“The object in war is a better state of peace—even if only from your own point of view.”
– Basil Liddell Hart
On February 24, 2022, Russian forces started a new phase in Russia’s illegitimate war against Ukraine. To the surprise of many, Ukrainian forces, under inspiring political leadership, managed to withstand the initial Russian offensive. With large-scale Western support, they even managed to take over the initiative and liberate half of the territory Russia had occupied. Russian forces suffered massive losses without achieving the (presumed) initial political-strategic objectives of subjugating the Ukrainian state, replacing its leadership and annexing (at least) parts of it.
The combination of Russia’s tactical, military-operational, and political-strategic failures and Ukraine’s effective defense and counteroffensives led many to euphoria. Politicians, policymakers, and pundits argue that Ukraine should be supported until all its territory is liberated, including Crimea and the initial separatist regions in the Donbas. Following this is the expectation that a diplomatically isolated and sanctions-hit Russia can no longer achieve a victory against an internationally backed Ukraine.
Victory in war, however, is not necessarily determined objectively by measurable criteria, such as military losses and territory conquered or liberated. While these are important, victory is ultimately a matter of perception by the parties involved.
From this thesis, it is essential to reason out what a Russian perspective on victory in Ukraine might be, in practice. It is crucial to do so from the context of Russian strategic culture, because it greatly influences the worldview of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. This strategic culture is key to understanding how the Russian leadership conceptualizes crises—and acts within them—to achieve political objectives. It should be clear that the Russian worldview and its underlying strategic culture fundamentally differ from Western ones. This means the Russian perspective on what constitutes victory in Ukraine can also be fundamentally different from Ukrainian or Western perspectives.
Theory of Victory
The concept of a “theory of victory” is a useful starting point for exploring the Russian perspective on victory in Ukraine. Basically, this concept speaks to the notion that victory in war is more a subjective appreciation of a situation rather than an objectively measurable fact. Several considerations come into play.
To begin with, war is a political activity and defining a victory is, therefore, a political matter. Moreover, belligerents can independently determine what they believe to be the outcome of a war. Therefore, from a political standpoint, the question who won? need not yield a unanimous answer.
Further complicating matters, the perception of a victory may differ at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. Belligerents can achieve victories at all three levels without them being related. Unlike strategic victories, tactical and operational victories can be relatively easily and objectively determined by quantifiable criteria. The strategic level, however, is precisely the defining level at which wars are won or lost—or, again, at which belligerents perceive winners or losers—and where the durability of an outcome is determined according to whether the political causes of the war have been decisively addressed.
A war stops only when one or both warring parties decide that ceasing hostilities is a better alternative than continuing. This is a cost-benefit analysis that weighs the effort required to militarily achieve political objectives against the benefits gained from doing so. Blind pursuit of objectives becomes a risk when it causes long-term disruption to the economy, society, or armed forces of the victor.
Of course, warfare is a dynamic process and thus political objectives may change during a war based also on the second- and third-order effects of the war. Furthermore, a belligerent’s objectives may have different functions that are not always directly related to an intended political situation after the end of a conflict. Sometimes they serve as motivational and political communication aimed at the belligerent’s own military forces or domestic population, while other times the expression of maximized goals may be aimed at the opponent to create negotiating space for a conflict resolution. Consequently, assessing the final outcome of a war should not be solely based on measuring up to what degree officially formulated objectives of belligerents have been achieved. Finally, as time passes and political conditions change, perspectives on the outcome of a war may be subject to progressive understanding.
Thus, victory in war is mainly a matter of a time-bound, subjective appreciation of the political situation after the end of hostilities. For a country’s political and military elite, the perception of the population is critical. This population can form an opinion about the outcome of a war by itself based on the available information. However, the political and military elite can also leverage military successes or political developments to actively and symbolically convince their population that their appreciation of a political situation amounts to a victory. A strategic victory may thus be the subjective result of widely held public opinion rather than the objective result of analyses of military victories or favorable political conditions. This demonstrates how important information operations can be in achieving a strategic victory.
Theory of Victory in Russian Strategic Culture
In Russian strategic culture, military action is seen as an integral part of policy and should always contribute to political objectives. The deployment of armed forces is thereby an explicit signal regarding the importance attached to a political issue and the cost the regime is willing to accept to pursue its interests or objectives.
War occurs when a state uses force to settle a political confrontation. It is a strategic activity to achieve political objectives in conjunction with diplomatic and economic efforts. Differentiating by geography, Russian doctrine distinguishes between three categories of war: local, regional, and large-scale. Notably, it does so based not only on the geographic scope of the war, but also on the political scope. Local wars involve “limited” military-political objectives, in regional wars there are “important” military-political objectives at stake, and large-scale wars feature “radical” military-political objectives. Rather than saying anything about the scale or intensity of the fighting, this classification is focused and based on quantifying the variables above.
The Russian leadership considers the outcome of a war on a spectrum. The highest form of success is political victory, followed by military victory, military defeat, and political defeat. In the strategic calculus, military success during a war is always secondary to the political outcome after the war. Therefore, a military victory in itself is not necessarily enough to declare a political victory, while a political victory does not require a military victory.
The ultimate strategic victory involves the permanent termination of political conflict on the condition of the victor, formalized in an international document and ruling out new wars. From a military point of view, destroying the opponent’s forces and occupying the opponent’s main territory is seen as a precondition for this—but not a decisive factor. Political opportunism and diplomacy can mitigate or offset the consequences of military setbacks at the tactical and operational level by adjusting or dropping political-strategic objectives and narratives. Thus, Russian strategic thinking clearly distinguishes between political results and military successes, and less importance is attached to achieving tactical and operational successes than among Western armed forces and political elites.
Within Russian military thinking there are two views on how the armed forces should enable declaring a political victory. First, there are the adherents of surprising offensive strategies that keep the initiative via deep penetrating maneuvers to defeat an opponent quickly and decisively. Achieving operational and strategic objectives is considered more important than tactical success. Based partly on the assumption that Russia would be at a disadvantage in a protracted war against the economically and technologically superior West, this thinking seemed dominant in the Russian armed forces until the launch of the invasion of Ukraine.
Critics argued this approach is too military-oriented, leaving important economic, social, and political aspects of warfare underexposed. Furthermore, this approach presumably only works against weak or internally divided opponents, but in all other cases, a single decisive battle is unlikely to lead to a decisive strategic victory.
The competing view emphasizes protracted, attrition warfare. The assumption made by adherents of this view is that the military, economic, social, and political exhaustion of the opponent leads to the creation of favorable conditions to achieve a strategic victory.
However, both of these views position military victory as merely a temporary situation of localized, relative military dominance rather than as the achievement of an intended final political situation.
A Russian Theory of Victory in Ukraine
The Russian regime’s narrative surrounding victory in Ukraine is flexible, opportunistic, and subjective, focusing primarily on the perception of the Russian people that the achieved victory justifies the costs of the war. It is not aimed at the West.
The Russian political elite contends that Russia should be a superpower in a multipolar world, recognized as such by the international community. However, this elite also argues that Russia is strategically on the defensive due to a hostile West. Russia, the Russian identity, and Russia’s territorial integrity are under permanent threat, according to this view, and this threat must be addressed. The threat is not only military in the form of NATO’s eastward expansion—it is also reflected in the spillover of the West’s culture, values, ideology, and political system into Russia. It is precisely this, elites argue, that poses an existential threat to Russia. Indeed, the emergence of an affluent, politically active, liberal-oriented social middle class may threaten Russia as an authoritarian-run, conservative autocracy. To counter this, the Russian political elite seeks to end the perceived American-led Western hegemony and replace it with a multipolar world order.
From the Russian perspective, the Ukraine invasion is a necessary offensive move within a strategic defensive posture. A prosperous, Western-oriented Ukraine that is a member of the EU may offer the Russian population a dangerous glimpse of an alternative political system and thereby fuel dissatisfaction with Russia’s political and economic system. Furthermore, Ukrainian entry into NATO and the EU would lead to a political-strategic loss of face for the Russian regime at home and abroad and therefore represents a military-strategic vulnerability for Russia’s defense.
Initially, the Russian regime may have regarded its invasion of Ukraine as a “regional conflict” with “important” military-political goals, and its classification as a “special military operation” may have been genuine. Indeed, it seems that the Kremlin’s ambitious political objective was to install a new, pro-Russian government in Kyiv by lightning action. Bold, deep maneuvers along multiple axes of attack and the rapid elimination of the Ukrainian government in Kyiv should have led to the collapse of Ukrainian resistance and prevented Russia from indirectly opposing the economically and technologically superior West in a protracted proxy war.
After this failed, Russia seems to have adjusted its political objectives and strategy. The Russian armed forces currently have neither the troop numbers nor the capacity to subdue and pacify all of Ukraine. As contradictory as it may sound, however, the special military operation therefore does seem likely to escalate into a “large-scale war” with “radical” military-political objectives.
Russia’s initial major military-political objective in the conflict seems to have given way to an adjusted one—dismantling Ukraine as a strong, sovereign state and turning it into one that will be a burden rather than a reinforcement to both NATO and the EU. In doing so, completing the annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson oblasts provides strategic depth and a clear geographical objective. The Western willingness to continue supporting Ukraine in resisting Russian advances and liberating occupied territory is viewed as decisive, more so than the Ukrainian will to continue fighting. The implicit presumption is that without Western military support and under international political pressure, Ukraine will eventually have to accept territorial concessions and restrictions on its political, economic, and military sovereignty. The political and military foundations of the war, such as the Ukrainian rapprochement with the West and the creation of strategic depth, are thus addressed.
However, the broader objective of transforming the world order into a multipolar system, with Russia as one of those poles, is increasingly voiced as the context for the intervention in Ukraine. Emphasizing this objective may appeal to the Russian population but also contains a narrative aimed at the international community about ending Western dominance in international politics. Further geographical escalation of the conflict into Moldovan, Belarusian, and Russian territory is a possibility, as are increased cyber, intelligence, and sabotage operations elsewhere in Europe.
As long as the Russian calculus is that its political objectives are achieved by continuing the military confrontation in Ukraine and that these outweigh the costs, this war will continue. Because the war in Ukraine is framed as existential by the Russian regime, Ukrainian success may potentially lead to further escalation in Russia’s mode of warfare. Indeed, Putin’s regime does not seem to have the option of losing this war without far-reaching loss of face abroad and political repercussions in Russia. The continuation of the war is thus possibly driven not only by the logic of wanting to achieve “important” military-political objectives in Ukraine but also by avoiding the negative domestic and foreign political consequences of a strategic defeat in Ukraine. From the regime’s point of view, then, there are “radical” political-military objectives at stake.
From this perspective, time is currently on Russia’s side. At the time of writing, the Russian armed forces seem to have regained the initiative by fighting a war of attrition that is favorable to them. Exhausting the Ukrainian armed forces and creating a political perspective of doubt regarding the prospect of a quick and decisive end to the war are possible operational objectives that should help break the Ukrainian willpower to continue hostilities and the Western willingness to continue its support for Ukraine. In addition, capturing the remaining parts of the annexed oblasts may be an operational objective that—if Russia’s calculus changes and broader objectives no longer outweigh the costs required to achieve them—should facilitate the unilateral declaration of a strategic victory to the Russian population. For now, there are already enough tangible results for the regime to weave together to create a credible narrative of a victory.
An ultimate manifestation of a Russian victory would lie in a deal agreed upon with the United States that seals Ukraine’s future and secures Russian security interests for the long term. This would give the Russians their desired recognition as a world power, create additional strategic depth, and demonstrate successful resistance to Western economic and military power, ultimately bringing the desired multipolar world closer. The Russian geopolitical narrative, catalyzed by the classic security paradox with the West, will thus prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It will be the dreamed-of situation, whereby Russia can declare victory in Ukraine, but not concerning the “radical” military-political objectives in the confrontation with the West. That struggle is perpetual, continuous, existential, and an integral part of Russian strategic culture.
Of course, regardless of whether Russia defines this as a local, regional, or large-scale war, regardless of whether its military-political objectives are limited, important, or radical, and regardless of its theory of victory, this all amounts to only half of the balance sheet. On the other side sits Ukraine, along with its supporters. The West’s support to Ukraine has been instrumental to Ukraine’s military effectiveness up until now and will prove highly influential in determining the outcome of this conflict. Moreover, the West’s stance toward both Ukraine and Russia will shape the regional and global political and economic order in the decade ahead. Therefore, it is imperative that both Ukraine and its Western backers have a clear and common theory of victory of their own for this conflict, addressing the underlying political disputes. At its core, this theory should promise decisive support for Ukraine with all available means short of direct involvement to create a political-military condition that is recognized and accepted by both belligerents as a durable outcome.
As US President Joe Biden promised to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a visit to Kyiv in February, US support would continue for “as long as it takes.” For Ukraine to continue the fight for as long as it takes, for the United States and the West to sustain their support for as long as it takes, and to ensure unity of effort and shared strategic objectives for the duration, a theory of victory is necessary. Understanding Russia’s theory of victory is a necessary step in that direction.
Major Marnix Provoost MA is an infantry officer in the Royal Netherlands Army and currently working as a PhD researcher at the Netherlands Defence Academy.
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: Mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons