The purposes of a war provide the original motive for fighting and the basis for the war’s political aims. War’s purposes also influence the level of effort necessary to succeed and to give meaning to the sacrifices that success demands.
In the Russia-Ukraine war, there is an asymmetry of purposes between the warring parties, to include the U.S. and its allies, and that asymmetry has potentially serious, negative consequences.
For the citizens of Ukraine, the war is existential—a fight for the right to determine their political sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic life; a fight to be a democracy. They are engaged in a defensive war against illegal and unjust aggression, one based on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lies and deceptions. Such a defense is the basic right of every political community—a right that triggers a second: the right of other nations to come to the defender’s aid.
Furthermore, Ukraine’s fight is against an aggressor whose behavior violates multiple laws and conventions governing the conduct of war and who incorporates war crimes into the fabric of its operations.
The Volodymyr Zelenskyy government, Ukrainian fighting forces and regular citizens have shown the will to persevere. President Zelenskyy seems akin to Gen. Ulysses Grant, who said in a dispatch to Washington in May 1864, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
Will to Win
But Ukraine cannot succeed without outside help. And therein lies the rub. Do the U.S., NATO and other allies view their strategic aims as important as the Ukraine leadership does theirs? Are the U.S. and NATO willing to supply enough, long and consistently enough, to ensure Ukraine’s aims are achieved? The answers to these questions are unknown. Only allied actions can answer them.
Putin’s imperialist purposes have been clear from the start. Within Ukraine itself, he sought to finish what he started in 2014: subjugate Ukraine; eject Zelenskyy’s “Nazi” government, as Russian media reports call it; and add the rest of Ukraine to the occupied areas of the Donbas and Crimea, thus transforming Ukraine into a Russian vassal state.
Grand strategically, Putin sought to demonstrate the weakness of NATO and its democratic members, and set the conditions for future actions in the Baltics as well as in other Central and Eastern European countries.
Ultimately, Putin’s design was to reestablish Russian hegemony and set himself up as a second Peter the Great. To Putin, Ukraine is just one steppingstone. He may still dream of his glorious future, but the combination of U.S. and NATO actions, Ukraine resistance and the global sanctions imposed on Russia make his grand strategic aims largely unachievable in any realistic time frame—probably never. His aims in Ukraine, however, are a different story.
By any quantitative measure, Ukraine should have folded in the first week of the war. But the stakes involved for the political leaders, operational forces and citizens of Ukraine provided strength to their resistance and their will to succeed. Reinforced with arms, ammunition and equipment from the U.S., NATO and other allies, they have prevented Putin from attaining his strategic aim via Plan A—a rapid, decisive victory.
But Putin has not given up on his desire to subjugate Ukraine; he merely shifted to Plan B—partition Ukraine, choke off its economic lifeline along the Black Sea and slowly strangle the country until the Zelenskyy administration cries uncle. Putin’s commitment to achieving his theater aims is at least as strong as Ukraine’s. In Putin’s mind, subjugating Ukraine is vital—perhaps spiritually existential—to the vision he has of Russia and its place in the world. In late August, he doubled down on Plan B, showing no signs of relenting on his initial objectives in Ukraine.
America seems to have two theater and two grand strategic policy goals.
The theater strategic goals are to strengthen NATO and assist Ukraine in defending its right to self-determination without committing U.S. troops directly to the fight and while preventing the war from widening beyond Ukraine and escalating to the nuclear level.
America’s primary grand, strategic policy goals appear to be to reinforce the rules-based international order’s sanction against aggression by making sure Putin’s misadventure does not pay. In doing so, the U.S. seeks to deter others from using force in similar ways.
Its second grand strategic goal is to return America to a trusted position of global leadership. In this regard, President Joe Biden is in a position similar to, but more complicated than, that of President George H.W. Bush when he told reporters on Aug. 5, 1990, “This will not stand,” referring to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush knew then, at the end of the Cold War, that the rules-based order and American leadership were being tested. Biden faces the same knowledge and test.
America’s two sets of aims are interrelated. America’s grand strategic aims cannot be accomplished without success in both of its theater goals. But there seems to be an asymmetry of aims, where Russia and Ukraine are willing to do more for a longer time because their aims are existential, compared to the U.S., whose aims are vital, important, but nonexistential. And an asymmetry of aims suggests a possible asymmetry of will.
U.S. grand strategic aims, however, should provide American leaders with additional motivation to help Ukraine achieve the self-determination it seeks. The rules-based order will not be reinforced, and American leadership will not be enhanced, if Russian criminal behavior in Ukraine is left unchecked.
Checking Russia at the grand strategic level is not enough; Putin’s aggression in Ukraine cannot be seen to pay off. Ending this war and achieving all U.S. aims will require a deft blend of diplomacy with both Zelenskyy and Putin, while also improving the pace, type and amount of allied supplies to Ukraine. This will not be easy.
Militarily, the U.S. and NATO first must ensure that NATO is in a strong conventional and nuclear defense position as well as politically unified to deter Russia. Then, the allies must deliver—not just promise—enough arms, ammunition and equipment to Ukraine at a consistent pace so the destructive power of these deliveries forces Putin to come to the negotiating table.
Diplomatically, the U.S. first must structure a way that walks Zelenskyy back from his maximalist goals of complete Russian withdrawal and restoration of Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders.
Perhaps the approach will be a two-step: First, ejecting Russian forces to their pre-February positions—or at least showing Putin that such a result is likely. Second, establishing two procedural bodies—one to monitor an armistice or cease-fire, and a second to conduct talks between Ukraine and Russia concerning a possible durable and sustainable political situation.
No one is likely to be completely happy with this kind of solution—and maybe that’s a sign it’s a good one. The military component of this solution is not without risk, but it is a necessary risk.
Even if the U.S. and NATO choose a strategy similar to the proposal above, senior political and military leaders also must be prepared for difficult contingencies that may emerge. For example, what if the Russian army collapses? It’s not an impossible situation. Or what if Ukraine success looks so imminent and overwhelming, Putin believes he can only save face via a “nuclear demonstration?”
Or, what if Putin orders even more massive, indiscriminate bombardment that facilitates a Russian advance that captures more Ukrainian territory and destroys a large portion of Ukraine’s army in the process?
Acting to achieve one’s aims amid the uncertainty of potential contingencies like these, and others, is always part of fighting and waging a war. But this war, as Yale University professor Timothy Snyder wrote in a September-October Foreign Affairs article headlined “Ukraine Holds the Future,” “is about establishing principles for the twenty-first century.” Success is worth the costs and the risks.
What Should We Do?
Perhaps Grant’s attitude is our best guide. At a particularly difficult and uncertain time during the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, a general officer suggested that Gen. Robert Lee might flank the Union Army and sever its lines of communication. Grant told the general to go back to his command and try to think about “what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do,” according to Horace Porter, Grant’s personal secretary, in his book Campaigning with Grant.
Porter also reported that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman believed “the chief reason why [Grant] was more successful than others was that while they were thinking so much about what the enemy was going to do, Grant was thinking all the time about what he was going to do himself.” The allies should think more like Grant.
Success in war is hard and always involves uncertainty and risk, but that’s what this historical period is demanding of American leadership. Other nations are watching closely and assessing how having nuclear weapons seems to create a self-deterrence environment in the United States.
A multipolar world in which force is left undeterred is not a global order conducive to prosperity—for the U.S. or its allies and partners. Now is not the time to take counsel of fear, but the time to be guided by purpose.
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Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.