Leonid Bershidsky

Victory and Defeat Are Hard to Define in Ukraine

One of the most striking things about the Russo-Ukrainian war of 2022 is the variety of outcomes that both sides could declare as a victory — and the scarcity of outcomes that can last. What will determine the success of any declaration is its intended audience. What matters in the real world, however, is whether the outcome establishes a balance of forces and interests between the belligerents such that further armed conflict makes no sense, or even becomes impossible.

Both sides’ declared goals in the war are relatively ambitious, even after Russia appeared to scale down its own. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s vision of victory includes the return of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukraine. Russia aims to expand its control of Ukrainian territory to the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east and a slice of the Ukrainian Black Sea coastline in the south, turning Ukraine into a landlocked nation. The invaded territories may even be claimed as parts of Russia rather than allied unrecognized statelets.

That doesn’t mean, however, that either side lacks “victory” options in between — or that even if one of the sides achieves its maximum goal in the coming months, the violence will end in the long term.

For Ukraine, a Russian retreat to the contact lines that existed before Feb. 24 would constitute a clear victory, at least in the eyes of the world. Zelenskiy might even be able to sell it domestically — as a compromise that would save Ukrainian lives and bring back the status quo to which the nation had generally become accustomed — even if an electorate angered by Russian war crimes would likely bristle. More than 80% of Ukrainians oppose the recognition of any Russian conquests, including Crimea, and almost three quarters believe Ukraine is capable of repelling the Russian attack. These numbers are not conducive to any kind of compromise.

And yet, even if Ukraine suffers a reversal of military fortunes and a Russian withdrawal to previous lines becomes unrealistic, any outcome under which Ukraine retains access to the Black Sea and the Russian blockade of its remaining ports is lifted would already constitute something of a victory — at least of the moral kind, akin to the one Finland won in the Winter War despite losing 9% of its territory. Ukraine would still frustrate Putin’s regime change ambitions and retain its independence and national identity.

Ukraine could only be considered defeated if Putin had displaced Zelenskiy and installed a puppet government in the first weeks of the invasion. Since even the Kremlin has given up this pipe dream, Ukraine has, in a sense, already won.

Russia, for its part, has already lost this war — its reputation as a military power has been undermined, its global image tarnished for decades by the brutality of the invasion’s soldiers, its sense of security diminished by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Finland and Sweden. The territorial gains in Ukraine — especially given the devastation of the conquered territories — cannot compensate for the loss of international business and frozen Central Bank reserves.

Despite this, a declaration of victory is essentially possible for Russia any day that it still holds more territory than when it invaded, and especially while it holds the Sea of Azov coastline between Crimea and the Russian border. This land ensures uninterrupted water supply and a route from mainland Russia to occupied Crimea. Without the peninsula and without the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson regions, Ukraine’s territory would shrink by about 18% — much more, in both absolute and relative terms, than Stalin managed to wrest from Finland; Russia would add an area comparable in size to Colorado, Nevada or Bulgaria.

Putin also has far more leeway in passing off these relative gains as a victory to the domestic audience than Zelenskiy has in selling any incomplete triumph to his voters. Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor and author of “Bloodlands,” the oft-quoted book about Eastern Europe’s tragic history, made the point in a recent Twitter thread.

“If defeated in reality, Putin will just declare victory on television, and Russians will believe him, or pretend to,” Snyder wrote. By contrast, Zelenskiy “cannot simply change the subject. He has to bring his people along on any major decision.” From that, Snyder concludes that Putin cannot be cornered in Ukraine, like the famous rat of his childhood memories, and doesn’t need real-world offramps or face-saving efforts, whereas Zelenskiy does need help in both winning the war and in explaining to Ukrainians their country’s post-war future.

Snyder is right, at least for the short term. The war goes on because Putin appears to think he can gain more in exchange for everything he’s already lost for Russia — and because Ukrainians think they can beat him and kick him out with less than he had when he attacked earlier this year. If he can be persuaded that further gains are impossible, and if the Ukrainian public can be sold on a partial Russian retreat, the fighting will be over for now. That’s a goal best achieved by more military aid for Ukraine — and by celebrating battlefield victories that give Ukrainians much to be proud of even in the absence of a complete, final victory.

In the long term, though, any outcome of the current war — even the maximum results desired by either side today — may well be as untenable as the situation of 2014-2015, which festered to produce the current conflict.

If Russia stops attacking and consolidates its relatively modest gains, or if it retreats while keeping its previous conquests in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, both sides will be tempted to resume hostilities at some point. Ukraine has overcome the trauma of the defeats it suffered at the hands of the Russian military in 2014 and 2015. Its troops have tasted battlefield success, and they are not in awe of their adversary: Retaking lost territories is within the realm of the possible now. Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov has predicted that Ukraine would get them back by Christmas — and if that prediction turns out to be too rosy, many in Ukraine will consider it worth trying at a later date. That means no Russian “victory” short of the collapse of Ukrainian statehood can be final.

On the other hand, Putin — who likely will remain in power even if the “victory” he ends up declaring is modest — may not be able to resist the itch to reinvade once the lessons of the current onslaught are internalized and those found responsible for its setbacks punished.

The danger of a new Russian attack will remain even if Putin’s failure is complete and he has to withdraw from all the annexed and occupied territories in the coming months. His position atop the Russian hierarchy will be precarious then: He won’t be able to declare victory even on TV, and Russia is not a country that’s kind to losers, nor is it one that easily forgets defeats. To those interested in what to expect from a certain kind of Putin successor, the Telegram feed of Igor Girkin aka Strelkov, one of the key figures in the Russian-fanned 2014 rebellion in eastern Ukraine, lays out a nascent version of the Dolchstoßlegende, in which the insufficiently nationalist Putin clique betrays Russian interests for selfish reasons.

Even if a weakened Russia exits the conflict, and even if it falls apart as some Ukrainian and Western intellectuals hope, the experience of interwar Germany — or, indeed, of post-Soviet Russia itself — should be a good guide. Ressentiment can drive both economic mobilization and rearmament. A Russia forced to withdraw inside its borders and lick its wounds will pose an existential threat even to a Ukraine protected by membership in the Western world’s meaningful alliances, the European Union and NATO.

There aren’t many options for lasting peace in the Ukrainian “bloodlands,” and those that exist appear utopian today. A quarter of a century after the Yugoslav wars ran their course, the former Yugoslavia is still not free from tensions, and armed conflict involving its successor states is still a possibility, though Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia are all NATO members. The tension would finally be gone once Serbia, a candidate for European Union membership, joined the EU alongside other former Yugoslav states. In the same way, any long-term harmonious solution to the existential conflict between an imperialist Russia and a stubbornly independent Ukraine is only possible if both countries end up as parts of a united Europe — a distant prospect today, to say the least, and one that requires a degree of Russian atonement unimaginable not just under Putin, but under almost any conceivable successor. Yet, if peace for all time is what the West seeks, this — and not merely a weakened Russia — should be its long-term objective.