Anything less will encourage Russian imperialism and embolden autocrats around the world.
MAY 19, 2023
The United States has suffered from a deliberate fuzziness in formulating its objectives in the Russian war in Ukraine. Flaccid phrases like “helping Ukraine defend itself” or, even worse, “putting Ukraine in the best possible position for negotiations” are either meaningless or insipid. Bureaucratic mental fog is masquerading as artful policy, and it is dangerous. Strategy is the matching of means to ends. In war it is easy to become obsessed with action rather than purpose, and thereby to fall into Nietzsche’s famous description of the most common human stupidity: forgetting what one intended to do in the first place.
Ukraine knows how it defines victory: the pre-2014 borders cleansed of the invader, its exiles and refugees returned, its society and economy rebuilt, membership in the European Union and NATO attained, and some measure of justice for Russian rapists, torturers, and murderers secured. Similarly, we know how the Russians define victory: a Ukraine broken and severed from the West, much of its territory annexed; a Europe in disarray that resumes its addiction to cheap natural resources and business opportunities in Moscow; and the reconstruction of much of the old Russian imperial state.
We should want victory as Ukraine defines it. But to achieve it, the West must not only aid in the defeat of Russia—it must convince Russia that it has been defeated.
A Russia that prevails would be a Russia even further empowered to meddle in Europe and to expand its influence with unlimited violence; a Russia that will have learned that it can commit slaughter and atrocities with impunity; a Russia whose ambitions will grow with success. A Russian victory would, as well, teach the world that the West—including the United States—lacks the resolve, despite its wealth, to follow through on its commitments, offering Beijing an encouraging lesson.
Conversely, Russian defeat would put Beijing—already somewhat nervous about its partner’s incompetence and wild statements—on the defensive, consolidate the Western alliance, and help preserve some of the essential norms of decent behavior in those parts of the world most important to us. Above all, it would block the Russian imperial project for good, because without Ukraine, as the historian Dominic Lieven has noted, Russia cannot be an empire.
Russian defeat does not require a march on Moscow (rarely a good idea in the past), and it does not require a Russia that is defenseless and devastated (impossible without World War III). Rather, it will be achieved inside the heads of Russia’s leaders and population. Russia must be convinced that the military instrument, and its deployment in large-scale war, will inevitably fail, and it must realize that Ukraine is permanently and completely lost.
Such things have happened before. Israel did not occupy Arab capitals in 1967, but that war caused the Arab states to abandon the notion that they could annihilate the Jewish state through conventional means. The 1973 war forced the conclusion that even limited conventional conflict was too hazardous to attempt.
In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States was defeated without losing a single battle. We became convinced that fighting was both futile and painful, that our enemies were implacable and unbeatable, and that the price paid in blood, treasure, and attention was in no way worth the cost and never would be.
Carl von Clausewitz, the German philosopher of war, said that war is a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter. Ukraine must not only achieve battlefield success in its upcoming counteroffensives; it must secure more than orderly Russian withdrawals following cease-fire negotiations. To be brutal about it, we need to see masses of Russians fleeing, deserting, shooting their officers, taken captive, or dead. The Russian defeat must be an unmistakably big, bloody shambles.
Russia’s theories of victory in Ukraine have collapsed one by one. Putin began by believing that the country would fall in a week; then that it would succumb to a month or two of hard fighting; then that Europe would abandon it during a cold winter without Russian gas; then that Ukraine could be bludgeoned into submission by attacking its cities. The final theory of victory—that the West does not have the heart to pour vast resources into Ukraine indefinitely—needs to be disproved as well, because there is nothing beyond that.
To that end, with the utmost urgency, the West should give everything that Ukraine could possibly use, including long-range missiles to break for good the 11-mile Kerch bridge between the mainland and Crimea, and cluster munitions to devastate Russian fighting vehicles and infantry. Breaking the Russian army, as we have, by spending only a small fraction of our defense budget and none of our blood is an astounding strategic bargain.
Russians must, moreover, conclude that Ukraine—formerly, in their view, a pseudo-state containing “cousins” or “little brothers”—is gone forever. That means speedy accession to the EU and NATO, but also a deep Western commitment to rebuilding Ukraine economically and, most important, arming it to the teeth for years to come.
The paltering of the administration about giving our superabundant F-16s to Ukraine is foolish and shortsighted. These jets might not make a difference on the battlefield two months from now, but the knowledge that several hundred of them are in the pipeline for the next five years would have profound symbolic importance. We should be talking about how we will rebuild Ukraine’s armed forces, the West’s largest, most combat-tested, and in some ways most determined army.
The West needs an aggressive information campaign to drive home the reality of Russian defeat. Russians need to be reminded that their faltering economy is only a tenth the size of the EU’s; that they cannot build and deploy a modern tank; that their latest high-performance jet, the Su-57, will be outnumbered by the F-35s of the four small Nordic states; that their generals are
superannuated and incompetent; that their high command is indifferent to their men’s lives; that their equipment is inferior to that of Ukraine; and that their logistics are rotted by graft and corruption.
Information warfare should be reinforced by continued sanctions, whose aim is not so much to win the war as to cripple Russian war-making potential for the long run by depressing the economy and forcing Russia to make do with inferior components and spare parts.
Russia must be isolated politically and psychologically as well, thereby playing on the country’s historical ambivalence about the West, represented in its two capitals: St. Petersburg, facing Europe, and Moscow, facing Asia. But Russian literature, art, culture, and political practice are rooted in its relationship with Europe. The time may come—years or, more likely, decades from now—when a post-imperial Russia will turn westward again.
This is all doable. In fact, it has happened on a smaller scale before. Russian leaders became convinced in the late 1970s and early ’80s that they could not keep up with advances in Western military technology, even as they fought and lost the war in Afghanistan. The Gorbachev upheaval was in part the result of this realization.
But our expectations today should be measured. Unfortunately, a defeated Russia will still be malevolent, angry, and vengeful; it will probably still be ruled by the “vertical of power,” the hard men from the security ministries; it will be suffused with lawlessness and murder; and it will engage in subversion, political warfare, and malicious behavior of all kinds. But who would not prefer to deal with a thousand troll farms and front organizations than one Mariupol? And this Russia would be far less dangerous to us, far less useful to China, far less likely to raise monstrous new threats in the years to come.
The key to this strategy is courage. We must conquer our fears of Russian threats and escalation, of its nuclear bravado, and even of Russian collapse. We must be strategic and shrewd, but nothing can be accomplished without courage. In the words of John Paul II—the unarmed, lone old man who did so much to bring Soviet communism to its knees—”Never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”
Eliot Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the Robert E. Osgood Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.