As events in Ukraine continue to develop in often unexpected ways, policymakers in Kyiv and Moscow are reassessing what parameters would define an acceptable victory (or defeat).
When Russia launched its “special military operation” in February, the forecasts for Kyiv were grim. The CIA predicted that Russian forces would rapidly cut through Ukrainian defenses and seize Kyiv in a matter of weeks. Likewise, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley allegedly predicted that the Ukrainian government would not last longer than seventy-two hours.
During the first months of the war, Ukraine shared a similar outlook. Kyiv’s main objective was to ensure the survival of a viable Ukrainian state, likely governing a greatly diminished territory. Due to the high probability of suffering a military defeat, Ukrainian diplomats even made arrangements with the West to set up a government in exile. The government would relocate to the safety of another European capital while the remnants of the Ukrainian military would shift to asymmetrical warfare against occupying Russian forces.
Against the odds, Ukraine has largely been successful in its efforts to resist the invasion. By the late summer, Ukraine was in a strong enough position to launch a counteroffensive, forcing Russia to cede ground it had captured just months earlier. In early November, senior Russian military officials were forced to admit that their position in Kherson was untenable and announced that their troops would withdraw across the Dnipro River to establish new defensive lines before the winter.
Success on the battlefield has emboldened Ukraine to revise its objectives given that a complete military victory now seems distantly possible. As such, Kyiv has set its sights on expelling Russia altogether from all the territory they have occupied since February. Some Ukrainian officials have even discussed reversing Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and stranglehold over parts of eastern and southern Ukraine.
In September, Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov stressed that Ukraine would be uncompromising in its efforts to regain lost territory. At the 17th Yalta European Strategy (YES) annual meeting he said: “We can only speak about a complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty within the internationally recognized borders as of 1991. This means Crimea is Ukraine and Donbas is Ukraine.”
Andriy Yermak, the head of Volodoymyr Zelenskyy’s presidential administration, has similarly commented: “There will be peace when we destroy the Russian army in Ukraine and reach the borders of 1991.”
Drawing comparisons to the Nuremberg trials, Reznikov also argued that top Russian officials would have to be prosecuted for war crimes committed during the conflict. “In essence this is going to be the Nuremberg trials where the criminals who now lead the Russian Federation and who issue criminal orders will be brought to justice,” he said. “Russia has to pay, their future generations need to pay,” he added. Reznikov’s comparisons to the aftermath of World War II are a not-so-subtle allusion to the total defeat of the Russian military and the toppling of Vladimir Putin’s government.
In October, Zelenskyy echoed Reznikov’s confident sentiments. “We will definitely liberate Crimea,” Zelenskyy said, “We will return this part of our country not only to the all-Ukrainian space, but also to the all-European space.”
This rhetoric signals that Kyiv is shifting towards a more maximalist vision of victory. Yet, it remains to be seen whether Ukraine can sustain its counteroffensive, especially as winter sets in. But so far the adoption to a more ambitious set of strategic objectives has been vindicated by operational successes. By contrast, setbacks on the battlefield and the underperformance of the Russian military have forced Moscow to downsize its ambitions.
At the beginning of the war, it was clear that Putin envisioned a total victory. Russia’s initial plan was to rapidly seize Kyiv and decapitate the Ukrainian government, and resistance was expected to be light. With Kyiv in Russian hands and the Zelenskyy government imprisoned, killed, or exiled, the Kremlin would be able to establish a puppet government loyal to Moscow. Total victory would amount to the full absorption of Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence. The newly installed regime in Kyiv would resemble Putin-loyalist Alexander Lukashenko’s puppet government in Belarus.
For now, that vision of victory appears to be a past fantasy. The failure of Russian forces to capture the Antonov Airport and the bottleneck of a large column of motorized and mechanized troops en route to Kyiv ultimately resulted in Russia’s failure to capture the Ukrainian capital.
Publicly, Russian officials explained away this failure by claiming that the “first stage” of Russia’s military plans have been completed. This ploy reflected the need to convey a positive message to a domestic audience that operations were succeeding. Behind closed doors, however, it is unlikely that Putin or his military officers believed that they had in fact been successful. Nevertheless, realities on the ground necessitated a change in strategy and the Kremlin has turned its attention to eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin now aims for a more limited victory within the confines of this narrower geographical space.
The extent to which Moscow has scaled back the conditions it deems necessary for victory is unclear. Putin might theorize that a fully mobilized force could reverse Russia’s previous military failures. In October, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu announced a partial mobilization of 300,000 troops. Beyond this, it is doubtful that Putin would risk incurring the political and economic ramifications of putting Russia on a total war footing. It is also questionable how much additional manpower can shift the war in Moscow’s favor if command and control, logistics, and a whole host of other problems plaguing the Russian armed forces persisted.
Instead, it is far more likely that Moscow has reigned in its conditions for victory to reflect more modest objectives in eastern and southern Ukraine. Part of Putin’s public justification for the invasion was to provide assistance to the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist statelets, ostensibly to prevent “bullying and genocide” by Kyiv. In September, Russia staged referendums in occupied Ukrainian territories and formally annexed Luhansk and Donetsk, together with the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. If Moscow can establish a firm grip over these regions, Putin’s propagandists could spin a version of victory based on the security of these areas.
For now, neither side appears ready to negotiate. As a general rule, states come to the negotiating table to end a war when they are in a stronger military position to force concessions from their adversary or when they are so threatened that peace is a necessity.
Kyiv is in a better military position to leverage concessions if negotiations take place. There has been some murmuring from Ukraine’s Western allies that Kyiv should push for dialogue while they have the upper hand. However, Zelenskyy’s government is adamant that there will be no negotiations until Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine entirely. “When you have the initiative on the battlefield, it's a little strange to receive proposals like: ‘You will not be able to do everything by military means anyway, you need to negotiate,’” said Mykhaylo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelenskyy.
In any case, the probability of Moscow agreeing to talks soon is low. Russia is in a bad place militarily but its situation is not irreversible and heavy casualties will not deter the Kremlin. Putin needs successes on the battlefield that he can present as a victory to a domestic audience. Without this, his position in power will be extremely tenuous. At a minimum, Moscow will likely require a firm hold over the areas it has annexed in eastern and southern Ukraine, as well as continued control over Crimea, for it to consider negotiations. And this is only if Putin concludes that further military gains are unachievable.
This means that a ceasefire is not within sight and the fighting will continue until one side has achieved a decisive military advantage to press for a favorable outcome. Neither side is likely to agree to compromises at the negotiating table until the balance of power significantly shifts one way or another.
For now, the pace of fighting is expected to slow as temperatures drop during the winter months. This will give Russian and Ukrainian policymakers time to ponder their next moves and assess their objectives. Conceptions of what it means to win or what would constitute an acceptable defeat will continue to shift as the balance of power on the battlefield dictates what is realistic.
Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specializing in security and international relations. In 2020, he co-founded SDAFA, an online strategy and defense journal. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy.