Staff officers often seethe quietly at an absence of precise political objectives for a war. After all, they frequently think, the really hard part is the marshaling and direction of air, land, and sea forces against a reacting enemy. Surely politicians could make that task easier by providing clear and constant purposes. Alas, the officers are invariably disappointed, and the war in Ukraine shows why.
One might think Ukrainian objectives should be clear. Not so. They include independence, a free form of government, and the restoration of sovereignty within Ukrainian territory. But Kyiv will have to decide what the last goal means—accepting the loss of further terrain in the east and south, pushing for the restoration of the pre–February 24 line of contact, recovering portions of Donbas lost in the 2010s, or recovering everything, including Crimea, that was part of Ukraine in 2013.
Ukrainian politicians must decide, too, whether to seek reparations and reconstruction aid, and whether freedom to join the European Union and the possibility of joining NATO have to be part of the eventual peace settlement. That assumes, of course, that there is one, rather than a frozen conflict of the kind that has cost thousands of Ukrainian casualties in Donetsk and Luhansk from 2014 to the present.
Russian objectives were clear enough at the beginning: overthrowing the Zelensky government, occupying all of Ukraine (or at least all of eastern Ukraine), and reducing the country to client status (much like Belarus), or even reincorporating it into what would effectively be a reestablished Russian empire.
Defeat on the outskirts of Kyiv forced a change in Russian objectives to the complete occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas, and of the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, including Odesa. Their objectives then shifted once again, to the creation of a land bridge from Russia to the Crimean peninsula, and the occupation of almost all of Donbas. Objectives may eventually shift once more, to the creation of a frozen conflict that will cripple the Ukrainian state. Meanwhile, the surprisingly robust Western response will almost certainly make relief from Western financial and trading sanctions a crucial Russian objective. And should Russia face more tangible and costly battlefield defeats, the preservation of Vladimir Putin’s rule—not in play before the war—will become a crucial objective as well.
From the point of view of Ukraine’s Western allies, objectives have also shifted. Originally their purpose was supporting a plucky but doomed Ukrainian conventional battle for survival and helping lay the groundwork for an insurgency that would make Russia pay a price for its aggression. When it became clear that Ukraine could bleed Russian forces dry and even defeat them, the goals subtly changed. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently said, the U.S. now aims to weaken Russia to the point that it is incapable of similar future aggression against Ukraine or any NATO states.
These are the more or less tangible objectives of each side. There are the intangible ones as well, captured in words like humiliation, dignity, reputation, retribution, and vindication. War is about passion and ideas no less than slices of territory. Ignoring the importance of those emotions, which are just as real as the more concrete purposes often discussed, would be a mistake.
Thus, in this war, as in so many in the past, it is not simply the objectives that shape the battles, but also the battles that shape the objectives. Some objectives may be stated, others implicit, some barely admitted even privately. Retaining a sense of direction in war is a constant struggle for political and military leaders at the top, and so the staff officers (and the commentary journalists) are doomed to frustration. It was ever thus: In 1939, Britain’s war to preserve Polish independence became a war to overthrow Hitler and remake Germany; by 1945, America’s war to contain Japan’s Asian expansionism and retaliate for Pearl Harbor had become nothing less than a project to eliminate European empires, establish an open global economic order, and rescue Europe from Communist, and not just Nazi, dictatorship.
The United States, as leader of the Western coalition, still has a lot of thinking to do about political objectives in this war. The most important given is one already laid down in American policy—namely, that it will be up to Ukraine to decide what it wishes to accomplish. That country is bearing the burdens of blood and sacrifice on a scale not seen since World War II, and its cause is indisputably just. It has every right to decide what it can and cannot accept and strive for.
The battlefield facts, as far as we can know them, are that Ukraine is winning the war. A brutal and incompetent Russian military has suffered terrible losses; its reserves consist largely of untrained men who would draw on stocks of weapons and ammunition that have been badly maintained or rotted out by corruption. Its generals have proved unable to orchestrate a campaign to gain air superiority or launch concentrated thrusts into Ukrainian territory. And it has acted with unspeakable barbarity in the matters of pillage, deportation, rape, and murder—activities that carry with them the curse of indiscipline as well as criminality. These are moral facts that will, and should, modify or even outweigh coolly geopolitical calculations of the European balance of power.
The Ukrainians, though, while still under pressure, are less outnumbered than one might think—they may very well, for example, have more tanks in the theater than the Russians do, in part because of captures. In theory, drawing as they can on a population of 40 million, they can put large armies in the field. Unlike the Russians, they have (thanks to the U.S., Europe, and others, such as the Australians and Japanese) sources of weapons not likely to be disrupted by sanctions or sheer inefficiency. From the same sources, they also have far more extensive methods for collecting and analyzing intelligence than the Russians enjoy. Their combat motivation is unquestionably higher, and they have shown far greater ingenuity and combat skill than a Russian army that still relies on vast volumes of artillery fire, laying down devastation through which indifferently trained and maintained tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles advance.
As the Ukrainians accumulate more battlefield successes, they will raise their sights. The Russian army, having suffered tens of thousands of casualties and lost much of its frontline equipment, is making what might be its final, convulsive efforts at destroying Ukrainian forces in the south and east of that country. Like their previous efforts, these too will probably fail, and the possibility will open up of Russian routs along their 300-mile-long front line. A stalemate is also conceivable, and would create one set of plausible objectives for each side; a collapse of the Russian military is somewhat more so, and would create very different objectives.
Every war must end, and this one will as well. One set of follow-on objectives for the West is clear: helping Ukraine rebuild and put itself in a condition to defeat further Russian aggression. Similarly, it is both necessary and likely that NATO will emerge from this conflict larger, more united, and more powerful than before.
But all of this leaves the problem of Russia. It will not be reconstructed from without, as Germany and Japan were after World War II. If it is convulsed from within, it is less likely to be dominated by liberals (many of whom have fled the country) than by disgruntled nationalists. Putin may go, but his replacements are likely to come from similar backgrounds in the secret police or, possibly, the military. And it will not be able to rejoin the international community as it was.
Russia has been complicit in ghastly doings for the past several decades—think Grozny and Aleppo, not to mention Crimea and Donbas. But now it bears the mark of Cain. Brother-murder is the oldest human crime, and until February 24, 2022, Russia claimed the Ukrainians as brothers. The utterly unjustified nature of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, its exceptional brutality, the shamelessness of Russia’s lies and threats, and the grotesqueness of its claims to hegemony in the former Soviet states will make it more than usually difficult to bring it back into a Eurasian order that it, and no one else, has attempted to destroy.
This will be the hardest task of American statecraft going forward: dealing with a Russia reeling from defeat and humiliation, weakened but still dangerous, isolated but not without sympathizers or at least willing collaborators around the world. Containment in its original form presupposed a Soviet Union dominated by a rationalist ideology that would, sooner or later, perish of its own recognized failure to deliver the goods. This will be much more like dealing with a rabid, wounded beast that claws and bites at itself as much as it does at others, in the grip not of a millennial ideology but a bizarre combination of nationalism and nihilism.
Yet the West will not have much choice other than to strengthen the states on Russia’s periphery, in Central Asia as in Eastern Europe, and to hope against hope that the new “sick man of Europe” will, somehow and against the odds, recover something like moral sanity. There will be no return to normalcy or status quo ante here. We are, instead, looking at a long, well-armed, and watchful wait.