For all intents and purposes the Budapest Memorandum—under which the United States, Russia, and the UK gave assurances on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus—is now worthless. The purpose of the memorandum was violated by the Russia in 2014 with its seizure of Crimea. At best, the existence of the memorandum can provide some diplomatic and perhaps legal basis for the support the West is currently giving Ukraine. That support, from both the United States and its allies, came quickly after Russia’s invasion last February and has rapidly grown since. But to what end? In other words, what does victory, specifically from the standpoint of US interests, look like in Ukraine?

The answer to this question, of course, is a function of US interests and strategic objectives. One of the first statements of US policy regarding Ukraine after Russia’s invasion was in a New York Times op-ed by President Joe Biden, published on May 31 of last year. It laid out the following US objectives:

  • A democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression;
  • Ukraine with a significant amount of weaponry and ammunition so it can fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table;
  • Russia paying a heavy price for its actions, thus sending a message to other would-be aggressors that they cannot seize territory and subjugate other countries; and
  • Sustainment of other peaceful democracies and the rules-based international order.

These are objectives issued specifically in the context of Russia’s February 2022 invasion and the ongoing war that it triggered. We can gain further fidelity on US interests by taking a broader view, for which US strategic documents—the National Security Strategy in particular—offer a starting point for review. The 2022 National Security Strategy is explicit in delineating the elements of US strategy vis-à-vis Ukraine, Russian aggression, and the stability of Europe and the world in general:

While some aspects of our approach will depend on the trajectory of the war in Ukraine, a number of elements are already clear. First, the United States will continue to support Ukraine in its fight for its freedom, we will help Ukraine recover economically, and we will encourage its regional integration with the European Union. Second, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory and will continue to build and deepen a coalition with allies and partners to prevent Russia from causing further harm to European security, democracy, and institutions. Third, the United States will deter and, as necessary, respond to Russian actions that threaten core U.S. interests, including Russian attacks on our infrastructure and our democracy. Fourth, Russia’s conventional military will have been weakened, which will likely increase Moscow’s reliance on nuclear weapons in its military planning. The United States will not allow Russia, or any power, to achieve its objectives through using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons. America retains an interest in preserving strategic stability and developing a more expansive, transparent, and verifiable arms control infrastructure to succeed New START and in rebuilding European security arrangements which, due to Russia’s actions, have fallen in to disrepair. Finally, the United States will sustain and develop pragmatic modes of interaction to handle issues on which dealing with Russia can be mutually beneficial. [Emphasis added]

From President Biden’s May 2022 op-ed and the National Security Strategy published in October, then, we have a reasonably clear picture of US objectives and strategic interests. US policy is readily apparent: supplying the Ukrainians with arms. The key question is what connects this policy to the strategic objectives.

Reflecting on that question, I am reminded of words I heard spoken by the late Rick Sinnreich during a wargame some years ago. What is the aim of our policy, he asked, and how do we conclude this effort on terms favorable to the United States? War, as we all know, is an extension of policy through other means. With respect to Ukraine today, it is crucial that US strategists and policymakers are considering the questions Rick posed. Success for any US strategy with regards to Ukraine, Russia, and how this war ends requires one fundamental but often elusive element: a theory of victory.

Eliot Cohen has described a model for twenty-first-century strategy in which a “theory of victory” was a vital component. Cohen proposed a consideration of assumptions, ends, ways, means, priorities, sequencing, and a theory of victory. I wrote about this model and suggested substituting risks for priorities. I wrote to Cohen in January 2012 asking what he meant by theory of victory. He replied, “My definition of a theory of victory is really simple—’why do we think this will work?’ I wouldn’t make it any more complicated than that, since nothing ever really takes into account everything the other side is likely to do.”

On this basis, we can establish a theory of victory for the war in Ukraine—essentially, “If the United States commits force in accordance with the strategy developed then we will be victorious because . . . .” The use of force is the actual commitment of US forces or providing US weapons, logistics, and intelligence support. The statement demands constant strategic-level work and interaction with policy and decision makers. I mean this theory of victory to apply to attaining US policy objectives, guided by Rick Sinnreich’s words about ending the war in Ukraine on terms favorable to the United States. Cohen allows us to infer that victory does not simply happen, but is the result of hard work linking tactical success and operational effect to attaining strategic and policy objectives. Attaining policy objectives is victory in this century.

In proposing a theory of victory I am assuming both that there is a grand strategy in place for our support to Ukraine and that the joint staff is continuously assessing (a) how well the support that we (the United States, NATO, and other partners) are providing the Ukrainian armed forces is being used and (b) the effectiveness of those systems. If there is not a strategy in place we have a much bigger challenge. Reading the objectives coldly and pragmatically sets the basis for our theory of victory. Recall the five policy objectives from the National Security Strategy:

  • Objective 1: Support Ukraine in its fight, help it recover economically, and encourage its regional integration with the European Union.
  • Objective 2: Defend NATO territory and build and deepen a coalition to prevent Russia from causing further harm to European security, democracy, and institutions.
  • Objective 3: Deter and respond to Russian actions that threaten core US interests.
  • Objective 4: Prevent Russia, or any power, to achieve its objectives through using, or threatening to use, nuclear weapons, develop a suitable arms control infrastructure to succeed New START, and rebuild European security arrangements.
  • Objective 5: Sustain and develop pragmatic modes of interaction to handle issues on which dealing with Russia can be mutually beneficial.

The use of military force by providing the Ukrainians the means to fight as well as reinforcing deployments of US forces to NATO countries establishes the military conditions that underpin policy success. The United States is supporting Ukraine, objective 1. It is defending NATO soil with our presence in Europe and by the Ukrainians fighting Russians on their soil, objective 2. The Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security are actively (I am assuming) deterring and frustrating Russian cyberattacks on US infrastructure, objective 3. Given our equipment is assisting the Ukrainians in weakening the conventional Russian armed forces, this offers the Departments of State and Defense ways to engage the Russians in revitalizing START, which in turn plays a part in reestablishing stability and security for all warring parties, key steps toward attaining objectives 4 and 5. While Russian President Vladimir Putin did recently announce Russia’s withdrawal from New START talks, it appears the Russians are not embarking on a massive nuclear arms buildup.

Thus, I offer what we—the West and, most importantly, the United States—are doing will work for several reasons. First, through our unified support to Ukraine the United States is reinforcing US security and the stability of the international system of rules. Overt invasions of sovereign countries will not be tolerated and will be opposed through diplomatic, economic, informational, and military means. Second, there is and will continue to be a more unified and larger NATO. Third, Russia will be weakened militarily. Moreover, demonstrated Russian ineptitude and technical weaknesses in Russian arms will cut into Russia’s ability to export arms. This will also open markets for US export of natural gas to Europe, weakening European reliance on Russian fuels. Finally, Ukrainian resistance and perhaps a Ukrainian victory will enable skilled US and other Western diplomats opportunities to engage a chastened Russia in multiple areas of mutual concern, but on US terms.

The foreseeable options for how this war could end were laid out in a provocative, and thought-provoking, article in the New York Post, written by Douglas Murray. The conclusion of the Russia-Ukraine war on terms favorable to US security and foreign policy must balance, as Murray put it, avoiding provoking Putin to seek a quick victory by “doing something so appalling . . . that the war is terrorized to a stop.” Avoiding this unacceptable option by Putin requires assured, sustained support of the Ukrainian armed forces at a pace that ensures Ukrainian victory. The pace of delivery of support also provides Ukrainian and Western diplomats the best options for diplomatic resolution.

This leads us to an essential component of a theory of victory: the ability on the part of strategists and senior leaders to render politically aware military advice. I do not mean advice adhering to one political party or another. Politically aware military advice is based on listening to policymakers and politicians, and understanding the constraints of national politics and policy. This means engaging in the serious talks about the use of force as an extension of policy, albeit in what Cohen eloquently described as the “unequal dialogue,” but in the strongest possible position. The military does not direct policy, but advises on what force can and most importantly cannot do.

The best outcome for US security and foreign policy is a steady and assured victory for Ukraine in which military conditions are set to give diplomatic options for negotiation. A theory of victory would both reflect this as the optimal outcome and, by linking the use of force to US strategic objectives, enable it to come to fruition.

Col. (ret) Kevin Benson, PhD, commanded from company to battalion level and served as a general staff officer from corps to field army. He was the CFLCC J5 (Plans) at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the director of the School of Advanced Military Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Chad J. McNeeley, DoD