What Does it Mean to “Defeat Russia” in Ukraine?
The clarity of U.S. aims today is no more definite than it was at the war’s outset.
Within days of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the State Department undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Neuland, declared that the U.S. objective in the conflict is the “strategic defeat” of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
One month later, Nuland doubled down. “It is clear that Russia will lose this conflict. ... It is only a matter of time.”
At Davos one year ago, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen added Europe’s voice to the American chorus. “Putin's aggression must be a strategic failure,” she said.
It is well and good, and indeed to be expected, that when the guns start sounding leaders will seek to rally their troops to the cause. Remember George W. Bush’s famous, if premature “mission accomplished” declaration, well before the decisive conflict in Iraq commenced.
But when the real work of waging war commences, President Joe Biden, and the public whose endorsement he seeks, must, in word as well as deed, answer the question: What indeed does such high-sounding rhetoric really mean? How will we know when we have arrived at such a solemn and expansive if indefinite objective as Russia’s strategic defeat?
Putin has paid very close attention to the statements coming from Washington. He cannot afford to have illusions about Washington’s objective or dismiss its intentions as hyperbole.
“The goal of the West,” he declares, “is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. To finish us off. That’s exactly how we understand it all. It’s about the existence of our country. But they cannot fail to understand that it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield.”
In a war notable for Washington’s incremental, and so far strategically unsuccessful, escalation of the means—military as well as economic and financial—employed to attain Russia’s strategic defeat, the clarity of U.S. aims today is no more definite than it was at the war’s outset.
Both Washington’s political class and the public at large have become minor-league strategists. They prefer to focus on simple and often simplistic calculations to ascertain the direction of the conflict—how many tanks and artillery shells Washington is sending to Ukraine—even as they avoid more significant questions raised by Washington’s commitment to Putin’s ruin that a sober appreciation of costs and benefits would challenge if not reject outright.
Indeed, by declaring such an outsized and unambiguous purpose—for that is what a pledge to achieve Russia’s “strategic defeat” requires—the Biden administration risks a policy debacle not unlike Barack Obama’s famous declaration that Syria’s “Assad must go.” That policy has now entered its final act in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has just been unconditionally readmitted to the Arab League.
The antonym of strategic failure is strategic victory, and that indeed is what Iran is now announcing these very days in Damascus.
Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s deputy for political affairs, Mohammad Jamshidi, noted prior to Raisi’s recent arrival in Damascus that the visit is a sign of “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic victory in the region.”
Jamshidi explained that the very same Arab nations that supported Washington’s campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran are now reconciling with Tehran—with China’s and Russia’s support—and coordinating Syria’s return to the Arab fold. Washington’s role has been reduced to that of a spoiler, exiled to the periphery of dynamic events aimed at ending Syria’s civil war.
Obama’s call for regime change in Syria, for all of its increasingly evident faults, at least had the advantage of clarity.
In contrast, after a year of war in Europe, Washington, even as it claims that Putin is “scaling back his near-term ambitions” in Ukraine, admits that the chance of Russian concessions at any negotiating table this year “will be low.”
Clearly, the Biden administration is no closer to defining a scale for measuring the degree to which the war’s essential achievement in Washington’s calculus—that is Russia’s strategic defeat—has been, or indeed can be, achieved.
While the diplomats chatter, months of war have dragged on in battles more reminiscent of the static battle lines of World War I than the shock and awe of Washington’s Iraq invasion.
I admit that I am no military expert, but Europe’s bloody history advises that betting against the Russian army is a dangerous and costly wager.
Historian Mark Perry, of blessed memory, never tired of describing the Soviet Red Army as a formidable and, indeed, an implacable foe whose strength and power derived from the immensity of Russia’s unassailable command of the Eurasian landmass. He would often note that during World War II, Josef Stalin executed almost 200,000 of Russia’s own for desertion. In other words, Russia conducts war in a historical and geographic context different, indeed foreign, to our own.
To command the strategic defeat of any enemy, let alone a nuclear-armed Russia, is no mean feat. Recent history offers few examples of this scale of victory—the Taliban’s recent expulsion of Western forces, Israel’s June 1967 triumph, perhaps even Bush’s Operation Desert Shield come to mind—but even these military achievements proved short-lived or incomplete.
Washington’s commitment to Putin’s (or is it Russia’s?) strategic defeat seeks to leave Russia unable to achieve even the most modest of its war objectives in Ukraine as well as weaken Moscow’s sovereign capabilities to resist NATO’s expansion. Events of the past year have at least made it clear that Washington’s commitment to Russia’s strategic defeat has not been accompanied by a U.S. guarantee of Ukraine’s “victory,” however defined.
Geoffrey Aronson is a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former advisor to the EU and others on regional political and security issues.
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