Six weeks into Vladimir Putin’s “special operation” in Ukraine, his failures are many and manifest. Conventional wisdom had it that the Russians would crush Kyiv and rapidly seize turf elsewhere. Now one keeps hearing about how brave Ukrainians are winning. Incompetent and demoralized Russian forces are stymied.
Ukrainians have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice and suffer that matches anything patriots of the West could ever boast of. But what would constitute true victory? And what of America’s role? Our temporizing at this moment—especially when the prospect of military success is tangible—would be strategically myopic and morally shameful. Herewith are four factors that would help to define victory.
The first measure of victory is the security of the Ukrainian regime and its alignment with the liberal West. This is a larger requirement than simply the survival of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, his lieutenants, and his senior commanders. It may not necessarily include the restoration of every inch of previous Ukrainian territory—that is a matter for Ukrainians themselves to decide. Central, however, is that Ukraine’s desire to be independent, sovereign, and free under the rule of law be preserved. For Vladimir Putin, it was exactly this aspiration that counted as the country’s mortal sin.
This desire is the wellspring of the Ukrainian fighting spirit, a national determination to throw off the yoke of Russian dictation and domination. The ambition to stand “among the powers of the earth” is one that the American Founders shared.
For those who plan strategy from afar, the situation on the ground must not be overlooked. Circumstances are already dire. Refugees (4.2 million) and internally displaced persons (6.5 million) in less than two months of war already add up to a quarter of the Ukrainian population. Imagine eighty million Americans suddenly homeless, under fire, and on the run. Mariupol is obliterated, with an estimated 90 percent of its buildings partially or fully destroyed. That’s Miami.
Nor will Ukraine or the West win if this becomes another “frozen conflict” in Eastern Europe. That’s one plausible outcome: There are peace planners already plotting for partition—over the heads of the Ukrainians. This must be resisted. It would result in a long and fierce insurgency. True, this would bleed Russia. It would also allow Russia to continue crippling Ukraine and threatening the region.
The first and absolute urgent order of business is that we stop fretting about what’s offensive or defensive in our stockpile and what might be construed by Putin as escalatory. A no-fly zone is off the table (for now). But Ukraine whole and free requires a strategy with full and proper resources. Why must President Zelenskyy beg every day for the means to self-defense? We can assess what Ukrainians need to drive Russia out. This includes planes and Patriots and air defense. What are we waiting for? By summer, those clumsy Russian forces will have battered even more of the country. The atrocities of Bucha will repeat themselves and keep all of Eastern Europe reeling. Equip Ukraine to win on the battlefield—now.
Beyond Battlefield Victory
But a vision of Ukraine whole and free will require a second set of tasks that will extend beyond the war. Again, security takes precedence, and even the best likely outcome of the conflict would mark a beginning, not an end. The particulars of NATO or EU membership are far less important than whether the United States and its allies make serious security and economic commitments to defending Eastern Europe along a line from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The reconstruction of Ukraine’s devastated economy and infrastructure will be central and must be prioritized. Keep in mind that, before the war, Ukraine was Europe’s poorest country. We must stay focused on security. However wounded, Ukraine—and others—will still have to live alongside a wounded bear.
The second foundation for victory is thus a revitalized security architecture in Europe, which places a premium on American initiative. A peace worth the paper it’s written on demands that the United States reposture its military forces across Eastern Europe. NATO and Russia have shared a border for decades; Russia has been operating on that reality, but much of the Atlantic Alliance has not. Only in recent weeks has the Pentagon returned a division’s worth of heavy armored forces to the region. This is but a fifth of the strength that defended a portion of the inner German border in the late Cold War—a border that was half the length of today’s “Eastern Front.” Other allied armies are barely able to muster forces numbered in battalions, while the German Bundeswehr cannot do even that. Nor can the U.S. Army long sustain this level of effort with rotational units; the current three brigades deployed to Europe represent fully one-third of the service’s heavy forces. In addition to defending a wider front, Western conventional forces must pose a credible deterrent, capable of counterattack.
The Biden administration has been tactically agile, but it has been unable or unwilling to articulate a vision and advance a coherent strategy of what to do. This is most apparent in its just-released 2023 defense budget request and National Defense Strategy, which describes Russia as an “acute” threat—a painful but passing danger—while confirming China as the “pacing” challenge that will define U.S. military structures and defense investments. Thus Biden’s budget request makes further cuts to the size of the armed services and current procurements while ramping up longer-term research projects. Although the nominal size of the budget request is increased, the Pentagon is likely to lose at least 5 percent of its purchasing power to inflation over the course of the budget year.
While Putin, his cronies, and Russia as a whole must be the first to make reparations for their aggression and barbarous conduct of the war, that won’t suffice. The task of leading Europe to a safer and more liberal future still falls uniquely on the United States; the centrality of American power to European security has never been more apparent than now. We say these things fully aware that American leadership has been in doubt in recent years. We’ve made mistakes. The Trump presidency was jarring for our allies. It’s fair for Europeans to wonder what comes next from a polarized America given to visionary sermons one day and neo-isolationist impulses the next.
Likewise, Germany—whose role in empowering Putin calls into question not only its strategic maturity but its moral authority—must meet this challenge. We welcome the German Zeitenwende, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz has termed what may become a historic turning point. It will not be enough, however, to rearm Germany or to wean it from Russian sources of energy. Berlin’s lukewarm liberalism is an indulgence that neither the rest of Europe nor the United States can afford.
For all of us, Russia’s war must accelerate a turn away from the breezy economic globalism of the post-Cold War era. China’s increasingly malevolent and aggressive behavior during the reign of Xi Jinping has finally suggested what strategic common sense and human history make plain: enriching ambitious autocrats ends in tears. If you subsidize something, you’re likely to get more of it. “Mercantilism” is not incompatible with sustained economic growth, as the British regimen of Navigation Acts demonstrates. There has always been a hierarchy of needs for liberal states; “life” precedes “liberty,” which precedes “the pursuit of happiness.”
Defining Terms of Engagement
The third element defining true victory is ideological. This means a renewed energy across the West for the global conflict of political principles between liberalism and its many discontents. If Ukraine is now the central front in this contest, the decisive ground is on domestic fronts. While it may be the case that the fads for radicalism and reaction are a product of the holiday from history of the last generation, it cannot be taken for granted that they will fade away before they burn out; setting fires is something that extremists excel at.
The assaults on Western liberal democracy are many and manifest. Our current strategic uncertainty is a product not just of the complexities of a proxy war with a nuclear-armed adversary, but of our own moral uncertainty. Thus far, neither Left nor Right extremes see in the Ukraine conflict any reason to rethink their political postures. The Right wants to defeat Disneyland rather than Russia. The Left would rather wean the world from fossil fuels than Germany from Russian coal.
Lockean liberalism—toleration of others, respect for individual rights, the rule of laws that generally reflect the consent of the people—is warm milk compared to the strong gods of “common-good” nationalism (where the good is defined by me and not thee) or the sophistication of cosmopolitanism. Yet it is modern mankind’s best solution to the need for security and the desires for liberty and prosperity. This is the train that Ukrainians are desperately striving to catch, even as they realize that defeating the Russians is but the first step in the pursuit. Their passion can rouse our better angels. We need Ukrainians to guide us in this fight.
Our Putin Problem
Finally, the mirror image of victory in Ukraine is the full defeat of Vladimir Putin. There is, now, an opportunity on the battlefield to transform a heroic defense by Ukrainians into a comprehensive and catastrophic setback for Russia’s military, one that would cripple it for years. This is a fleeting moment, and if it is not exploited to the fullest extent possible, the consequences will be soon enough apparent. We need a wider vision on this.
Russian forces and Russian influence can be chiseled down in the Middle East and Africa, in Georgia, Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh, and in the Arctic. Beyond nuclear forces, Russia’s pretense to great conventional military power has been revealed as illusory. In Ukraine, the Russians are operationally vulnerable to counterattack; even if they are repositioning troops to the Donbas front, the Ukrainians, with interior lines, will be there first. The Russian army is offering itself up in bite-size chunks. In doing so, it has thinned out its global posture; the pressures now being applied to the isolated Kaliningrad enclave are suggestive of what might be done elsewhere. A declining power with intent and capability to play the role of spoiler is suddenly exceptionally vulnerable. Putin is a pariah. Shall we really lean back and see where we are in a year or two?
As one element of a larger strategy, Russian defeat demands the continuation and expansion of economic sanctions. To be sure, these did not deter Putin and their effects have yet to be truly felt. They also involve risks to European economies and the global financial system that has been a critical though oft-maligned element of the current international order. Even if Beijing and Moscow were able to fashion alternative arrangements—and given the inherent inflexibilities of state-directed quasi-capitalism, there is reason to question the ability to do so—their ability to sustain a long-term bloc-versus-bloc competition would be in doubt.
The larger aim of any strategy must be that Putin and his war machine are seen as losers. They must be defeated unambiguously. This will require a robust, properly resourced “information war” from our side. Putin has kicked everybody in the teeth: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America, Ekho Moskvy, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and a long list of independent Russian journalists and writers. He has been punishing and poisoning dissidents for years. He humiliates ordinary Russians. Soviet-era dissident and physicist Andrei Sakharov said the most important weapon is not the bomb but the truth: Only “freedom of thought,” observed Sakharov, can check “mass myths, which in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship.”
We are under no illusions. We understand that Putin’s propaganda has had its effect. But our side has immense talent, the tools, and substantial infrastructure. We need to better focus our resources to set an agenda aimed ultimately at political change in Russia.
Zelenskyy’s leadership is inspirational. He’s defending his country. He’s also creating opportunities for liberalism to reclaim lost ground in a struggle against global authoritarianism and illiberal populism across the West. But Zelenskyy can’t be the only leader of the free world.
In 1577, the scholar, alchemist, and political philosopher John Dee told Queen Elizabeth I that current events presented “a little lock of Lady Occasion, Flickering in the air, by our hands, to catch hold on: whereby we may once more discreetly and valiantly recover … some such Notable Portion” of British greatness, making the “most Peaceable, most Rich, most Puissant and most Flourishing Monarchy of all else in Christendom.” Now, Lady Occasion again flickers in the air before us. Like Dee, who introduced the phrase “British Empire” into popular discourse, we must not only catch hold onto it, we must see in it a vision of a more flourishing future.
There is opportunity to be seized. Ukraine must be fully and properly armed to save its people and nation. Russia must be defeated. Without this, a great unraveling—in Eastern Europe and across the West—will likely, tragically continue.
Giselle Donnelly, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute. Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.
Image: By armyinform.com.ua, https://armyinform.com.ua/2022/03/26/francziya-vymagatyme-vid-rf-znyaty-oblogu-mariupolya/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=116431122
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