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As the Russian invasion of Ukraine stretches into its fifth month, with fears of a protracted war going well into the winter and beyond, there has been an increasing debate about the West’s definition of victory.
While there is considerable support for helping Ukraine maintain its sovereignty and independence, the military and economic aid the US and its allies are providing could be impacted by several factors – including the state of trans-Atlantic unity, public opinion amidst rising economic costs, and fears of a natural gas crisis this winter.
The incremental territorial gains that Russia has made in the south and east of Ukraine since April, after the failed first phase to take Kyiv, coupled with economic contraction in Ukraine, are real challenges that cannot be denied by the US, which is leading the West’s efforts to help Ukraine defeat Russia. Moscow would be banking on any signs of war fatigue in the West, believing that time is on its side in a long-drawn war, despite the unprecedented economic sanctions that have been imposed on it since February 24.
While it is entirely unclear at this point which party will ‘win,’ if at all, it is indeed possible that these scenarios – which could be characterised as a ‘positive’ for Russia – could materialise. But while Russia’s leaders might feel optimistic about achieving their political goals through war, time is not on their side. The longer the fighting rages without a stable peace deal, the greater is the likelihood that Moscow’s strategic outlook could turn negative – regardless of the military outcome in Ukraine.
That is why it is essential for Russia’s leaders to ask what victory would look like for Russia.
Russia’s stated aims
Let’s start with what Russia wanted to achieve in the build-up to this invasion. The following were identified as key by President Vladimir Putin:
‘First, to prevent further NATO expansion. Second, to have the Alliance refrain from deploying assault weapon systems on Russian borders. And finally, rolling back the bloc’s military capability and infrastructure in Europe to where they were in 1997, when the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed.’
Apart from this, the immediate cause of the ‘special operation’ as listed by the government of Russia was ‘to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime,’ giving this as a reason for liberation of Donetsk and Lugansk Republics. The aim was to ‘demilitarise and denazify Ukraine…but not to occupy Ukrainian territory.’
If one leaves out the propagandist accusations, other issues of concern for Russia include the following points, as highlighted in various official speeches:
- ‘Policy of containment of Russia by US and its allies,’ making the issue a ‘matter of life and death’ for the country.
- ‘Ukraine’s accession to NATO and the subsequent deployment of NATO facilities had already been decided, and was only a matter of time. Such a scenario would increase the level of military threats to Russia dramatically, multiplying the risk of a sudden strike on Russia.’
- In territories adjacent to Russia, (described as its ‘historical land’) a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ was taking shape that was ‘fully controlled from the outside, it is doing everything to attract NATO armed forces and obtain cutting-edge weapons.’
- The policy to root out ‘Russian language and culture.’
Despite the military alliance’s 2008 Bucharest declaration promising to include Ukraine and Georgia in its ranks, NATO membership for Ukraine has generally been considered unlikely in the near future – given the absence of unanimity within the alliance for any such step 14 years after the announcement. In fact, Putin himself acknowledged this but saw Ukraine’s growing links to western militaries – including the training of its forces by NATO countries – as an eventual decline of Russia’s influence and as a threat.
After 2014, instead of rolling back, Kyiv increased its military ties to the West and became an enhanced opportunity partner of NATO in 2020, with the US continuing to affirm Ukraine’s aspirations to join the alliance. The Minsk agreements, through which the Russia-backed separatist republics would have a say in the future direction of Ukraine were also nowhere near being implemented, amounting to a defeat for Russia despite a favourable outcome in the offensive on the ground eight years ago. This eventually led to the Russian demand for security guarantees formally proposed to the US in December 2021, amidst a heavy troop build-up on the Ukraine border.
It has been argued that NATO should have openly declared its unwillingness to make Ukraine a member, something it already had no intention of doing. The failure to do so, as well as not to push for implementation of Minsk agreements has come under justified criticism. But at the same time, as is clear from Putin’s October 2021 statement, the issue for Russia went beyond NATO membership and it could not accept losing political influence over Ukraine either.
Ukraine’s western turn is now a fait accompli
Now, if Moscow was worried about Ukraine getting into the Western camp without formally joining NATO, that is an outcome whose fate has been sealed for the foreseeable future by the Russian invasion. The military-economic-political aid extended to Ukraine by the West since February 24, the rise of anti-Russian opinion among the Ukrainian population and the granting of EU candidate member status to Ukraine now makes the country’s Western turn a fait accompli. The Russian military failure to topple the government in Kyiv and the subsequent strengthening of Ukrainian forces by Western aid has made Moscow’s demands of demilitarisation a difficult prospect, unless there is a major battlefield victory for Russia outside the eastern region. At this point, in military terms, neither side is near collapse and neither are they making gains at a rate to achieve major breakthroughs.
Ukraine understands that it will not become a NATO member and had offered neutrality during talks in Istanbul in March, in return for security guarantees. If agreed in a future deal with no foreign military bases/military exercises on its territory, this would meet one of Russia’s main demands and amount to a win for Moscow, albeit at a very high cost. This is because for Russia, the issue was simultaneously about Ukraine and beyond it, subsuming within it the overall dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War European security architecture as well. It has wanted to be seen as an equal partner in the region, and believed that a resort to force would yield results.
Yet, instead of an end to NATO expansion, it has got the decision of Finland and Sweden to join the alliance after years of neutrality even at the height of the Cold War. There has also been a strengthening of the force posture on NATO’s eastern European flank and, in a major reversal in defence policy, several EU member states have said they now plan to strengthen their military capacities as a response to the Russian invasion. If these plans materialise, it would be difficult to classify this outcome as a victory for Russia, even if Moscow does succeed in subduing Ukraine.
It is clear that the Russian argument about the need to prevent a hostile Ukraine on its border has received the most sustained blow. If the aim of the ‘special military operation’ was to prevent such an event, it has had the opposite impact. Not only is Ukraine united against a Russia that is seen as an aggressor, the war has given an impetus to its national identity like never before. Russia has also ensured for itself a long-term hostility with Europe right on its borders, as much as with the US. The ‘policy of containment’ by the US and its allies has now intensified, with the invasion strengthening western unity and the leveraging of its economic strength to inflict long-term damage on the Russian economy.
The sanctions in current form will not only drive Russia into a recession, as Sberbank has predicted, they will also stifle Putin’s ability to take the economy to the next level in the absence of imports of cutting-edge technology. Even though the sanctions have failed to deter it from its current path, how well does Russia cope with the high economic cost in the medium term remains to be seen.
European states have also expressed their intent to decouple from Russian energy. Moscow has been leveraging its role as an energy supplier, especially through its natural gas pipelines whose disruption would be catastrophic for the Eurozone. As Europe begins implementing emergency measures to save gas to survive the coming winter, the negative impact of high prices and low supplies on households and industry could push the region, and indeed the world, into a recession. Such a scenario could, in turn, negatively impact European unity on aiding Ukraine, which would be to Russia’s advantage in achieving its eventual war aims. But this would be a short-term gain at long-term expense as the tactic has the potential of strengthening Europe’s resolve to move away from Russian energy dependence. If the EU gets through the current winter and implements its stated plan to reduce imports in the coming years, Moscow would see a further decline of its leverage on Europe. In addition, most of the impact of energy-related sanctions on Russia are expected to manifest in the medium-term, affecting availability of investment, software and advanced technologies for development of new resources in difficult to extract locations – not all of which can be replaced by China.
When all of these factors are taken together, it becomes evident that if Russia cannot reach a deal in Ukraine that would ease sanctions, and the war leads to a stalemate or a long-drawn conflict, any land grab that Russia completes could still end up in its defeat. Russia retains the capacity to continue the war and is nowhere near collapse, but a long period of stringent sanctions could prove to be catastrophic for a state that seeks to be a great power.
The alternative – to get closer to China to plug any gaps in the economic/technological sphere – will make it disproportionately dependent on Beijing, an outcome it has sought to avoid for years. It has become popular to argue that the non-West has not joined the West in sanctioning Russia, which is a win for Putin. And in a certain way it is, to the extent that Russia is not isolated. The problem is that much of Moscow’s economic, investment and technology needs were being met by the advanced economies of the West; and its pivot to the East and South has had mixed results, with influence in Middle East and Africa focused on the political and military domains.
As Russia scrambles to deepen relations with the non-West, the process is not expected to be completed in short order. So, the benefit of the Global South not siding with the West will take both time and resources, and, in the end, might not be enough for Russia to continue to expand its influence as a major global power. For instance, the IEA estimates that it would take Russia a decade for its gas supplies to Asian markets to reach the current levels of exports to the EU. In other words, the long-term impact of sanctions has the potential to deal a hard blow to Russian aspirations across the board – in Europe and Eurasia. In an evolving world order, projecting influence from a position of economic weakness and with defence resources pinned down in Ukraine would constitute a major setback for Russian efforts to be an independent pole in a future multipolar world. A weakened Russia will be much less capable of exerting its influence internationally, which might ultimately turn this war into a strategic defeat even if it produces tactical wins.
If this is a proxy war with the West through Ukraine, then victory for Russia would have to mean demonstrating that its Ukraine invasion has strengthened its position against the West – an outcome that looks increasingly difficult to achieve.. This is not to under-estimate Russia, as it makes incremental gains in east and south Ukraine while inflicting heavy damage to Ukraine’s military and economic strength. Despite the losses in the war effort and economic cost, Russia remains a strong adversary capable of imposing escalatory costs. This is also not to pretend that Western efforts in Ukraine face no challenges. It is still possible that Russia will be able to keep pushing forward, if slowly, further endangering western unity in Ukraine. While this scenario would indeed weaken Western heft at the global level, it would still not automatically translate into a win for Russia given the scale of challenges it now faces. As some experts have pointed out, the war has revealed not just an unwillingness of the US to start a nuclear war with Russia but also the inability of the latter to ‘impose its will’ on Ukraine.
It might be tempting for Russia to engage in a war of attrition in hopes of engendering western disunity but – in the absence of a realistic assessment of its own future position – the risk is that it might be sucked into a war that could eventually weaken itself. The costs being imposed on Russia are not insubstantial, even if they have not manifested themselves immediately. Moscow needs to rethink its own definition of victory as the strategic advantages of its invasion shrink overtime, and be willing to make concessions that could facilitate an eventual peace deal.
Dr. Nivedita Kapoor is a Research Fellow at the International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, Higher School of Economics, Moscow.