A Theory of Victory for Ukraine

foreign affairs​​​

By Andriy Zagorodnyuk and Eliot A. Cohen

    The U.S. government decided to provide more assistance to Ukraine just in the nick of time. By the end of April, right before the aid package passed, the war-torn country was emptying its last reserves of ammunition and rationing artillery rounds and shells—and Ukrainian forces began to lose ground in part as a result. The $60 billion now flowing into Ukraine will help correct these disparities, providing Kyiv an opportunity to stop Russia’s offensive. The aid package also serves as a massive psychological boost, giving Ukrainians newfound confidence that they will not be abandoned by their most important partner.

    But the aid package alone cannot answer the central question facing Ukraine: how to win the war. Neither can contributions from Europe and beyond, necessary as they are to keeping Kyiv afloat as the conflict drags on. What Ukraine needs is not just more assistance but also a theory of victory—something that some of its partners have studiously avoided discussing. The United States has never planned out its support for Kyiv beyond a few months at a time, even as Congress mandated the provision of a long-term U.S. strategy for its support of Ukraine as a part of the aid bill. It has focused on short-term maneuvers, such as the much-anticipated 2023 counteroffensive, rather than viable long-term strategies or aims—including a potential triumph over Russia. Until end of last year, U.S. officials refrained from even using the term “victory” in public. Similarly, the United States has generally avoided describing its goal in Ukraine as a Russian defeat. Washington’s only real long-term statement—that it will support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”—is, by itself, meaningless.

    To this point, Ukraine has been clear about its objectives. They include the liberation of all territory within its internationally recognized borders; the return of prisoners of war, deported citizens, and kidnapped children; justice through war crimes prosecution and compensation; and the establishment of long-term security arrangements. But Kyiv and its partners are not yet on the same page regarding how these might be achieved. No one, it seems, has come up with a theory for how Kyiv can win.

    It is time for that to change. The West must explicitly state that its goal is a decisive Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat, and it must commit to supplying Kyiv with direct military aid and to supporting the country’s burgeoning defense industry. Ukrainian forces, meanwhile, must work to advance until they can expel Russian forces from all occupied territory, including Crimea. As Ukraine makes progress toward this goal, it will eventually become clear to Russian citizens that they will continue to lose not only ground in Ukraine but also vast human and economic resources—and their future prospects for prosperity and stability. At that point, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime could come under substantial pressure, from both within and without, to end the war on terms favorable to Ukraine.

    Threatening Russia’s control of Crimea—and inflicting grave damage to its economy and society—will, of course, be difficult. But it is a more realistic strategy than the proposed alternative: a negotiated settlement while Putin is in office. Putin has never agreed to respect Ukrainian sovereignty—and never will. If anything, Russia’s rhetoric about the war has become more annihilationist, invoking the Russian Orthodox Church and suggesting that the conflict is something like a holy war, with existential consequences. Any negotiation in the current circumstances would at best leave Ukraine crippled, partitioned, and at the mercy of a second Russian invasion. At worst, it would eliminate the country altogether. No sustainable, long-term peace can emerge from negotiations with an aggressor that has genocidal intent. Ukraine and the West must either win or face devastating consequences.

    As Americans and Europeans ponder whether to help Kyiv avoid this horrible fate, U.S. officials should remember that if the West falters, it will invite further Russian invasions. Senior military leaders and intelligence officials in European countries are sounding the alarm on this prospect. Russia is already menacing its other neighbors, including NATO states, and it may make a move if it can subjugate Ukraine first. A Russian victory would also fuel China’s territorial ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, as it would reveal the limits of the West’s commitment to safeguarding its partners’ sovereignty. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is not taking place in a vacuum. An adverse outcome would be felt around the globe.

  1.     ENDGAME FIRST

    The fact that Ukraine and its partners lack a strategy for victory, three years into the waris a serious problem. Without an end in mind, leaders in Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels are making key decisions on an incremental and ultimately incoherent basis. Ukraine may achieve local successes, but not a comprehensive defeat of the enemy; for their part, Kyiv’s Western partners tend to think only about the next tranche of supplies. And without a strategic picture, it will be difficult to sustain morale and the will to fight in Ukraine and beyond.

    Coming up with a theory of victory will be much harder today than it would have been in 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Since then, Russia has militarized its economy, prepared for a long war, managed to recruit hordes of soldiers, and produced large stockpiles of equipment. But despite these successes, Moscow’s land-war doctrine is still unsophisticated. It centers on using small infantry groups with the support of a few armored vehicles to attack various spots on a frontline that stretches for over 1,000 miles. These tactics have allowed Moscow to make limited territorial gains—but only after losing enormous amounts of troops and weapons. Russia’s losses, including as many as a thousand or more casualties a day, roughly match its intake of new troops, which are of a much lower quality than those of 2022. Despite its massive investments, Moscow’s capabilities are not infinite. Each month, for instance, Russia is losing as many vehicles as its manufacturers produce, and it is burning through its stockpiles of older armored vehicles at an unsustainable rate. And, importantly, Russia is facing both a labor shortage and resources shortage, the latter partially thanks to a combination of Western sanctions, export control measures, and a Ukrainian bombardment campaign that is limiting Russia’s capacity to refine and then sell oil.

    Moscow is no invincible juggernaut. Russia’s small gains were made possible only by its overwhelming advantage in firepower—which occurred only as a result of the disruption of Western aid. The country’s artillery systems are based on old models and lack precision and long-range capabilities, and its multiple-launch rocket systems, tanks, and aviation equipment are no match for Western models. If Ukraine can increase precision strikes by long-range artillery, it can turn the war’s arithmetic against Russia and impose an unacceptable rate of attrition on Moscow. Eventually, Russia will be unable to replace its manpower and materiel fast enough. The country’s economy simply will not be able to sustain this war in the face of constant losses.

    If Ukraine has enough supplies, it will be able to keep Russian artillery at bay. Enhanced air defenses, including F-16 fighter jets equipped with long-range air-to-air missiles, would reduce Russian attacks on critical infrastructure inside Ukraine as well as on units stationed near the front. With Russia’s forces increasingly paralyzed, Ukraine would soon be able to use its Western long-range systems—such as its Army Tactical Missile Systems (better known as ATACMS)—to take down Russian command-and-control centers and air-defense assets.

    The West must explicitly state that its goal is a decisive Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat.

    Kyiv must also use drones in much larger numbers to fulfill all these tasks. Ukraine has already demonstrated that it can wield unmanned vehicles with devastating effects; it is thanks to drone attacks, for instance, that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has been disabled. Drones have also helped prevent large-scale Russian maneuvers on the ground. And they are making it possible for Ukraine to strike deep into Russia, hitting Russian oil facilities, military bases, and weapons factories. To counter that threat, Moscow may need to station most of its air defense systems at home. Russia is simply too large for its defenses to simultaneously shield the homeland and the battlefront. It will become even more vulnerable if the United States allows Ukraine to strike legitimate targets within Russia using U.S.-donated weapons.

    The process of softening Russian positions and weakening Russian resolve will likely take about a year, after which Ukraine should reclaim the initiative. Kyiv should again launch limited counteroffensives, which will allow it to retake key terrain. If this assault is successful, Putin’s regime could face a crisis bred of heavy losses and battlefield failures. The Russian political system, after all, is already showing cracks. The mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed 2023 mutiny, the demotion or arrest of senior military officials including General Sergei Surovikin, and the shocking success of Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists at striking inside Moscow in March all reflect the regime’s mounting vulnerability. If Ukraine advances to a point where Russia can no longer hold on to gains, Putin will find himself in deep trouble. His 2014 seizure of Crimea is critical to his domestic popularity; to see Russia’s control of the peninsula threatened would be a major symbolic defeat.

    Ukraine’s success on land, air, and sea must be coupled with extensive pressure on the economic and information fronts. The United States and Europe should introduce a much more aggressive sanctions campaign that includes secondary sanctions on any company operating in Russia. Russians must see their national wealth dissipating, and their economy headed for permanent stunting, for the consequences of Putin’s invasion to hit home. The West must also mount an aggressive information campaign—comparable to that waged against Nazi Germany in World War II or the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War—to intensify the divisions over perception of the war within and outside Russia. Russians have accepted the war passively: they need to be reminded, through an array of techniques that include both overt and covert propaganda, of its intolerable human and societal costs. Putin has too much at stake to end the war himself, but the same is not true of those around him who do not wish to see Russia reduced to indefinite impoverishment; drained of physical resources, youth, and talent; and subjugated to a state of permanent vassalage to China. Putin and his leadership are the center of gravity of the Russian war effort; any effort to end the war must begin with undermining his regime and its appearance of success and infallibility.

    Ukraine’s military strategy must be integrated with its political agenda. Russian history shows that disastrous Russian wars lead to political change. Russia’s defeat at the hands of Ottoman and European forces in the 1853–56 Crimean War barred Russia from deploying a navy in the Black Sea and trimmed its expansionist goals for years, and the bloody losses of the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war led to a major break in the absolute autocracy of tsarist rule. A military humiliation today could prompt similar political upheaval. The Putin regime may not seem weak on the surface, but its stability is a mirage produced by the repression it exerts.

  1.     TO ACHIEVE VICTORY, STOP FEARING IT

    Ukraine is already stepping up to meet the challenge. Kyiv is increasing its ability to tap into its manpower reserves by lowering the conscription age and rolling back exemptions from military service. This step is painful but necessary and brings to mind the drafts instituted by many Western nations throughout both world wars. The West, led by the United States, is continuing to provide training and advice, especially for commanders. And the West should continue to deliver large quantities of materiel—particularly having seen how delays in aid can give Russia the upper hand on the battlefield. Such assistance is essential to Kyiv’s success.

    But there is another major contribution the West can make: direct collaboration with Ukraine’s defense industry. The sector has grown exponentially over the last two years; the drone industry, for instance, went from producing a handful of drones in 2022 to manufacturing tens of thousands of them today. Ukrainian-made systems have also grown more sophisticated, managing to strike targets deep in Russia in ways that would have been unthinkable in 2022.

    The country’s success should not have come as a surprise. Ukraine was at the core of the Soviet Union’s aerospace industry, and today it has plenty of skilled engineers and an entrepreneurial spirit. But it needs Western technologies, components, production equipment, vendor financing, and partnerships to reach its full potential. If the West can deliver these resources, Ukraine’s manufacturing capacity will skyrocket, bolstering the country’s battlefield success. With Western help, for example, Kyiv would be able to increase drone production by an order of magnitude and get them onto the battlefield even faster. A joint Western-Ukrainian industrial strategy is as critical as a military one.

    If the West can help Ukraine’s defense industry get fully up to speed, Russia’s positions will grow untenable. The country’s strategy depends on mass, its ability to allocate and concentrate forces, and some elements of technical sophistication, such as electronic warfare. But Russia is tactically poor, which makes it vulnerable to a sustained and large-scale drone-based campaign. A Ukrainian air offensive that dismantles Russian logistics, puts increasing pressure on Russia’s economy and military infrastructure, and destroys (rather than neutralizes) the country’s Black Sea Fleet would produce shocks at home that would likely endanger Putin’s regime.

    Moscow is no invincible juggernaut.

    At the moment, Putin’s subordinates believe that the war is winnable. Only by breaking that belief through Russian defeats can Ukraine and the West open the door to Putin’s withdrawal or eventual overthrow. Under such conditions, Putin will likely choose self-preservation over victory. And if for some reason he does not, others may make that choice for him. In any event, Ukraine should press on with its campaign to retake territory. A different kind of land offensive—one that comes after Kyiv has achieved air superiority with its drone campaign—could isolate and liberate Crimea.

    Some Western analysts, fearing nuclear escalation, may be scared of this kind of Ukrainian victory. Putin has certainly tried to encourage such fears over the past two years, hinting that he might use nuclear weapons when the West has considered providing tanks, missiles, and jets. But Putin has never acted on his belligerent rhetoric, even as the West invariably crossed each of those redlines. Instead, Ukraine has incurred the costs of U.S. and European dithering; in the summer of 2022, while its partners debated what assistance to offer, Kyiv lost critical opportunities to capitalize on its first successful counterattacks by continuing with a swift destruction of Putin’s forces. The reality is that a Russian nuclear attack would provoke such a fierce Western response, particularly from the United States, that Putin is highly unlikely to take the risk. He is especially unlikely to go nuclear given that Putin’s friends in Beijing are also dead set against such strikes.

    The West’s general fear of instability is grounded in fact: a decisive defeat may indeed spell the end of Putinism, leaving Russia in a state of political uncertainty. But it is not the task of the West to save a criminal regime from collapsing. Russia today is a state that routinely commits mass murder, torture, and rape; it conducts sabotage operations and killings on NATO soil; and it carries out disinformation and political interference campaigns. It has pledged unremitting hostility to the West not because of what the West has done but because of what it is. Putin’s regime, in other words, long ago left the community of civilized nations. The only chance Russia has to return to normalcy is through defeat, which will crush Putin’s imperial ambitions and allow the country to soberly reevaluate its path and eventually rejoin the society of civilized nations. This does not mean that the West’s strategy should openly aim for regime change. But it does mean Ukraine and its partners should not fear the self-destruction of Putin and his apparatus of control.

    In this war, resources, funds, and technology all overwhelmingly favor the West. If they are channeled to Ukraine in sufficient amounts, including to the country’s defense industry, Kyiv can win. Russia simply lacks the military power to defeat a Western-backed Ukraine, and so its only hope lies in manipulating Western concerns. It is therefore well past time for NATO governments to stop falling into Putin’s trap. For the West to achieve a victory, it must stop fearing it. In doing so, it can attain security for itself and Ukraine—which has sacrificed so much, both for its own cause and for the larger cause of freedom.

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