A recurring question in the war in Ukraine has been ‘who is winning?’ At the moment, it is clear that, despite the large-scale failure of his initial invasion, Putin still hopes that that a clear-cut military victory can be obtained. But the question of whether further gains or losses on the ground might signal Russian victory or defeat is complicated by the difficulty in defining what ‘winning’ itself means. This is a central question in strategy – rationally, it would seem self-evident that winning would be the primary objective of any use of force. If war is a continuation of politics, then politics, expressed in terms of policy objectives, might provide the most suitable benchmarks for military success. The degree of victory attained in a war could then be determined by the degree to which a belligerent achieves its political objectives. ‘Winning’ in Ukraine could therefore be judged by the extent to which both sides are, or are not, moving closer towards attaining their political goals.
As the book ‘Winning Wars’ identifies, however, for a concept so central to strategic theory and military operational planning and practice, ‘winning’ is a surprisingly ambiguous and problematic concept. In consequence, for a variety of reasons, assessments of the eventual outcome of conflicts are often contestable. Many of these challenges affect attempts to assess the likely outcomes in Ukraine. For example, political objectives are an often unreliable metric of victory and defeat, not least because political objectives are often opaque or change over time. More broadly, ‘winning’ has an important temporal dimension. Whatever the outcome of the current conflict in the short term, assessments of the winners and losers may well change in the future as a result of trends or events as yet unseen. There is the question also of unintended consequences: conflicts may produce outcomes that are well outside of the goals intended by the belligerents. And there is the matter also of perspective: whose victory are we talking about: Russia? Putin? The Russian people? Ukraine; Ukraine’s allies?
But another essential challenge confronting assessments of victory and defeat is that victory is a matter of perception: in that sense it can be an ‘imagined concept’, and it can therefore be constructed, in the sense that interested parties can create a narrative of success that doesn’t reflect actual reality. If this narrative can be sold to key constituencies as the truth, then it becomes a form of reality.
We can see just such an attempt to construct a narrative of victory by the way in which Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to reframe the conflict in Ukraine as an existential struggle for Russia. Whilst Putin has laid out publicly an array of political objectives for his ‘special military operation,’ some clearer and some less so, he has also through his rhetoric and through Russian domestic media created the basis for a claim to victory that transcends the military outcome in Ukraine; a claim to victory even in circumstances of effective Russian military defeat. History demonstrates that, perversely, even existential failure can be translated into powerful narratives of success with significant political traction. In these narratives, it is often the context and manner of the defeat which defines victory. As shown historically by examples such as the Confederate myth of the Lost Cause, or Saddam Hussein’s claims in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990-91, narratives that define defeat as victory commonly involve three linked ideas.
One important claim to victory often advanced by losers is that they were forced into the conflict against their will. Since the conflict wasn’t begun by them, and indeed since they tried in vain before it began to avoid it through reasonable negotiation, they never lost because they never sought to win: they fought because they had to. Even before February 2022, Putin had advanced this perspective, arguing that the possibility of a peaceful settlement of his dispute with Ukraine was undermined by the West. The conflict was forced upon Russia, Putin has claimed, by the threat posed to Russians living in Ukraine, and by US and NATO aggression that formed part of a wider strategy to undermine Russian interests. War therefore was inevitable. This perspective has been a key theme in the Russian media and clearly resonates with many of the Russian population. The war was ‘an unavoidable measure’ and a defensive step in the face of NATO provocation. The war was the result of NATO escalation and not something sought by Russia.
A second aspect is that of the moral victory, usually linked to a belligerent’s portrayal of itself as the underdog. In this framing of victory, it can perversely be that the larger the defeat, the greater the success that is claimed. In these circumstances, the focus of the narrative is on the advantages possessed by the other side. ‘Victory’ is obtained either by surviving (‘against the odds’), or, if one loses, by arguing that one has nobly fought for what one believed in even in the knowledge that one is unlikely to win. Often, this approach is also accompanied by exaggerating enemy objectives: arguing, for example, that their real intent is the elimination of one’s state. This idea forms a recurrent theme in Russian narratives, whether in terms of Putin’s speeches or Russian domestic media. In this strand of the narrative, Russia isn’t fighting Ukraine: it is fighting the US and NATO, which it claims are providing many of the officers and troops on the ground. Russian military failures can be explained as the result, not of its own incompetence relative to Ukraine, but instead as the inevitable consequence of fighting outmatched against overwhelming military superiority. Indeed, any Russian successes become by this process magnified in significance. For example, Putin has tried to link some of Russia’s geographic gains around the Sea of Azov, rather limited gains in relation to his original objectives, to the unfulfilled aspirations of Peter the Great. At the same time, Russia has also claimed that NATO’s real goal in the current war is not to save Ukraine, it is to disassemble Russia. ‘Winning’ is therefore constructed by Putin simply as Russia’s survival.
A third feature of attempts to reframe defeat as victory lies in the ways in which the costs and benefits of a conflict are defined. Whilst defeat might result in enormous tangible costs for a polity in terms of casualties, economic damage, and political disruption, regimes may well engage in attempts to inflate the value of defending intangible factors, such as national honour or the values of society. In this way, the high tangible costs of a conflict in terms of casualties or money can be presented as being far-outweighed by the gains accrued by the defence of essential components of the national essence. In this vein, Putin has sought to portray the war in Ukraine as Russia’s ‘twighlight struggle against the West’: a struggle in which Russian culture, faith, language, traditions, and values are being challenged by a predatory West, seeking to subjugate and divide the Russian motherland. In Ukraine, Russia is the defender of traditional Christian values, standing against a wave of social liberalism, and even satanism. The very act of fighting the West can, irrespective of the outcome in Ukraine, be portrayed as a victory for Russian values and society, if Russia itself continues to stand at the end of the conflict; an outcome which, given the limited nature of Ukraine’s objectives, is highly likely.
Therefore, whilst military developments in Ukraine are clearly critical, their relationship to final assessments of victory is not necessarily direct. Despite evidence that the partial Russian mobilization and military failures are eroding Russian public support for continuing the war, Putin’s developing narrative may still sustain him, even in military defeat. Indeed, this may be an important factor in reducing for Putin the costs of peace and in the end facilitating some kind of negotiated settlement.
Image: Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban, 1 February 2022, Wikimedia Commons.
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