Students are challenged to define victory, to understand why getting out of wars can be far more complicated than getting into them, and to determine if wars can conclude with an outcome short of clear victory.
In a War Room article written before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Colonel Leon Perkowski applied lessons taught at the War College to the crisis in Ukraine. In a subsequent podcast, the author used Thucydides’ “fear, honor, and interests” concept, taught in one of those War College lessons, to consider strategic empathy in understanding Russia’s actions. Another important area of study at the War College – conflict termination and victory – also applies to the war in Ukraine. Students are challenged to define victory, to understand why getting out of wars can be far more complicated than getting into them, and to determine if wars can conclude with an outcome short of clear victory. As of this writing, the war in Ukraine continues to sputter on with more destruction and death every day. Russia has intensified its bombardment of Ukrainian cities, and the United States and many of its European allies, partners, and others have ramped up their economic, military, and diplomatic pressure on Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, who has resorted to nuclear saber-rattling, to deter Western intervention. No clear exit from a downward spiral of action and reaction has yet appeared on the horizon.
Yet, all wars end at some point. World War II arguably ended in the absolute victory of the Allies. Even then, those trapped behind the Iron Curtain would argue that victory was only partial. The twin evils of Nazism and Imperial Japan were soon superseded by a cold war with totalitarian regimes in both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. The Korean War, which followed World War II, also ended short of complete victory, with a return to borders at the 38th parallel, after much bloodshed and years of difficult negotiation. If even these conflicts resulted in incomplete peace, what are the prospects for victory in Ukraine? Several outcomes for the war in Ukraine are possible.
Some form of victory for Ukraine holds the potential for Putin’s government to collapse. Other outcomes, such as a Russian military win, are potentially risky for the West in setting up the potential for a future conflict. Neither of these outcomes looks much like victory for regional stability. So, how does the war end in Ukraine? To end the war, the United States and its democratic allies should support Ukraine, with all possible means, short of directly attacking Russia, while at the same time pursuing a diplomatic resolution.
In spite of its valiant stand outside of Kyiv, complete victory for Ukraine is unlikely. In a July 2022 article in Foreign Affairs, Barry Posen outlined two pathways to a Ukrainian victory: defeat of Russian forces on the battlefield or a decision by Putin to end the conflict due to external and internal pressure. Posen then goes on to debunk both of these pathways. First, Russia has a significantly larger and more capable military than Ukraine and could escalate the conflict, which would significantly raise the costs for Ukraine. This makes an outright battlefield victory or a war of attrition unlikely to succeed. In addition, Ukraine does not have the skill in maneuver warfare to take back all of the territory it has lost. As to the second pathway, the war has exposed the Russian system’s political and economic weakness. Yet, Russia appears to have a high threshold for pain and will likely fight hard to retain at least some Ukrainian territory and get something for the high cost it has paid.
Then again, Russia is unlikely to achieve complete victory either. A victory for Russia would look something like Putin’s demands to the United States before he invaded Ukraine. First, he sought to stop further North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, long a Russian irritant. Second, he demanded the United States and its Western NATO allies remove their troops from their Eastern allies’ countries – those which joined the Alliance after the fall of the Soviet Union. He further demanded NATO halt its exercises in Eastern Europe. Putin’s unstated aspiration was for a successful invasion of Ukraine to lead to an unravelling of the NATO alliance. Such an outcome is now unlikely.
Instead, Ukraine applied for EU membership and drew greater political, economic, and military support from both the EU and NATO. Worse still for Putin, Sweden and Finland were invited to join the alliance at the June 2022 NATO Summit. The United States and its allies then increased their military presence in Eastern Europe, and the United States announced its intention for permanent basing there. The Alliance also continued with Exercise Cold Response 2022, in Norway, with about 30,000 troops from 27 countries. Though not in response to the invasion, that exercise demonstrates NATO’s resolve to address threats collectively. Finally, a more resolute and unified NATO is preparing for potential conflict, and a more assertive European Union (EU), in concert with the United States and others, has imposed economic costs on Russia. The EU has also committed to reducing its energy dependence upon Russia. Germany, Europe’s largest economy, has finally pledged to meet NATO’s two percent of GDP military spending target and has agreed to stop further movement on the controversial Nordstream II pipeline.
So how does this current conflict end short of victory for either side?
Even if Russia defeats Ukraine militarily, it would likely result in an insurgency rather than in a victory, as John Nagl outlined in February 2022. If the current government escaped and set up a “government in exile” like the Free French in World War II, the West would be morally compelled to support that government and the fighters participating in the insurgency. Such support would be extremely dangerous for NATO, because Russia would be unlikely to sit idly by as NATO members offered safe havens and military and economic support to the insurgents and any government in exile, resulting in a “lose-lose” spiral of even more destruction, and potentially of a major war between NATO and Russia.
So how does this current conflict end short of victory for either side?
Clausewitz recognized that, “once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced, and peace must follow.” As of July 2022, the costs of the war have been staggering to both Russia and Ukraine. The economic costs have also been significant for the United States and its allies. Therefore, as Fred Iklé mentioned in his book, Every War Must End, “to bring the fighting to an end, one nation or the other almost always has to revise its war aims.” For Russia, Ukraine agreeing to renounce its aspirations for membership in NATO, which will not likely be forthcoming at any time in the near future, could be a win. Such a deal could leave Russian troops where they now stand, leaving a permanent division of Ukraine, akin to that between North and South Korea. This would be a bitter pill for Ukrainians to swallow, after fiercely resisting invasion and then imposing significant costs on Russia. While this would provide immediate relief to Ukrainian civilians and refugees in Eastern Europe, and to military forces on both sides, this result would be inherently unstable and likely would be only a pause before further conflict resumed. As Beatrice Heuser noted in an article almost a decade ago, “victory alone is rarely of much value if it does not bring peace with justice.”
Yet, Putin would be wise to heed Clausewitz’s counsel that, “the smaller the penalty you demand from your opponent, the less you can expect him to try to deny it to you.” Ukraine would be more willing to accept a return to a status quo ante on the ground, with Russian troops gradually returning to positions held before the invasion in 2022. As Russian troops withdrew, the United States, the EU, and their global allies or partners could gradually remove sanctions on Russia, in a quid pro quo manner. The parties might also return to a Minsk II-type process, with steps that are more definitive and a clearly outlined sequence of measures which offer an acceptable, if less-desirable, resolution of the conflict in the Donbass.
At the same time, the United States and its democratic allies should support Ukraine, with all possible means, short of directly attacking Russia. That includes a commitment to rebuilding Ukraine and to keeping certain punitive policies in place, so long as Putin is in power and continues to pose a threat to Ukraine and to Russia’s neighbors. Admittedly, victory on the battlefield may not be achievable by either side. Stopping the actual (and metaphorical) bleeding might be more important than achieving victory at any cost. While the conflict is likely to drag on for the near future, it is not too soon to start thinking about how all this ends and what that will mean in long-term consequences for the world.
Joel R. Hillison holds the General Colin Powell Chair of Military and Strategic Studies. A retired military officer, with over 30 years of service, he spent three years in NATO and served as the Comptroller, Multinational Forces Iraq. He received his Ph.D. in International Relations from Temple University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense. He has no special access to intelligence or any operational matters that are not otherwise available to the general public.
Photo Description: Ukrainians carried signs opposing to war and Russia President Vladimir Putin during a street march in Bangkok after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bangkok, Thailand, Feb.27, 2022
Photo Credit: Tommy Walker/VOA