Russian objectives were clear enough at the beginning: overthrowing the Zelensky government, occupying all of Ukraine (or at least all of eastern Ukraine), and reducing the country to client status (much like Belarus), or even reincorporating it into what would effectively be a reestablished Russian empire.
Defeat on the outskirts of Kyiv forced a change in Russian objectives to the complete occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas, and of the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, including Odesa. Their objectives then shifted once again, to the creation of a land bridge from Russia to the Crimean peninsula, and the occupation of almost all of Donbas. Objectives may eventually shift once more, to the creation of a frozen conflict that will cripple the Ukrainian state. Meanwhile, the surprisingly robust Western response will almost certainly make relief from Western financial and trading sanctions a crucial Russian objective. And should Russia face more tangible and costly battlefield defeats, the preservation of Vladimir Putin’s rule—not in play before the war—will become a crucial objective as well.
From the point of view of Ukraine’s Western allies, objectives have also shifted. Originally their purpose was supporting a plucky but doomed Ukrainian conventional battle for survival and helping lay the groundwork for an insurgency that would make Russia pay a price for its aggression. When it became clear that Ukraine could bleed Russian forces dry and even defeat them, the goals subtly changed. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently said, the U.S. now aims to weaken Russia to the point that it is incapable of similar future aggression against Ukraine or any NATO states.
These are the more or less tangible objectives of each side. There are the intangible ones as well, captured in words like humiliation, dignity, reputation, retribution, and vindication. War is about passion and ideas no less than slices of territory. Ignoring the importance of those emotions, which are just as real as the more concrete purposes often discussed, would be a mistake.
Thus, in this war, as in so many in the past, it is not simply the objectives that shape the battles, but also the battles that shape the objectives. Some objectives may be stated, others implicit, some barely admitted even privately. Retaining a sense of direction in war is a constant struggle for political and military leaders at the top, and so the staff officers (and the commentary journalists) are doomed to frustration. It was ever thus: In 1939, Britain’s war to preserve Polish independence became a war to overthrow Hitler and remake Germany; by 1945, America’s war to contain Japan’s Asian expansionism and retaliate for Pearl Harbor had become nothing less than a project to eliminate European empires, establish an open global economic order, and rescue Europe from Communist, and not just Nazi, dictatorship.
The United States, as leader of the Western coalition, still has a lot of thinking to do about political objectives in this war. The most important given is one already laid down in American policy—namely, that it will be up to Ukraine to decide what it wishes to accomplish. [Continue reading…]