It's Not Just a Battle of Resolve in Ukraine
Why Russia's new theory of victory is flawed.
For any armed group to successfully prosecute a war, they have to have a convincing theory of victory. Without beliefs and strategies that dictate how to win a war, states can expend a lot of blood and treasure and accomplish nothing. Which brings us to Russia.
Russia’s original theory of victory in Ukraine was predicated on a lightning-fast military strike that would end with a Russian parade in Kyiv inside of two weeks. The first few months of the war made a mockery of those claims. Over the summer, Russia’s theory of victory evolved into the Stalinesque maxim of “quantity has a quality all its own.” The idea was that Russia could throw enough men and material to overwhelm Ukrainian forces. That attempt ended badly. Ukraine launched a stunning counterattack, taking back significant territory in the east aa well as Kherson, the only regional capital that Russia had captured. Putin was forced to announce a unpopular partial mobilization.
Over the last few months, the Russians have developed a new theory of victory, one based on will as much as capability. Putin is now acknowledging that the conflict will be a long one and that Russia is prepared to absorb losses. The New York Times’ excellent recounting of Russia’s thinking about the war to date includes one NATO official estimating that Putin would be willing to accept 300,000 Russian casualties. Putin is also taking pains to signal that he is not backing down:
Mr. Putin has shown few hints that he’s willing to turn back now. Last month, the C.I.A. director, Mr. Burns, met for the first time since the invasion with Sergei Naryshkin, the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Russia. The meeting, at the headquarters of Turkish intelligence in Ankara, took place to reopen a direct, in-person line of communication between Washington and Moscow, but the tone was not one of reconciliation.
According to senior officials present, Mr. Naryshkin said Russia would never give up, no matter how many troops it lost on the battlefield. This month, Ukrainian leaders warned that Russia might be massing troops and arms to launch a new offensive by spring….
As one senior NATO intelligence official put it, Russian generals “acknowledge the incompetence, lack of coordination, lack of training. They all recognize these problems.” Still, they seem confident of an “eventual victory” because, the official said, “Putin believes this is a game of chicken between him and the West, and he believes the West will blink first.”
Russia’s repeated strikes against against Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure are consistent with this strategy. Those strikes could cripple the Ukrainian economy at a moment when the Russians believe that Western support for aiding Ukraine is softening. A harsh winter might render the West inconstant, leaving Ukraine exposed to the tender mercies of a sanctions-resilient Russian economy mobilizing to arm and equip hundreds of thousands of new Russian recruits.
Or so Russia’s current theory of victory holds. Maybe it will turn out to be true. But this third theory of victory also has some logical flaws.
First, Russia keeps waiting for the West’s resolve to weaken and that keeps not happening. Russian analysts now privately acknowledge that they misread how the midterms would affect U.S. material support for Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky’s trip to Washington, DC was just the latest falsification of that particular hope. Zelensky’s visit to the White House and address to a joint session of Congress generated tangible and intangible gains for Kyiv. Tangibly, Zelensky secured promises of new arms, which comes on top of fresh funding for Ukraine in the omnibus bill. Intangibly, the trip generated comparisons of Zelensky to Churchill and the U.S.-Ukrainian partnership to the Atlantic Charter. That will likely bolster GOP support for Ukraine, which has eroded somewhat (although a majority of Republicans still favors assisting Ukraine). Biden and Zelensky both smartly played support for Ukraine as a bipartisan effort. Even Ukraine skeptics were shamed into giving Zelensky a standing ovation during his address to Congress.
Second, when it comes to resolve Russia needs to remember that it is not really fighting the West, it is fighting Ukraine — on Ukrainian soil. In that battle of resolve, Ukraine wins every time. The whole Russian mythos of outlasting invasions from the West does not apply to this situation, because Russia is the invader. Ukraine has heard this broken record many times before, and they have eviscerated Russia’s reputation for fielding a competent military.
Third, wars are not won strictly on resolve alone — capabilities do matter. Even if Ukraine is more important to Russia than to NATO, the latter does not need to spend much as a fraction of overall defense expenditures to match Russia’s investment. U.S. assistance to Ukraine represents less than six percent of overall defense spending while ensnaring a great power military from engaging in further adventurism.As one analyst put it, “from numerous perspectives, when viewed from a bang-per-buck perspective, US and Western support for Ukraine is an incredibly cost-effective investment. “ Maybe Russian capabilities and improvisation will win the day, but they face a determined adversary that has excelled at exploiting of every technological edge the West is giving it.
Writing in Just Security, Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel conclude that, contra Putin, time, time favors Ukraine:
Putin believes he will outlast both Ukraine and its allies and that time is on his side in the war. But this position and resulting expectations of Russia’s eventual victory are based on erroneous assumptions, while facts point toward a Ukrainian victory. Russia is unlikely to recover from the string of military defeats it suffered to turn the course of the war, and the winter only exacerbates its position on the battlefield. Western support for Ukraine is unlikely to crumble. A protracted assault marked by continued war crimes stands to inflict further long-term damage on Russia’s post-war economic trajectory and international standing. In sum… Russia’s maximalist goals in Ukraine are becoming less attainable by the day.
I am on record as worrying that all the sides to this conflict are retaining some wishful thinking about how this war will end. Maybe the United States and Ukraine will also need to revisit their theories of victory in 2023. As winter begins, however, it sure seems like Russia’s new theory of victory will be falsified pretty damn soon.