just asking questions

What Would a Ukraine Victory Look Like?

In Balakliya, in the Kharkiv region, which was recently liberated by Ukrainian forces, on September 14. Photo: Oleksandr Khomenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Last weekend, Ukrainian forces recaptured wide swaths of land in the country’s northeast that had been taken by Russia a few months earlier. Ukraine, awash in armaments from the West, now clearly has momentum on its side, and though Russian forces continue to inflict heavy casualties on soldiers and civilians, Vladimir Putin’s invasion looks more like a debacle than ever. I spoke with Professor Nikolas Gvosdev, who teaches security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, about the latest developments in the war and what might come next.

Having recently retaken thousands of square miles of territory from Russia, Ukraine is in its strongest position in months. What would winning this war actually look like?
We’ve had three competing theories of victory over the last six months. The first is that Ukraine wins by simply repelling the invasion and returning to the status quo as it existed pre–February 24. The second definition, which is the one that President Zelenskyy has embraced, is that Ukraine will not talk with Russia about negotiations until all territories occupied by Russia since 2014 have been recovered. That’s a more complicated theory of victory. Then — less from the Ukrainian side, but you’ve seen this in the commentariat — there’s the idea that not only will Ukraine recover all of its territory but that there’s some adjustment of Russia itself, or changes in Russia’s structure. Maybe this could be territorial or in terms of its position. That’s probably the most expansive theory of victory.

What we’ve seen in the last week or so suggests that the first definition, which is to push the Russians back to where they were in February, is certainly more plausible than it was two or three weeks ago, when the conventional wisdom was that things might be moving toward a stalemate.  The Ukrainians have shown that they can retake territory, but going to the second phase becomes more difficult because that shifts the Russians into a much more prepared, defensive position, where their artillery and air power becomes more the deciding factor, rather than the guys on the ground. Achieving any of these three conditions connects directly to the question of the level of aid and support Ukraine has gotten and will continue to get from the West.

It doesn’t seem likely that the spigot of western aid will be turned off anytime soon, now that Ukraine has proved it can actually drive back Russia, as opposed to just hanging on and grinding it out. It seems like the Ukrainians bought themselves much more time to work with.
Exactly. It’s really critical, because this was the concern that you were beginning to hear: The spigot has been on, but what are they doing with it? Now there is proof of concept.

Ukraine has a taste of victory, and, as you said, might even try to push Russian forces back to the 2014 boundaries. And I can’t imagine a situation where Russia wants to get to the bargaining table. So I’m trying to imagine how peace happens anytime soon.
That’s the heart of the matter, which is that neither side has reached that point of exhaustion where they feel that it’s time to turn to the bargaining table. Two weeks ago, the pressure was on Ukraine. You were starting to hear quietly from Germany and others that maybe it’s time to think about negotiations. Now it’s Putin’s turn. At his summit meeting with China …

Putin publicly acknowledged that Xi had “questions and concerns” about the war, and on Friday, Narendra Modi criticized the invasion right in front of Putin. 
So now the pressure is shifting to the Russian side. Ukraine has momentum, although Oleksiy Danilov, who is the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security Council, has warned people — I’m paraphrasing here — saying “Euphoria is great, but this is still a very difficult task. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” From the Russian side, this has exposed just how much the corruption within the military has taken a toll. But the Russians still have reserves. Again, if they’re in a defensive position, it becomes harder to dislodge them. Just as Ukraine had defenses in the Donbas that they were building for eight years, the Russians have been building in the territories that they took in 2014. That also affects the mix of the aid that the West is providing, because much of the aid to this point has been to help Ukraine hold on. Now the question is, does the mix begin to shift to much more clearly offensive systems?

The Ukrainians are asking for aircraft. They’re asking for better air defense systems to protect their infrastructure from being targeted. We, the United States in particular, have tried to walk a line of providing systems that we think will make the Russians pay a cost but that don’t enable Ukraine to have potentially the ability to strike into Russia proper, since we are worried about managing the escalation risk there.

Russia is still obviously a very dangerous adversary, especially considering its stockpile of nuclear weapons. To what extent do you think Ukraine is considering those nuclear capabilities as it tries to decide what its next move is? Do you think it’s wary of going too far and then provoking something truly catastrophic?
I think this is more of a western concern. I think the Ukrainian feeling is that the Russians bluff when they talk like this, that the Russians understand that use of even a small-scale nuclear weapon would really open up Russia to unknown consequences, and that they’re not likely to do it. We’ve seen this throughout — the Ukrainian feeling is that we should be more prepared to call Russian bluffs than we perhaps have in the past. I don’t get a sense that the Ukrainian leadership is as concerned. It doesn’t mean that they’re not concerned at all, but I don’t think they worry about it the same way we do.

I wonder because before the war, it was thought that Putin wouldn’t cross certain lines. He would do things incrementally. He was a tactician. Then he does something that nobody would’ve expected a year before and actually invades Ukraine. It changes the picture of who he is and what he might be capable of.
Also it calls into question his strategic acumen. If Dmitry Kozak’s revelations are accurate, there was an offer on the table that would’ve given Putin much of what he ostensibly was asking for. [Reuters reported on Thursday that Kozak, Putin’s chief envoy on Ukraine, had “struck a provisional deal with Kyiv that would satisfy Russia’s demand that Ukraine stay out of NATO.”] If that was the case, then the timing of this invasion, just from a strategic sense, doesn’t make sense. It does call into question: Did we turn Putin into a master tactician more because that was our projection rather than the reality? I think, again, the Ukrainians may have a sense that we had overestimated Putin as a strategic genius, or evil genius. They said, “No, this is somebody who is going to make mistakes. The West should not be so prepared to automatically think that he’s ten feet tall and thinks three steps ahead of everyone else.”

He’s actually five-foot-seven. My height, too.
It’s not a bad height.

It’s a respectable height.
It’s a respectable height. But not ten feet tall. And maybe he’s not playing five-dimensional chess.

To what extent can Putin’s allies actually pressure him to do something different? China’s not supporting Putin militarily, at least in part because it’s wary of running afoul of U.S. sanctions. But it is supporting Russia economically. Do you think it’s likely that Xi could cut off some of that aid? 
There’s a limit to how far the Chinese and the Indians and others will go in implementing economic sanctions against Russia, simply because they’re benefiting from cheap Russian energy and other things. But there is a point at which the pressure on them to do something will grow. India, China, Indonesia, Turkey — all are countries that have been trying to sit on the fence economically in terms of sanctions on Russia, but the longer this goes on, the harder it is to sit on the fence.

I don’t think we’re there yet. But again, the signaling from the Chinese —  there are going to be people taking notes from this in the Kremlin. In the end, let’s not forget the Chinese also have important economic equities in Ukraine. At some point, you may get Turkey and China trying to mediate and saying, “We’re going to come up with a way to try to get a ceasefire or to try to put pressure on Russia,” especially if that’s accompanied by further Ukrainian success on the battlefield.

There’s actually been some rare, small signs of resistance domestically against Putin. It’s not necessarily from the usual dissidents, most of whom have been locked up or have fled the country. It’s from local officials who are nominally, at least, his allies. Some have even called on him to resign. And some of his allies are winding up dead in mysterious circumstances. In your view, is Putin in any real danger domestically of being weakened or toppled?
Toppled, perhaps not, but weakened, yes. As you said, the source of this opposition is very important. It’s not coming from people who are well known in the West as opponents of the Putin regime. It’s coming from people who are articulating on nationalist grounds that, actually, what Putin is doing is dangerous for Russia and is a problem.

So far, the war has not been fought with mass-mobilized forces. It has been fought largely with militias, mercenaries, contract soldiers, particularly from some of the poorer regions of Russia, where people don’t have a lot of opportunity. The burden of the war has not fallen on the Russian middle class in terms of having to actually produce their sons and daughters. A lot of the Russian support for this vision is soft support. People are dealing with the sanctions and so on, but if the draft officers are knocking on their door, and they want their son and daughter to go to Ukraine … that, I think, is what some of these local officials are beginning to raise concerns about.

We’ve also seen it in some of the media programs, where you’ve had some commentators saying, “Either mobilize and declare this a national emergency, or we should think about starting negotiations, or we should think about ways of extricating ourselves.” I think that the Kremlin is aware that if they go to a full mobilization, the consequences are unknown. It’s unpredictable what could happen. It may not tip into overt, immediate revolution, but it would be a source of strain.

Based on what I’ve read and listened to, it seems unlikely that the Russians could achieve any of the big-picture goals they had going into this — seizing the two so-called breakaway republics, much less pushing westward toward Kiev and beyond — without that full mobilization or some drastic difference in forces on the ground. It seems like Putin’s options at this point are either dig a defensive trench or do something domestically unpopular.
That’s the thing. The attractive options aren’t there. Now, you may have some sort of partial mobilization, where you basically recall people who’ve had previous military service. There are these different permutations, but none of them are great. None of them give them forces that he needs.

Going back to your initial question about victory for Ukraine, another parallel question has been, What would it take for Putin to declare victory for the Russian side and say, “Well, we’ve achieved our objectives”? As you said, he defined the objectives in such a way that he doesn’t have a lot of leeway. Then this pulls back to another question, which is, Do we want to provide an out to the Russians? Is it in the interests of the United States to find a way to help him extricate himself? Or do we say, “He committed himself, he took the country in,” and hold him to his aims, even if it means the war goes on longer or the costs are greater? I think that’s the debate we’re going to start seeing here more. The Ukrainians clearly have their victory conditions. Which ones do we want to support? Do we want Russia to have a soft landing, or do we want them to have a hard landing from their invasion of Ukraine?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What Would a Ukraine Victory Look Like?