Back to top

Second Fronts in Great-Power Conflicts


Published August 18, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led NATO to increase its resources along the Russian border. This strategy of presenting Russia with a possible second front dilutes its strength by forcing it to commit more assets outside of Ukraine. Second fronts are a common military strategy to deter or defeat adversaries by dissipating an enemy’s strength.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think second fronts are an escalation or deterrent for war?
  2. How do you think China or Russia would respond to America creating second fronts?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Opening Up Second Fronts in Great Power Conflict,” by Russell Berman and Misha Auslin via National InterestAvailable here.
  • Read “Passivity Is the Enemy of Security,” by Richard Epstein. Available here.
  • Read “Unpacking Putin’s War in Ukraine,” a Policy Insights edition on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO military leadership and member countries announced plans to ready forces on NATO’s eastern European borders.

NATO clearly wants to build up defenses against a potential Russian attack, but there may also be another motivation – namely, the strategy of “second fronts.”

A second front forces the aggressor nation to have troops in two places at once. It dilutes their resources and fighting power in both places, which diminishes their ability to keep fighting.

Historically, this has been a successful tactic in helping to end major conflicts.

During World War II, Germany was defeated in part because it couldn’t withstand the Allied forces’ invasion of Normandy, while also trying to defend against the advances of the Red Army in the East. At the same time, Imperial Japan was forced to fight against the Chinese on the Asian continent and the Americans on the islands in the Pacific. 

Napoleonic France similarly succumbed to the combination of campaigns by Britain and Russia, as well as from local uprisings in Spain and elsewhere.

In the present, placing NATO troops and armament as a second front on Russia’s border would force Russia to make a decision: either leave its border less defended, or allocate more troops and weaponry there at the cost of degrading its ability to continue attacking Ukraine.

There are also global strategic reasons to plan for second fronts in potential future conflicts. As mainland China continues to consider a possible invasion of Taiwan to force a reunification, the United States must be prepared to apply pressure to China’s vulnerable areas near the Indian border or on the militarized islands in the South China Sea. These second fronts would serve as a serious deterrent against China’s potential invasion of Taiwan.

Second-front strategies run the risk of direct confrontations between superpowers. This risk, though, can be mitigated through reliance on allies as proxies to avoid direct confrontations with adversaries like Russia or China.

Planning and executing a second-front strategy would require intense strategy and coordination internally, sophisticated diplomacy with our potential partners, and a full commitment of US military capabilities.

But as history suggests, building the potential for second fronts is an effective deterrent to preventing and winning wars.