The New Theory of Ukrainian Victory Is the Same as the Old

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister, and Eliot Cohen, Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, accurately diagnose a central ailment of the West’s Ukraine policy in a new Foreign Affairs op-ed: 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.

But the “theory of victory” presented by Zagorodnyuk and Cohen to replace the strategic malaise in which the west finds itself is, remarkably, even more dangerous and ill-conceived than the status quo. The authors call on the White House to come out in full-throated support of Kiev’s war aims: namely, ejecting all Russian forces from Ukraine’s 1991 borders including Crimea, subjecting Russian officials to war crimes tribunals, extracting reparations from Moscow, and providing Ukraine with “long-term security arrangements.” Put differently, the West must commit itself to nothing short of Russia’s total and unconditional battlefield defeat.

How is Ukraine, with its battered military, collapsing demography, and an economy entirely reliant on Western cash infusions, to accomplish this lofty task? By doing more of the same, but on a larger scale. Zagorodnyuk and Cohen prescribe more conscription even as polling shows a plurality of Ukrainian men say they are not prepared to fight; more strikes on infrastructure inside Russian territory despite no indication that such attacks have made a dent in Russia’s energy production or military output; renewed counter-offensives despite the abysmal and horribly costly failure of last year’s attempt; new sanctions notwithstanding Russia’s continued economic growth despite being the world’s most sanctioned country; and threatening Russia’s control over Crimea with ideas about “air superiority” that bear no semblance to the war’s current dynamics and likely trajectory.

Here it is revealed that the authors’ “theory of victory” is really just a rehash of older policy ideas that are already being pursued by the West, even if not with the intensity that Zagorodnyuk and Cohen would prefer. This is the medieval leech doctor’s theory of victory. The problem is not that the underlying treatment doesn’t work, proclaims the physician as his patient wheezes and gasps, barely clinging on to life, but that he hasn’t used enough leeches. Naturally, all of his colleagues—working, as they are, under the same wrongheaded assumptions—agree.