Governments start wars in pursuit of various objectives, from conquering territory to changing the regime of a hostile state to supporting a beleaguered ally. Once a war begins, the stakes are immediately raised. It is one of the paradoxes of war that even as its original objectives drift out of reach or are cast aside, the necessity of not being seen as the loser only grows in importance—such importance, in fact, that even if winning is no longer possible, governments will still persevere to show that they have not been beaten.
The problem with losing goes beyond the failure to achieve objectives or even having to explain the expenditures of blood and treasure for little gain: loss casts doubt on the wisdom and competence of the government. Failure in war can cause a government to fall. That is often why governments keep on fighting wars: an admission of defeat could make it harder to hold on to power.
All of these dynamics are evident in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin set as his objectives the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine. By the first, he presumably meant regime change, in which case the war has clearly been a failure. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s position is as strong as ever. As for demilitarization, Ukraine is on its way to becoming the most militarized country in Europe. Many of the Russian speakers in Ukraine on whose behalf Putin claimed to be acting now prefer to speak Ukrainian, while the Russian-speaking areas of the Donbas have been battered, deindustrialized, and depopulated because of this ruinous war.
Russian forces have failed to take complete control of any of the four oblasts, or administrative regions—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia—that Putin claimed for Russia in September 2022. Much of the ground initially seized after the full-scale invasion has been relinquished, and more is being lost, albeit slowly, during the current Ukrainian offensive. Before February 2022, Russia could be confident that Ukraine would not be able to challenge the illegal annexation of Crimea, but now even Russia’s hold of the peninsula is no longer certain. Ukraine still hopes that its war aims—the liberation of all occupied land and the restoration of the borders created in 1991—can be achieved. Even if Ukraine’s current offensive falters, Russia lacks for now the combat power to seize the advantage and take more territory.
Putin is not close to achieving any of his war aims while the price of his gambit grows ever steeper. [Continue reading…]