How the US Lost the Ukraine War
The effect of Western sanctions may cause historians of the future to look upon the conflict in Ukraine as a net defeat for Russia. In terms of the military struggle itself, however, Russia is winning.
Watching American and European news coverage, you might ask yourself, how can that be? It comes down to war aims. Russia has them. They are achievable.
The United States doesn't have any.
"As the war in Ukraine grinds through its third month," the Washington Post reports, "the Biden administration has tried to maintain a set of public objectives that adapt to changes on the battlefield and stress NATO unity, while making it clear that Russia will lose, even as Ukraine decides what constitutes winning. But the contours of a Russian loss remain as murky as a Ukrainian victory."
War aims are a list of what one side in a military conflict hopes to achieve at its conclusion.
There are two kinds.
The first type of war aim is propaganda for public consumption. An overt war aim can be vague, as when President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to enter World War I in order to "make the world safe for democracy" (whatever that meant), or specific, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's demand for the "unconditional surrender" of the Axis powers. A specific, easily measured metric is better.
Covert war aims are goals that political and military leaders are really after. A covert war aim must be realistic. For example, contrary to the long-standing belief that he viewed the outbreak of the Korean War as an irritating distraction, Joseph Stalin approved of and supported North Korea's invasion of South Korea in 1950. He didn't care if North Korea captured territory. He wanted to drag the United States into a conflict that would diminish its standing in Asia and distract it from the Cold War in Europe. The Soviet ruler died knowing that, whatever the final outcome, he had won.
A publicly stated war aim tries to galvanize domestic support, which is especially necessary when fighting a proxy war (Ukraine) or war of choice (Iraq). But you can't win a war when your military and political leaders are unable to define, even to themselves behind closed doors, what winning looks like.
America's biggest military debacles occurred after primary objectives metastasized. In Vietnam, both the publicly stated and actual primary war aim was initially to prevent the attempted overthrow of the government of South Vietnam and to prevent the spread of socialism, the so-called Domino Theory. Then the U.S. wanted to make sure that soldiers who had died at the beginning of the war hadn't died in vain. By the end, the war was about leveraging the safe return of prisoners of war. A recurring theme of accounts by soldiers in the jungle as well as top strategists at the Pentagon is that, before long, no one knew why we were over there.