    After substantially degrading Ukraine’s military capabilities, Russia is poised to escalate the special operation leading to the victory lap. Moscow has given signals in this direction.

    The most significant signal came from the Kremlin spokesmen Dmitry Medvedev, who said on Monday, “Russia has a sufficient potential for conducting the special military operation in Ukraine. The operation is proceeding in accordance with the original plan and will be completed on time and in full.”

    In any case if the Russians have reached the culminating point it would imply that the perception of the Russian military as significant would be false and more of a Potemkin force. That I suppose would have major strategic significance.

  3. Walrus says:

    Sounds about right.

    What happens next? I don’t foresee Biden or Putin backing down.

  4. Fred says:

    Should we expect the unmoving 60,000 strong Ukrainian army in the East stage a counter-attack? It appears they haven’t been doing much fighting since all the news reports are from elsewhere.

    • Bill Roche says:

      According to Col. MacGregor they 60M men are all but prisoners in a “cauldron”.
      They will either surrender or be eliminated by the Russians.

  5. drifter says:

    Maybe not a culminating point, but certainly a rude awakening. The Principal of Reaction, in the analysis of conflict, says that when a group is attacked, it organizes itself to resist it using whatever means at hand, often asymmetric to the means of attack. By adopting “invasion lite” at the outset, Russia gave Ukraine time to develop its reaction.

  6. Babeltuap says:

    Ukraine was defeated a long time ago once they shutdown all their industries and started importing things like coal which they already had. People were fleeing Ukraine years ago for good paying jobs. Even if Russia does leave it does not matter. They have no industries and nobody to invest in getting them spooled up. US politicians extracted the last amount of coin out of that place like Biden and Hunter. It is a wasteland.

  7. Christian J. Chuba says:

    And everyone said this about Russia’s operation in Syria as well. We will see in 13 days.

  8. John Anderson says:

    Russian forces double down to complete operation – M. K. BHADRAKUMAR

    • d74 says:

      Yes, this is one point of view, among others.
      One question: is he well informed?
      On this subject, there is such a difference between Russophobic and Russophile propaganda that it is very difficult to find the middle ground. Perplexity and doubt.

      Let us return to M. K. Bhadrakumar. If he is right, the culminating point has been reached by Ukraine.And the destruction of its eastern forces, the most seasoned and best armed (semi-heavy artillery and Tochka U), will send them downhill.
      But this info is from Russia and DPR. So uncertainty.

      A report on the spot by Patrick Lancaster in Volnovakha on 12 March shows that the DPR militia has advanced by about ten km, no more. This is not a kessel.

      • Pat Lang says:

        You obviously did not understand my post. The “culminating point” of an attack as a concept deals only with ATTACKING forces.

        From “On War”

        “BOOK 7• CHAPTER 5,

        Culminating Point of the Attack

        THE success of the attack is the result of a present superiority of force, it being understood that the moral as well as physical forces are included. In the preceding chapter we have shown that the power of the attack gradually exhausts itself; possibly at the same time the superiority may increase, but in most cases it diminishes. The assailant buys up prospective advantages which are to be turned to account hereafter in negotiations for peace; but, in the meantime, he has to pay down on the spot for them a certain amount of his military force. If a preponderance on the side of the attack, although thus daily diminishing, is still maintained until peace is concluded, the object is attained.—There are strategic attacks which have led to an immediate peace—but such instances are rare; the majority, on the contrary, lead only to a point at which the forces remaining are just sufficient to maintain a defensive, and to wait for peace.—Beyond that point the scale turns, there is a reaction; the violence of such a reaction is commonly much greater than the force of the blow. This we call the culminating point of the attack.— As the object of the attack is the possession of the enemy’s territory, it follows that the advance must continue till the superiority is exhausted; this cause, therefore, impels us towards the ultimate object, and may easily lead us beyond it.—If we reflect upon the number of the elements of which an equation of the forces in action is composed, we may conceive how difficult it is in many cases to determine which of two opponents has the superiority on his side. Often all hangs on the silken thread of imagination.

        Everything then depends on discovering the culminating point by the fine tact of judgment. Here we come upon a seeming contradiction. The defence is stronger than the attack; therefore we should think that the latter can never lead us too far, for as long as the weaker form remains strong enough for what is required, the stronger form ought to be still more so.*1”

        • d74 says:

          Thank you for this excerpt and sorry for the misunderstanding.

          I have not read Clausewitz. I agree with the Ecole de Guerre that Clausewitz is confusing. It is not usable at the tactical level, and not much at the strategic one.

          Napoleon was defeated on land not thanks to this author but despite his advice to the Russians and Germans command.

          His texts are philosophy of war. Very respectable of course. But German or German-language philosophy of this period is often a huge fog bank. There are a few good nuggets among thousands of rather boring pages.

          Sorry again to disappoint you. I am a resolute materialist. War is a matter of means, including moral means (especially moral in our time) and details in execution.
          These two areas provide ample opportunity to occupy the brains of the men involved and … observers.

          Philosophy and beliefs of all kinds, including religious ones, are only useful if they strengthen our resolve to fight. I admit that I am comfortable talking about this because I am well past my prime.

          Again, sorry .

          • Pat Lang says:

            Yes, his truths are beyond the reach of many. Clausewitz, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst reformed the Prussian Army that had been defeated by Napoleon at Austerlitz and Jena into an army that was a major force in the defeat of France at Waterloo.

  9. DougDiggler says:

    Don’t worry; Putin, Shoigu and Gerasimov have all read Clausewitz. I’m sure Blinken and Sullivan have either read the comic book adaptation or had On War described to them.

  10. Philip Owen says:

    200,000 Ukrainian reservists are now called up and receiving weapons. In days, Ukrainian will field more and more appropriately armed (anti tank weapons, hypersonic anti aircraft missiles) than the Russians (tanks – aka targets). The culminating point will have been reached. Retaking Mariupol and Kherson may be challenging but elsewhere the rollback can begin.

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