USA should finally abandon a ‘zero-sum framing’ of victory over Russia

13:14 29.05.2024 •

Unconditional defeat of Russia, no matter how it is framed, is a fantasy, writes Mark Episkopos, an Eurasia Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, at ‘The American Conservative’

The Biden administration and its European counterparts have failed to articulate their endgame for this war. Three years into the conflict, Western planning continues to be strategically backwards—aiding Kiev has become an end in itself, divorced from a coherent strategy for bringing the war to a close.

In fact, as noted by U.S. Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Russia’s military is substantially larger today than it was at the start of the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It has also earned valuable battlefield experience that can only come from the trial and error inherent to waging years of grueling, high-intensity warfare, and rallied its military-industrial base to markedly outpace the West in artillery round production. Russian forces are not rapidly advancing in the east and southeast because Russia’s strategy is not to seize large swathes of Ukrainian land or to besiege its major cities, but to attrit Ukrainian forces slowly by leveraging its firepower advantage to grind them down at multiple points along the lines of contact.

Underpinning the flawed policy proposals is a deeper underlying conviction in the West’s superiority: “In this war, resources, funds, and technology all overwhelmingly favor the West… Russia simply lacks the military power to defeat a Western-backed Ukraine, and so its only hope lies in manipulating Western concerns,” they write.

The West is orders of magnitude wealthier than Russia, but the past three years have shown that this wealth disparity cannot be easily or quickly converted into the concrete military capabilities that Ukraine needs to defeat Russian forces on the battlefield. The West cannot conjure up the manpower reserves necessary to continue waging this war for years to come short of directly intervening in it. Despite its massive latent wealth, the U.S. currently lacks the production output needed to sustain Ukraine’s shell usage rate in the short to medium term, replenish its own depleted stocks, and maintain commitments to other partners in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. Developing a defense-industrial base robust enough to take on all of these tasks will likely take years, time that Kiev does not have.  

Western leaders are long overdue in articulating a coherent theory of victory — one that grapples with the trade-offs and limitations confronting Kiev and its backers rather than sweeping them aside in pursuit of maximalist battlefield objectives that are increasingly detached from realities on the ground.

It is not too late to end the war on terms that guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty while advancing U.S. interests.

The key to wielding this influence effectively is to finally abandon a zero-sum framing of victory that has prevented leaders from repairing to a more pragmatic, strategically nimble approach, concludes Mark Episkopos.


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