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War Is Not a Game
It rarely has clear winners and losers, and frequently doesn't even end
Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe.
Who’s winning the war in Ukraine?
On the one hand, Russia clearly failed to achieve its objectives with anything like the ease and speed which they originally intended. They expected the Ukrainian army to offer limited resistance and for the government to fall quickly. Instead, resistance has been stiff the Ukraine’s people are more united behind their government than the ever have been since independence, and the Ukrainian army is sufficiently manned and equipped to be executing counter-attacks around Kyiv, Kharkiv and Sumy. Stepping back further, to larger strategic objectives, Germany is sharply raising defense spending, Finland is interested in joining NATO, and London is finally getting serious about getting dirty Russian money out of the City.
On the other hand, Russia has nearly destroyed Mariupol and will surely take it soon. Ukrainian President Zelensky would not have told the port city’s defenders to withdraw if their survival is at stake had he not recognized this reality. Ukraine’s forces in the Donbas are at risk of encirclement by Russian forces coming from the south and north, which would present Zelensky with a terrible choice of whether to accept peace on Russia’s terms or see a large portion of his army obliterated. Again, Zelensky understands this, which is why he has already indicated a willingness to accept many of Russia’s demands in the ongoing peace talks, including neutrality and negotiations on the status of the Donbas and Crimea. Some hawkish commentators are wondering whether the dismemberment of Ukraine, as opposed to the establishment of a puppet government in Kyiv, wasn’t the plan all along.
One could reconcile those conflicting perspectives by saying that the game is still ongoing, so of course we can’t know who’s going to win. But really the entire framework of winning and losing is what needs to be ditched to recognize what’s likely to happen. Wars, unlike games and even unlike battles, almost never have clear-cut winners and losers. Rather, they are almost always negative-sum contests in which “winning” has as much to do with defining sensible political objectives as with anything that happens on the battlefield.
Who “won” World War I? On one level, obviously, the Allies did, because Germany sued for peace and had humiliating terms imposed on it by its enemies. On the other hand, the Russian Empire, one of the allied countries, lost utterly on the battlefield, fell into revolution and civil war, and saw its territory dismembered. Nor was that the only loss on the winning side. The war left Britain deeply in debt and with a set of commitments that would prove impossible to maintain in the face of challenge; the end of the Empire was essentially foreordained by the Great War. That’s hard to score as a win. The only clear-cut “winner” of the war was the United States, in the sense that America’s relative power was clearly enhanced relative to all competitors—but it was so unclear what we had “won” that public opinion after the war turned decisively in an isolationist direction.
Who “won” the Korean War? North Korea failed to achieve its objective of reunifying the peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule, but the allied armies led by the United States also failed to achieve victory after the Chinese entered the war on North Korea’s side. The war was fought to a stalemate—but arguably, from South Korea’s perspective, it was the war that definitively put South Korea under America’s umbrella, and thereby paved the way for it to become one of history’s most phenomenal development success stories. On the other hand, North Korea can boast of a long track record of regime continuity; rumors of its imminent demise have been repeatedly exaggerated.
Who “won” in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? America easily defeated al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Iraqi army whenever we were engaged. The Islamic State proved similarly incapable of standing up to a direct assault. But it is difficult to name any political objective that America achieved as a consequence of its battlefield successes. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan was an acknowledgement that we had long since failed to achieve those objectives and had no prospect of ever achieving them. On the other hand, the dramatic rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states—which considerably simplifies America’s foreign policy in the region—is a direct result of America’s failure to achieve its objectives in those other wars, because those failures enhanced Iran’s position and led America’s allies to reasonably anticipate that we would have less appetite for undertaking further wars in the region.
There are wars with clear winners. America won its war against the Empire of Japan. North Vietnam won its war against South Vietnam and its American patron. These are the exceptions, though, not the rules.
So the most likely outcome of Putin’s war on Ukraine is also something equivocal. I don’t think either side is likely to “win” in the sense of utterly vanquishing their opponents. And to a considerable extent, both sides have already lost, however the war ultimately ends. Ukraine’s losses are obvious and profound, but even Russia, if it grinds out a “victory” of one sort or another, cannot avoid recognizing that it has made itself far more dependent on allies like China, or that serious regional rivals like Turkey now know how exaggerated its military prowess was. Those losses cannot be reversed by any achievement on the battlefield, and they are losses for the Russian state, not just its people. And the longer the war grinds on, the deeper they will get. That’s the argument for believing that a morally unsatisfying peace still has a chance.
Nonetheless, I expect the war to grind on. I hope that peace talks bear fruit, both because the war is an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe and because getting Putin’s signature on a document recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty would be of great value even if getting there requires giving Russia a “win” on certain of its objectives like neutrality or recognition of the annexation of Crimea. But I don’t expect them to. I think Putin benefits more from an ongoing conflict than he does from resolution not because war is clearly best for the Russian people but because it is clearly worse for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian state. He’s willing to take the strategic losses of a revived and enlarged NATO and economic disengagement from the developed world to achieve the strategic objective of a weak and crippled neighbor.
Ukraine’s friends, then, need to be thinking in terms not only of how to sustain it in its defense, or how to weaken Russia’s capability to wage war, but of how Ukraine can function and develop if the war not only isn’t won, but doesn’t end.