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Commentary | 29 January 2024

Rethink territory: How Ukraine can redefine victory

Image of Dr Karsten Friis

Dr Karsten Friis |Research Professor, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs

Europe Russia Ukraine Euro-Atlantic Security

As the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, it is prudent to reassess Ukraine’s strategic objectives. After initial success in both thwarting the Kremlin’s attempt to topple the government in Kyiv and, subsequently, large parts of the initially occupied territories, Ukrainian armed forces have had fewer territorial gains or major military successes since the latter parts of 2022. As the war will soon enter its third year, Ukraine should define a strategic end – victory – on its own terms. It must be a victory that Russia cannot prevent, an end-state that Ukraine and its Western partners can achieve together, defined in broader, non-territorial terms. Importantly, such an approach would not preclude a principled aim of full liberation of all occupied territories, but the absence of such liberation will not prevent victory.

For Ukraine, the worst-case scenario, short of a nationwide Russian occupation, is a return to the situation after 2014: A Ukraine stuck between the West and Russia, with no prospects of either NATO or EU membership, and a small-scale hot war along the confrontation line in the east. In effect, Russia vetoed Ukrainian integration into the EU and NATO as allies were unwilling to let a country at war join either organisation. As a result, Ukraine’s nascent democratisation and economic development were slowed down, while its security, as we have painfully learned, was at severe risk. A new ‘2014’ will, therefore, most likely be nothing but a convenient window for Russia to regenerate forces for the next major attempt at subduing the Ukrainians, keeping the country under its thumb for the foreseeable future.

Some Western observers have called for negotiations because of the apparent lack of success on the battlefield. They forget that it takes two to tango. Putin will never sit down to negotiate over Ukrainian terrain because his war is not primarily about territory. He aims to destroy Ukraine as a state, a society, a nation, and a democracy.  He cannot accept a deal that secures Ukraine’s future as a Western-oriented democratic state on Russia’s South-Western border.

Ukraine must, therefore, define its victory on its own terms, in a way which Russia cannot prevent. This definition of victory should be decoupled from territorial demarcation lines. It should not depend on the reconquering of occupied land or the liberation of any given space. Victory should be defined in broader, non-territorial terms. It can be achieved in steps or dimensions, such as a vibrant democracy, a growing economy, societal welfare, as well as territorial liberation. Importantly, such an approach does not in any way preclude a principled aim of complete liberation of all occupied territories, but the important thing is that the absence of such liberation will not prevent victory.

Victory should be defined in broader, non-territorial terms. It can be achieved in steps or dimensions, such as a vibrant democracy, a growing economy, societal welfare, as well as territorial liberation. Karsten Friis

Victory defined by such metrics allows the work to build a victorious Ukraine that can begin today. There is no need to wait for a final and decisive battle. Ukraine itself must outline a broader definition of victory, but in my view, it should focus on upholding security, democratic institutions, social prosperity, and economic growth.

These overarching goals are achievable, but Ukraine would need Western assistance. The Western strategic objectives for Ukraine should also be clarified. ‘As long as it takes’ and similar phrases are far too vague. The Western objectives should simply be the opposite of Putin’s, i.e. making Ukraine a secure, successful, and democratic state integrated into the transatlantic community.

To achieve this, the West must continue to help Ukraine build its defences. Not primarily to win the next tactical battle but to disrupt the Russian war efforts and deter future attacks. The West must keep building up offensive capacities for Ukraine to strike deep in order to deny Russia the freedom to attack Ukraine.

The West must also deliver integration into NATO and the EU and invest in the Ukrainian economy. Support for democratic and economic reforms must be tailored in a clear roadmap to EU membership, as opposed to the technocratic approach the EU unsuccessfully attempted in the Western Balkans. A similar democratic backsliding and fatigue must be avoided at all costs.

Furthermore, NATO must take more direct responsibility for Ukraine’s arming, future force design, and training. Putin will seek to keep the war warm, if nothing else, to scare NATO from letting Ukraine in. This blackmailing must be overcome unless we want a return to 2014. NATO must be bolder and make it crystal clear to Moscow that Ukraine is part of the family – and that security guarantees to Ukraine will be extended irrespective of Russia’s actions.

The sooner Putin realises that the Ukrainian state, people, culture, and economy are lost to him no matter what he does, the higher the likelihood of him potentially looking for a way to wind down his ill-conceived and expensive war. By taking control of the definition of victory, Ukraine and the West will win this war.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

Image credit: Wikimedia, Ministry of Defense of Ukraine