The luck has turned. 100 days ago nobody would have expected that the West would force a victory for Ukraine. But what does “victory” even mean? And what could that look like in Ukraine?
“Russia must not win this war” – these are the clearest, vague words that Chancellor Olaf Scholz has let himself be carried away with when it comes to formulating Germany’s goals in the Ukraine war.
The fact that he is not a friend of clear announcements has already developed into something like his government course. In the case of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, too, the chancellor danced gracefully around a clear commitment. The Federal Republic is now supplying heavy weapons – or at least has promised it.
So far, Scholz has not given an answer as to what the traffic light ultimately wants to achieve. Unlike his foreign minister. “Ukraine must win,” she said bluntly on “Lanz” on ZDF on Wednesday, once again driving her coalition partner into the parade and showing once again that the traffic light is bright green in terms of foreign policy. But surprise: Berlin lags behind with this insight – again. Whether US President Biden, EU Commission President Von der Leyen or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: they have all long since committed themselves to a victory for Ukraine.
Assuming that a victory for Ukraine was officially on the federal government’s wish list: What actually counts as a victory? And what would that look like after four months of constant fire, millions displaced, cities bombed and thousands dead?
The term “victory” is obsolete
In modern warfare, victory can almost never be seen in purely military terms. Armed force usually determines the outcome of a war, but other factors (such as a change of government or the role of allies) determine when the war ends. That’s how Raymond O’Connor of the University of Miami summed it up in a 1969 article in the Journal of Peace Research.
What is initially booked as a victory can also turn out to be a gross misjudgment after some time. Example Iraq: When President George W. Bush announced the victory of the USA and its allies in the “Battle for Iraq” on May 1, 2003, 140 US soldiers had been killed. After his victory speech, 4,347 more died, as the US newspaper “Boston Globe” summarizes in an analysis ten years later. The notion of victory is still wrongly shaped by the unconditional defeat of the Germans in World War II, William Martel, a professor of international security studies at Tufts University, told the newspaper. For this reason, some researchers even argued that the term “victory” should be completely abolished. Anyone who doubts this idea need only take a look at Syria, Afghanistan or the Ukraine.
Martel, on the other hand, divides victory into three categories:
Georgetown University’s Eric Patterson lowers the bar. “When a rudimentary order is restored, one can speak of a victory,” he told the Boston Globe. “Order” means “a basic level of security and the first fruits of a political order.” That sounds more like a Ukrainian solution .
Who can sell what as a win in the end therefore depends on the perspective. After all, the outcome of an armed conflict is not counted in points. Because, of course, no party to the conflict wants to be the loser. So the goals are important.
The war aims have changed massively since the beginning of the invasion
According to Professor Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, the goals proclaimed by Kyiv at the beginning of the war (even then hopeless, to put it mildly) can no longer be met – at least in one respect. Because, as he writes in an article for the US magazine “The Atlantic”, when it comes to restoring state sovereignty, the Ukrainian leadership must now inevitably make a decision, despite heavy Russian defeats. A complete reconquest of the national territory, including Crimea annexed by Russia in 2014, the separatist-controlled Donbass republics and the areas in the south and east of the country lost during the Russian invasion, all at once is unlikely to be feasible. If Kyiv also insists on the right to join the EU and NATO, as well as reparations payments from the Kremlin, serious peace negotiations will be a long time coming.
The Russian war goals are no less lofty – something that few would have expected at the beginning of the invasion: overthrow of the Zelenskyi government, the occupation of eastern Ukraine, but preferably all of Ukraine, and thus its decoupling from the hated NATO west. Not to forget: the denazification of the neighbors – whatever that means.
In fact, Cohen continues, four months after the invasion began, the Kremlin may have lowered its expectations. After the attrition defeat in the siege of Kyiv, which was supposed to be a lightning victory, the Russian military concentrated on campaigns in the east and south of Ukraine. The new goal was complete control over the Donbass, the Black Sea coast and later the construction of a land bridge from Russia to Crimea. But Russia is playing against the clock every day. After all, none of this was planned. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the West, which is certainly miraculously united, and its sanctions are wearing down the Russian economy. Moscow may turn off the gas supply, but the West may turn off the money supply. Russia’s only bargaining chip is control of seaports, and thus a significant part of the global food supply. “Hunger as a weapon” is what Federal Minister of Agriculture Cem Özdemir called it very aptly.
As a result, after more than three months, both sides have to reconsider their original goals. The question is which party is willing to make which admissions. In the end, both Kyiv and Moscow will have to sell a potential peace agreement as a victory – some for the sake of their physical and liberty, others for their political survival.
In a way, Ukraine has already won
What Ukraine records as a victory depends primarily on the goals set in Kyiv. While it is theoretically possible for Russia to withdraw completely from Ukrainian territory and for the Donbass republics to be reintegrated, in practice it would probably mean at least more months of bloodshed.
As Orysia Lutsevych, head of the Ukraine Forum and Russia and Eurasia Program at British think tank Chatham House, tells British Guradian, it would be a victory if Ukraine found itself in a more secure position after peace talks than before beginning of war. In other words, victory in this second Russian-Ukrainian conflict within ten years should prevent a third one.
But such a victory for Ukraine would mean defeat for Putin. And the head of the Kremlin cannot afford that, since his political survival depends on it. The autocrat must be able to sell any truce at home as a success. However, with thousands of dead soldiers, massive isolation and international ostracism, this is becoming more difficult every day.
The most likely scenario is that the Ukrainian troops are holding their ground (not least thanks to billions in supplies of arms and weapons from the West), the Kremlin is running out of troops, money and morale, and the Russian economy is collapsing more and more. As a result of this, according to Martel, the “strategic victory” of the defenders, Putin sees himself forced into negotiations that will result in a return to the status quo of February 24, 2022. Russia would keep Crimea and control parts of the Donbass, Ukraine would remain sovereign.
“If you continue the war beyond this point, it would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but about a new war against Russia itself,” concluded former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, according to the New York Times at the World Economic Forum davos President Selenskyj’s reaction suggests that it will hardly be that easy. He described the idea as a “policy of appeasement” and accused Kissinger of living in the wrong century.
Both sides would celebrate the results of such negotiations as a victory – honestly in Kyiv, however, but with gnashing of teeth in Moscow. As of now, it is likely that the Kremlin is insisting on a guarantee that Ukraine will not become part of NATO. At least that hadn’t ruled out Selenskyj in the meantime.
But the impression is now emerging that Russia has already lost. The French think tank Institut Montaigne came to this conclusion in an article at the end of March. NATO is acting in a unity that has been missing for a long time, border troops are being massively increased, European powers (especially Germany) have abandoned their pacifist foreign policy. All the initially “rational” reasons for the Russian attack have already been reduced to absurdity. And so, in a way, Ukraine has already won. Everyone lost anyway, no matter how it ends.
Quellen: “The Atlantic”; “Boston Globe”; ” InstitutMontaigne”;”The Guardian”; “New York Times”