“The object in war is a better state of peace—even if only from your own point of view.”
– Basil Liddell Hart
On February 24, 2022, Russian forces started a new phase in Russia’s illegitimate war against Ukraine. To the surprise of many, Ukrainian forces, under inspiring political leadership, managed to withstand the initial Russian offensive. With large-scale Western support, they even managed to take over the initiative and liberate half of the territory Russia had occupied. Russian forces suffered massive losses without achieving the (presumed) initial political-strategic objectives of subjugating the Ukrainian state, replacing its leadership and annexing (at least) parts of it.
The combination of Russia’s tactical, military-operational, and political-strategic failures and Ukraine’s effective defense and counteroffensives led many to euphoria. Politicians, policymakers, and pundits argue that Ukraine should be supported until all its territory is liberated, including Crimea and the initial separatist regions in the Donbas. Following this is the expectation that a diplomatically isolated and sanctions-hit Russia can no longer achieve a victory against an internationally backed Ukraine.
Victory in war, however, is not necessarily determined objectively by measurable criteria, such as military losses and territory conquered or liberated. While these are important, victory is ultimately a matter of perception by the parties involved.
From this thesis, it is essential to reason out what a Russian perspective on victory in Ukraine might be, in practice. It is crucial to do so from the context of Russian strategic culture, because it greatly influences the worldview of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. This strategic culture is key to understanding how the Russian leadership conceptualizes crises—and acts within them—to achieve political objectives. It should be clear that the Russian worldview and its underlying strategic culture fundamentally differ from Western ones. This means the Russian perspective on what constitutes victory in Ukraine can also be fundamentally different from Ukrainian or Western perspectives.
Theory of Victory
The concept of a “theory of victory” is a useful starting point for exploring the Russian perspective on victory in Ukraine. Basically, this concept speaks to the notion that victory in war is more a subjective appreciation of a situation rather than an objectively measurable fact. Several considerations come into play.
To begin with, war is a political activity and defining a victory is, therefore, a political matter. Moreover, belligerents can independently determine what they believe to be the outcome of a war. Therefore, from a political standpoint, the question who won? need not yield a unanimous answer.
Further complicating matters, the perception of a victory may differ at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. Belligerents can achieve victories at all three levels without them being related. Unlike strategic victories, tactical and operational victories can be relatively easily and objectively determined by quantifiable criteria. The strategic level, however, is precisely the defining level at which wars are won or lost—or, again, at which belligerents perceive winners or losers—and where the durability of an outcome is determined according to whether the political causes of the war have been decisively addressed.
A war stops only when one or both warring parties decide that ceasing hostilities is a better alternative than continuing. This is a cost-benefit analysis that weighs the effort required to militarily achieve political objectives against the benefits gained from doing so. Blind pursuit of objectives becomes a risk when it causes long-term disruption to the economy, society, or armed forces of the victor.
Of course, warfare is a dynamic process and thus political objectives may change during a war based also on the second- and third-order effects of the war. Furthermore, a belligerent’s objectives may have different functions that are not always directly related to an intended political situation after the end of a conflict. Sometimes they serve as motivational and political communication aimed at the belligerent’s own military forces or domestic population, while other times the expression of maximized goals may be aimed at the opponent to create negotiating space for a conflict resolution. Consequently, assessing the final outcome of a war should not be solely based on measuring up to what degree officially formulated objectives of belligerents have been achieved. Finally, as time passes and political conditions change, perspectives on the outcome of a war may be subject to progressive understanding.
Thus, victory in war is mainly a matter of a time-bound, subjective appreciation of the political situation after the end of hostilities. For a country’s political and military elite, the perception of the population is critical. This population can form an opinion about the outcome of a war by itself based on the available information. However, the political and military elite can also leverage military successes or political developments to actively and symbolically convince their population that their appreciation of a political situation amounts to a victory. A strategic victory may thus be the subjective result of widely held public opinion rather than the objective result of analyses of military victories or favorable political conditions. This demonstrates how important information operations can be in achieving a strategic victory.
Theory of Victory in Russian Strategic Culture
In Russian strategic culture, military action is seen as an integral part of policy and should always contribute to political objectives. The deployment of armed forces is thereby an explicit signal regarding the importance attached to a political issue and the cost the regime is willing to accept to pursue its interests or objectives.
War occurs when a state uses force to settle a political confrontation. It is a strategic activity to achieve political objectives in conjunction with diplomatic and economic efforts. Differentiating by geography, Russian doctrine distinguishes between three categories of war: local, regional, and large-scale. Notably, it does so based not only on the geographic scope of the war, but also on the political scope. Local wars involve “limited” military-political objectives, in regional wars there are “important” military-political objectives at stake, and large-scale wars feature “radical” military-political objectives. Rather than saying anything about the scale or intensity of the fighting, this classification is focused and based on quantifying the variables above.
The Russian leadership considers the outcome of a war on a spectrum. The highest form of success is political victory, followed by military victory, military defeat, and political defeat. In the strategic calculus, military success during a war is always secondary to the political outcome after the war. Therefore, a military victory in itself is not necessarily enough to declare a political victory, while a political victory does not require a military victory.
The ultimate strategic victory involves the permanent termination of political conflict on the condition of the victor, formalized in an international document and ruling out new wars. From a military point of view, destroying the opponent’s forces and occupying the opponent’s main territory is seen as a precondition for this—but not a decisive factor. Political opportunism and diplomacy can mitigate or offset the consequences of military setbacks at the tactical and operational level by adjusting or dropping political-strategic objectives and narratives. Thus, Russian strategic thinking clearly distinguishes between political results and military successes, and less importance is attached to achieving tactical and operational successes than among Western armed forces and political elites.
Within Russian military thinking there are two views on how the armed forces should enable declaring a political victory. First, there are the adherents of surprising offensive strategies that keep the initiative via deep penetrating maneuvers to defeat an opponent quickly and decisively. Achieving operational and strategic objectives is considered more important than tactical success. Based partly on the assumption that Russia would be at a disadvantage in a protracted war against the economically and technologically superior West, this thinking seemed dominant in the Russian armed forces until the launch of the invasion of Ukraine.
Critics argued this approach is too military-oriented, leaving important economic, social, and political aspects of warfare underexposed. Furthermore, this approach presumably only works against weak or internally divided opponents, but in all other cases, a single decisive battle is unlikely to lead to a decisive strategic victory.
The competing view emphasizes protracted, attrition warfare. The assumption made by adherents of this view is that the military, economic, social, and political exhaustion of the opponent leads to the creation of favorable conditions to achieve a strategic victory.
However, both of these views position military victory as merely a temporary situation of localized, relative military dominance rather than as the achievement of an intended final political situation.
A Russian Theory of Victory in Ukraine
The Russian regime’s narrative surrounding victory in Ukraine is flexible, opportunistic, and subjective, focusing primarily on the perception of the Russian people that the achieved victory justifies the costs of the war. It is not aimed at the West.
The Russian political elite contends that Russia should be a superpower in a multipolar world, recognized as such by the international community. However, this elite also argues that Russia is strategically on the defensive due to a hostile West. Russia, the Russian identity, and Russia’s territorial integrity are under permanent threat, according to this view, and this threat must be addressed. The threat is not only military in the form of NATO’s eastward expansion—it is also reflected in the spillover of the West’s culture, values, ideology, and political system into Russia. It is precisely this, elites argue, that poses an existential threat to Russia. Indeed, the emergence of an affluent, politically active, liberal-oriented social middle class may threaten Russia as an authoritarian-run, conservative autocracy. To counter this, the Russian political elite seeks to end the perceived American-led Western hegemony and replace it with a multipolar world order.
From the Russian perspective, the Ukraine invasion is a necessary offensive move within a strategic defensive posture. A prosperous, Western-oriented Ukraine that is a member of the EU may offer the Russian population a dangerous glimpse of an alternative political system and thereby fuel dissatisfaction with Russia’s political and economic system. Furthermore, Ukrainian entry into NATO and the EU would lead to a political-strategic loss of face for the Russian regime at home and abroad and therefore represents a military-strategic vulnerability for Russia’s defense.
Initially, the Russian regime may have regarded its invasion of Ukraine as a “regional conflict” with “important” military-political goals, and its classification as a “special military operation” may have been genuine. Indeed, it seems that the Kremlin’s ambitious political objective was to install a new, pro-Russian government in Kyiv by lightning action. Bold, deep maneuvers along multiple axes of attack and the rapid elimination of the Ukrainian government in Kyiv should have led to the collapse of Ukrainian resistance and prevented Russia from indirectly opposing the economically and technologically superior West in a protracted proxy war.
After this failed, Russia seems to have adjusted its political objectives and strategy. The Russian armed forces currently have neither the troop numbers nor the capacity to subdue and pacify all of Ukraine. As contradictory as it may sound, however, the special military operation therefore does seem likely to escalate into a “large-scale war” with “radical” military-political objectives.
Russia’s initial major military-political objective in the conflict seems to have given way to an adjusted one—dismantling Ukraine as a strong, sovereign state and turning it into one that will be a burden rather than a reinforcement to both NATO and the EU. In doing so, completing the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson oblasts provides strategic depth and a clear geographical objective. The Western willingness to continue supporting Ukraine in resisting Russian advances and liberating occupied territory is viewed as decisive, more so than the Ukrainian will to continue fighting. The implicit presumption is that without Western military support and under international political pressure, Ukraine will eventually have to accept territorial concessions and restrictions on its political, economic, and military sovereignty. The political and military foundations of the war, such as the Ukrainian rapprochement with the West and the creation of strategic depth, are thus addressed.
However, the broader objective of transforming the world order into a multipolar system, with Russia as one of those poles, is increasingly voiced as the context for the intervention in Ukraine. Emphasizing this objective may appeal to the Russian population but also contains a narrative aimed at the international community about ending Western dominance in international politics. Further geographical escalation of the conflict into Moldovan, Belarusian, and Russian territory is a possibility, as are increased cyber, intelligence, and sabotage operations elsewhere in Europe.
As long as the Russian calculus is that its political objectives are achieved by continuing the military confrontation in Ukraine and that these outweigh the costs, this war will continue. Because the war in Ukraine is framed as existential by the Russian regime, Ukrainian success may potentially lead to further escalation in Russia’s mode of warfare. Indeed, Putin’s regime does not seem to have the option of losing this war without far-reaching loss of face abroad and political repercussions in Russia. The continuation of the war is thus possibly driven not only by the logic of wanting to achieve “important” military-political objectives in Ukraine but also by avoiding the negative domestic and foreign political consequences of a strategic defeat in Ukraine. From the regime’s point of view, then, there are “radical” political-military objectives at stake.
From this perspective, time is currently on Russia’s side. At the time of writing, the Russian armed forces seem to have regained the initiative by fighting a war of attrition that is favorable to them. Exhausting the Ukrainian armed forces and creating a political perspective of doubt regarding the prospect of a quick and decisive end to the war are possible operational objectives that should help break the Ukrainian willpower to continue hostilities and the Western willingness to continue its support for Ukraine. In addition, capturing the remaining parts of the annexed oblasts may be an operational objective that—if Russia’s calculus changes and broader objectives no longer outweigh the costs required to achieve them—should facilitate the unilateral declaration of a strategic victory to the Russian population. For now, there are already enough tangible results for the regime to weave together to create a credible narrative of a victory.
An ultimate manifestation of a Russian victory would lie in a deal agreed upon with the United States that seals Ukraine’s future and secures Russian security interests for the long term. This would give the Russians their desired recognition as a world power, create additional strategic depth, and demonstrate successful resistance to Western economic and military power, ultimately bringing the desired multipolar world closer. The Russian geopolitical narrative, catalyzed by the classic security paradox with the West, will thus prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will be the dreamed-of situation, whereby Russia can declare victory in Ukraine, but not concerning the “radical” military-political objectives in the confrontation with the West. That struggle is perpetual, continuous, existential, and an integral part of Russian strategic culture.
Of course, regardless of whether Russia defines this as a local, regional, or large-scale war, regardless of whether its military-political objectives are limited, important, or radical, and regardless of its theory of victory, this all amounts to only half of the balance sheet. On the other side sits Ukraine, along with its supporters. The West’s support to Ukraine has been instrumental to Ukraine’s military effectiveness up until now and will prove highly influential in determining the outcome of this conflict. Moreover, the West’s stance toward both Ukraine and Russia will shape the regional and global political and economic order in the decade ahead. Therefore, it is imperative that both Ukraine and its Western backers have a clear and common theory of victory of their own for this conflict, addressing the underlying political disputes. At its core, this theory should promise decisive support for Ukraine with all available means short of direct involvement to create a political-military condition that is recognized and accepted by both belligerents as a durable outcome.
As US President Joe Biden promised to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a visit to Kyiv in February, US support would continue for “as long as it takes.” For Ukraine to continue the fight for as long as it takes, for the United States and the West to sustain their support for as long as it takes, and to ensure unity of effort and shared strategic objectives for the duration, a theory of victory is necessary. Understanding Russia’s theory of victory is a necessary step in that direction.
Major Marnix Provoost MA is an infantry officer in the Royal Netherlands Army and currently working as a PhD researcher at the Netherlands Defence Academy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons
The West's theory of victory in Ukraine is that:
a. The Russian interventions into Ukraine are soundly defeated and that — thereby —
b. Ukraine continues to become organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines. Thus, by this such "next-door"/"on their door step" example — which is thereby provided by a democratic and prosperous Ukraine —
c. The Russia people are offered an — inescapable — clear and present alternative to their current — much lower quality — way of life, way of governance, values, etc.
Thus, in sum, the West's theory of victory in Ukraine, this is that Russia is — via the example of this and other Western organized, ordered and oriented countries — ultimately transformed more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.
(This, after all, is what we fought the Old Cold War to achieve, as the following excerpts from the Old Cold War "surrender document"/the Old Cold War "peace treaty," to wit: the 1991 "The Charter of Paris for a New Europe,” both acknowledges and confirms:
"We undertake to build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” (See Page 3.)
“Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings, are inalienable and are guaranteed by law. Their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of government. Respect for them is an essential safeguard against an overmighty State. Their observance and full exercise are the foundation of freedom, justice and peace.” (Also see Page 3.)
“Freedom and political pluralism are necessary elements in our common objective of developing market economies towards sustainable economic growth, prosperity, social justice, expanding employment and efficient use of economic resources.” (See Page 4.)
As to my items "a" – "c" above, might we say that this is Ukraine's "theory of victory" also?
This, given that a Russia transformed more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines would no longer have much — if any — need to threaten and/or to invade Ukraine?
This idea is based on one false premise: Russia is not one nation, it is a collection of many nations. For many decades, Russia has been called the "prison of nations". Russia must be authoritarian and therefore imperial (aggressed) to exist in one piece. An attempt to introduce democracy in Russia (as is the case in China) will end in disintegration, because the nations of Russia (eg Chechens) will decide in democratic referendums to leave the Russian Federation. Let science be the cases of Catalonia and Spain, Scotland and Great Britain.
Therefore, the vision of a democratic Russia (as it is now) is a vision of a naive fantasist.
COMMENT I am perplexed with arm-chair Stratego players. Some better assumption to play with: the "West" is not at war with Russia; Russia states and pursues kinetic destruction of a people, a genocide; if broken treaties mean something Ukraine abandoned nuclear weapons in return for Russia's guarantee of its safety; Russia wants to steal land and sea: oil; gas; grains. Without the return of the stolen land (resources,) Ukraine can not be a modern, free nation. The oligarchs are simple gangsters who manipulate using the people's fear of invasion
Richard Nixon wrote "1999: Victory Without War" (I recall) where he clearly summarized Russia's centuries-old drive for a buffer zone. The main article echoes this deep drive of the people. The armchair people must think this desire can be satisfied in ways that include rape, kidnapping, total war, world starvation and low energy. Take all this abstract fru-fru away and you have a nation that lied, invaded, killed, and does so with glee and plans to, again, kill millions of Ukrainians. Is there a negotiation possible with the Borg or Wraith? In addition to lying to Ukraine about the atomic weapons, it lied to the U.S.
Better analogies exist as to this war. The US Civil War may be better. The Northern people fought to force an inviolate moral principle – to end slavery. Southerners fought to preserve a way of life, a culture, and freedom for the individual and state from a perceived tyrant. Only military victory could end such a clash.
To avoid the need for a military solution, the Russian people have to be deprogrammed from the Stalin/Putin cult, an incredible task. Or, they may realize their sons are being killed for minerals and grain that the oligarchs wold like to sell. However, such revolts usually bring a new boss, same as the old boss.
Anyway, the Russian rulers use their downline to keep them in power – the definition of victory for gangsters.
In considering the purpose (ex: "buffer zones"/Monroe Doctrine-like rationale/desire to benefit from resources, etc.) and legitimacy of Russia's military and other activities in Ukraine during the New/Reverse Cold War of today (that is, with Putin doing "roll back" in his backyard now), might we do this by considering the purpose (ex: "buffer zones"/Monroe Doctrine-like rationale/desire to benefit from resources, etc.) and legitimacy of America's military and other activities in Central America during the Old Cold War of yesterday (that is, when Reagan was doing "roll back" in our back yard back then)?
Perceptions are important – but realities are more so. An entrenched elite can foment a perception that suits its continued exercise of power only until realities kill the false perceptions spread by their narrative. In the end, we know who won a war. Who won WWII? Not Germany. Who won in Vietnam? Not the USA. It’s no longer possible for the elites who tried to palm the contrary perceptions off on the rest of the world to do so, because the realities are clearly apparent.
The first part of the article was thought-provoking, but overall it is as blindly Euro-centric as our Biden administration and myopically and dangerously so.
The Russians lost more than 20 million men, women, and children in the last holocaust-invasion from the West and are just as reflexively defensive about another as Jewish people are about any possibility of another Holocaust.
Now that delusions of neo-Imperial-Russia have been dashed, what the Russians must have and we owe them (after our past broken security promises and our breaking our Budapest peace agreement with them, invasively backing the 2014 overthrow of Ukraine's legal government) is their own regional security Monroe Doctrine.
If a nuclear superpower is your next-door neighbor, you *want* it to feel secure, to get on with peaceful commerce and cooperation on overriding problems like saving the environment and our families and Life itself.
Provoke it as we the West have provoked Russia, it indeed becomes dangerously authoritarian and hostile, to the *world's* economic and strategic detriment, let alone the environment's.
"Winning" this war is ending it as soon and safely as possible, and that means border states mililtarily neutral (like ours) … and territorial concessions.
In sum, this latest and most dangerous European War was completely unnecessary and is unsupported by the rest of the world whom we are alienating into enemies every day we continue (supporting) our Ukraine War.
I ask readers to carefully consider my column posted by Yahoo!, "Lou Coatney: Russia now left with no choice but nuclear war." at https://www.yahoo.com/news/lou-coatney-russia-now-left-184011930.html
and my white paper "Biden&Blinken's Ukraine War Begetting Holocaust: Facts, Footnoted" at https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/3397376002162148667/7212486218868068654 which lists 9 motives B&B have for wanting and getting the war, as well as the 4 obvious reasons Kyiv 2014 was a coup, not a legitimate popular revolution like ours was 250 years ago … and other important factors like the West now self-definingly opposing the annual UN General Assembly's anti-Nazi resolution.
So many words to hide a, perhaps, the most ignorant and ill-researched opinion I’ve seen in the longest time. Strip the pomp, and nearly every piece of the analysis presented in the article is as wrong as it can be.
The Russian regime’s narrative surrounding victory in Ukraine is flexible, opportunistic, and subjective
It is because Russia has failed in every possible way. To hide failures from the population, they resort to redefining the goals. So it’s not those goals were flexible, to begin with, no – they were well-defined, but because Russia failed to achieve any of them, it needs to play the game of changing objectives. However, recent polls show that this strategy is failing – the Russian population is growing weary of propaganda overabundance of which now results in mistrust in everything the Russian Government
The Russian political elite contends that Russia should be a superpower in a multipolar world
And that was the view BEFORE the war. The war exposed the impotence of Russia as a country – economic, political, military, cultural and intellectual – and none of the elites no longer have illusions about Russia’s role. They all know they’ve become a vassal of China. They just want their luxuries back. None of them care about Russia’s role in the multipolar world – that’s a rhetorical question to blab about at a drunken party once normality is re-instated. But now they just want their lives back on any conditions.
It is precisely this, elites argue, that poses an existential threat to Russia.
… elites arguED BEFORE the war. Now, they all realize that they live in a larger North Korea, having to please the Leader and clap to everything he says with a big smile. No one talks about the existential threat to Russia anymore – it is “every man for himself” now, and all they talk about is how to get out while keeping some of their wealth.
To counter this, the Russian political elite seeks to end the perceived American-led Western hegemony and replace it with a multipolar world order.
That is as far from reality as it can be. Showing it to “the Americans” was the goal BEFORE the war. Being equal to America (the #1 country) and above other powers – Europe and China – WAS the view BEFORE the war. Now, elites realize that they are not equal to America, they are not equal to Europe or China, they are not equal to even B-grade countries (in their view) like Canada or Germany, they are a vassal state of China. Russia’s elites understand that they are a more powerful North Korea, and for them, it’s become a fight for their survival, which depends solely on China. They understand they must kiss Chinese boots, they understand this is their future, and they accepted it, as long as China guarantees their role in the vassal state.
However, the broader objective of transforming the world order into a multipolar system
The only reason for that is there is nothing else to show. Russia has lost the war. It destroyed its future for generations. It condemned itself to poverty, high crime, and international humiliation (the Russian might myth has been dispelled, and no one fears Russia orto provoke Russia anymore) for years to come. The rhetoric about transformation to a multipolar system is the only thing that propaganda has left at their disposal, and no one, including propagandists believe it in anymore.
As long as the Russian calculus is that its political objectives are achieved by continuing the military confrontation in Ukraine and that these outweigh the costs, this war will continue.
This is the silliest, most ignorant statement of the entire article. Russia continued the war because it cornered itself, not because of some “calculus is that its political objectives are achieved.” Russia has lost; they know it; they just don’t know how to end it, so they continue rolling ahead. There is no calculus, only a prayer that a miracle intervention will change the war in their favour.
From this perspective, time is currently on Russia’s side. At the time of writing, the Russian armed forces seem to have regained the initiative by fighting a war of attrition that is favorable to them.
This is a crazy thing to say – while Ukraine is accumulating western weapons that, as it turns out, are generations ahead of low-tech Russian weaponry, Russia loses the remaining armour, jets, helicopters, etc. at an accelerating rate that greatly exceeds Russian capability to replenish stocks. Russia resorted to pulling tanks and guns built in the 1950s from storage not because things are going splendidly, but because they run out of 30-40-year-old (already outdated, by western standards) tanks, IFV and guns. Russia’s personnel loses are 10:1 in many areas of the front. Equipment losses are 5:1-10:1. And while Ukraine is rebuilding its potential for an offensive, Russia plunders museums for guns designed in 1800s (yes, many Russians are equipped with rifles designed in late 1800s).
People talk about mobilization. But Russia doesn’t have that many people to mobilized – they barely completed 75% of the goal of the Fall mobilization, they cleaned up prisons to send prisoners to fight, they don’t have human capital to fight that war with the current intensity. Sure, Russia may resort to force mobilizing its entire population, they may get 300,000-500,000 new soldiers at great risk of a total regime collapse. But these 300-500K soldiers will be untrained, unequipped, unmotivated troops, running with sticks and shovels against columns of Leopards manned with highly motivated, professional crews with endless ammo at their disposal. These 300-500K troops will be mowed down like grass during attacks in a matter of months without gaining a square meter of new territory. And then what?
Russia’s winter offensive threw everything Russia could master – remaining armour, air support, barrages of rockets against the cities (BTW, rocket stocks are now 40-100% depleted with no capacity to restore them), all experienced terrorists and new recruits of Wagner, all mobilized soldiers. And what did they gain? 70 sq.km of territory. 70. Ukraine liberated 5,000 sq.km in a matter of weeks. And during this Russian winter offensive, Ukraine was holding back and accumulating the best units and weapons for an upcoming offensive while Russia exhausted all of its reserves.
I don’t know what type of research went into this article, but it sounds like the author doesn’t understand Russia, doesn’t follow the events and lives in an information bubble with stereotypes built during the Cold War and the early days of Putin.
The author opens with a Liddell Hart quote on the significance of perspective when assessing any war, then immediately undermines that idea by applying the loaded modifier “illegitimate” to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The entire article is rife with sycophantic implications. This is likely good for any political aims that Major Provoost holds, but undermines any actual insights that are contained within.
His ultimate argument that the US should provide all necessary support to Ukraine, short of direct action, may be valid. Unfortunately, the obvious and vapid bias of the article undermines any supporting content in the article and will limit its invested readership to academic echo chambers.
Dial down the bias, and there is a viable place for this article.
In considering the "legitimacy" of Russia's military and other activities in Ukraine during the New/Reverse Cold War of today (that is, with Putin doing "roll back" in his backyard now), might we attempt do this by considering the "legitimacy" of America's military and other activities in Central America during the Old Cold War of yesterday (that is, when Reagan was doing "roll back" in our back yard back then)?
From that such Cold War perspective, what kind of a "deal" would have:
a. Satisfied all the parties concerned in the Old Cold War of yesterday and would
b. Likewise satisfy all the parties concerned in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?
(Note: It is the U.S./the West who is doing "expansion" in the New/Reverse Cold War of today — see my initial comments above — Russia, China etc., today, thus threatened, merely adopting our — tried and proven — "containment" and "roll back" strategies now?)
My issue isn’t with whether or not the war is legitimate. That is a tangential debate (though I’d be interested in a separate article on that parallel).
My issue is that his unchecked bias throughout the article puts in doubt any objective base for his analysis. Any recommended COA that doesn’t at least attempt to consider the enemy perspective and motivations is a waste of time for any leader actually interested in results over political allegiances or personal opinion..
That seems to bring us back to the question:
a. From a New/Reverse Cold War perspective — a perspective that does seem consider not only the enemy's perspective and motivations but also this enemy's strategy/strategies (example of the later, "containment" and "roll back") —
b. What would our recommended COA be?
Thus, at least a "starting point," which might lead to the question:
a. If one is the "expansionist"/"achieve revolutionary change both at home and abroad" nation — like the Soviets/the communists were in the Old Cold War of yesterday and the U.S./the West is in the New/Reverse Cold War of today —
b. Then how does one "win" such a Cold War; this, when confronted by an opponent who (1) has adopted our tried and proven containment and roll back strategies and who (much as we did in the Old Cold War) (2) seeks to work more "by, with and through" those elements within the world who are naturally resistant to such revolutionary changes; this, because they would/will lose power, influence, control, status, safety, security, prestige, etc., as a result of same?
I’d love it if you wrote and submitted an article on such.
I promise to not pull any punches in critiquing any points, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the discussion.
However, it remains too tangential and far too inconvenient (I’m only ever at this site on my phone and the shrinking paragraph space quickly becomes tedious) to discuss here.
The author makes well thought out points regarding the perspective of Russian victory and perceived western threats. It should be noted that these perceived threats are not a threat to the Russian people, just the long-term rule of their authoritarian government. I think the author knows that already, just pointing it out. I don't think enough analysis was put into the changing calculous of what Russia considers a victory. Just as they are willing to settle for a lesser victory than installing a puppet government due to setbacks, they are also interested in greater victories if things go well. Any analysis of what victory they are willing to end on, must recognize that the more they can take, the more they will want to take. They will only settle for currently perceived victory conditions if they believe they could lose them by continuing. As long as they believe they can obtain more from continuing, then they will not end.
The same principal applies to the Western nations and Ukraine knows this. If they keep delivering wins against Russia, then the west will keep seeing a greater victory ahead and not stop delivering weapons. A Western victory is perceived by three major factors. Those being the increase or decrease in political, economic, or military power of Russia. Currently, military and economic power are major victories as the Russian military and economy have been shredded both in a literal sense and from a global perception. The remaining factor is still up for grabs which is their perceived political strength, and the author was correct in pointing out that a political victory is at the top of Russia's values. If Russia succeeds in annexing large parts of Ukraine, then they can sell it as a domestic victory for Russia and an international defeat of the West. A new generation can always replace dead soldiers and build more tanks, but land is land. In addition to that, the author was extremely perceptive regarding the threat of Western culture and prosperity coming to Ukraine and being immediately observed by the Russian people. Both sides are very aware that it is a long-term eventual checkmate of the cold war for the West and they will absolutely make Ukraine a flourishing paradise just as has been seen in post war West Germany, and South Korea. Just as East and West Germans had closely connected societies, so does Ukraine and Russia. Admission of Ukraine to NATO for military security and to the European Union for economic and social growth is all that is needed. After that, it is only a matter of time to wait until the Russian people decide they want a different future than the one past and present dictators have written for them. That is the victory being eyed by western nations and Putin knows it. If Ukraine joins NATO, joins the EU, and becomes prosperous, then he and his vision for the future of Russia is already lost. That is why he started this war with his first objective being to keep Ukraine as a puppet buffer state. And having failed at that he will destroy it as much as possible to slow its recovery. The taking of territory is just a short-term exit plan to sell a political victory, and a long-term plan for maintaining political instability just as has been done in Moldova and Georgia. And that is why the blatant objective of Ukraine and the west is full restoration of Ukraine's international borders and full ejection of all Russian troops from those borders. It is necessary for a smooth admission to NATO and the EU with minimal future interference by Russia. Putin was not lying when he said he was forced to start this war; he just didn't mention that it was only necessary to maintain the legacy of his dictatorship. Because it is certainly not in the interest of the Russian people suffering for his self-deluded ambitions.
Unfortunately, this all means that the perceived political victories for both sides appear utterly incompatible. And so I dare not guess how this is actually going to end.
You’ve touched on three of the four instruments of national power (MIDFIELD is nothing more than a convoluted version of DIME), and I agree that the author neglects Russia’s shifting definition of victory.
However, your analysis is narrowed by assumption, and many pertinent considerations are overlooked.
Assumptions should never be made when analyzing anything in an environment where you can control the variables such as scientific research. However, a degree of assumption is necessary when performing a strategic analysis, because at its core you are analyzing human behavior that is ultimately beyond our control or ability to predict with certainty. Because it is a strategic analysis, broad general assumptions can be made by anyone who is of a competent strategic mindset, as long as any attempt to outline more acute details is avoided. Things that appear obvious to one competent strategist are generally obvious to all competent strategists.
That being said however, any analysis that relies on an incomplete picture which is missing pertinent details will draw inaccurate conclusions. So, please inform us of the relevant pertinent considerations which you said I overlooked. It would be good to know they exist and be able to determine if they are actually pertinent to this analysis, instead of simply stating that they exist and assuming the conclusions are incomplete.
Assumptions are necessary and no effective plan ignores them, but too often planners conflate assumptions with facts. That’s when it gets dangerous.
I don’t have all the pertinent information and I’m no expert, else I’d be wasting my time with the Pentagon rather than with cadets and armchair generals, and I have plenty of assumptions of my own. This particular medium isn’t ideal, but a few considerations off the top of my head (accept/reject them as you see fit, but allow them at least some consideration):
The most biased assumptions made are in Russia’s motivations – Putin is notoriously closed off in his deliberations but vocal jingoists are quick to simplify his intent into anything from megalomania to spiraling insanity to simply being a real-life supervillain.
You’re not falling into this trap, but do ignore the naval basing concerns that (at least in part) catalyzed the initial annexation of Crimea, as well as the military and economic considerations of controlling the Eastern European Plain.
Logistically, the Great European Plain and the Black Sea are the only really easy routes into or out of Russia, be it for trade, deployment, etc. This, alone, makes Ukraine strategically more valuable than other border nations and why NATO/EU investment there is viewed as dangerous. While we in the Western world recognize that the intentions behind NATO (starting long prior with the Treaty of Dunkirk) are purely defensive, the fact remains that those intents and NATOs behavior during the Cold War were an active counter to Russian hegemony. Cast among its founding enemies, it’s understandable that Russia would view NATO expansion as a threat. Add in the geographical importance of Ukraine and it’s apparent why this is a bigger issue than Baltic or Scandinavian nations becoming members.
You’re not necessarily incorrect (I have no idea if it was actually a factor in their planning) in your assumption that observable Western largesse would be a threat to Russian political control. The collapse of the Soviet Union left much of the bloc with a huge social and political vacuum that was filled by corruption and poverty. No doubt, this left a scar on the psyches of today’s senior planners. I’ve no idea how much of a part it played in the decision to invade.
My argument isn’t that I have a better analysis but that the analyses being put forth are almost willfully dismissive of any Russian perspective. It’s understandable, to some degree – no doubt, I’ll be accused of being a Russia sympathizer simply for trying to better understand her motives. It’s understandable, but, for military leaders, it’s unacceptable.