Positional Warfare in Alexander Svechin’s Strategy

Positional Warfare in Alexander Svechin’s Strategy

By Pieter Garicano, Grace Mappes, and Frederick W. Kagan

March 29, 2024

The war studies occasional paper series explores salient issues in military history and the character of contemporary and future war. The authors are primarily faculty and alumni of the Hertog War Studies Program at the Institute for the Study of War.


Discussions of the character of the Russian war in Ukraine have increasingly adopted terms such as “stalemate” and “attritional” to describe the state of the conflict. Both terms draw parallels with the Western Front of the First World War that are not wholly inaccurate but that can be misleading if taken too far. The current Russian war in Ukraine is certainly not stalemated in the sense of having reached a point where neither side can make further progress. Nor is it, properly speaking, attritional. An attritional war is one in which attrition itself is the victory mechanism — that is, one side aims to win by wearing the other down through losses. The Germans indeed pursued an explicitly attritional campaign in the 1916 Battle of Verdun. But neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians are currently seeking to win by imposing greater losses on the adversary. They are, rather, engaged in a kind of war best described as “positional.” Positional war is characterized by relatively static frontlines and regular combat that produces little movement, but the aim of such combat is generally either to create forward progress through steady if small advances or to create conditions to restore maneuver to the battlefield. This essay explores one of the most detailed considerations of positional warfare, offered by Soviet military theorist Alexander Svechin in his 1926 work, Strategy — a work that has influenced the Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian militaries. It offers an important corrective to our understanding of the current conflict and its likely trajectories.