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What does victory look like for Ukraine?

Although the Russo-Ukrainian War began in 2014 when Russia seized Crimea and destabilised the Donbas, the one-year anniversary of Putin’s decision to execute a full-scale invasion of Ukraine comes loaded with meaning. Many, if not a large majority of, early estimates held that Ukraine would hardly stand a chance. It was posited that with its supposedly well-resourced and fine-tuned military, Russia would be able to achieve a quick victory once it threw its forces into action – a victory that would involve capturing Kyiv, eliminating the political and military leadership, and bringing much of the country to heel.

That obviously, and very thankfully, did not happen. Russia achieved some successes in late February and March of last year, with some more enduring than others. It took Mariupol and expanded its hold of the Donbas in addition to acquiring territory in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. Yet the Russian military endured one debacle after another, and a series of tactical defeats in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy ultimately contributed to a sense of strategic failure. Ukraine was able to liberate more territory in the Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts towards the end of the summer and into the autumn. Ukraine also secured significant international support: the United Kingdom, the United States, and their partners and allies have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia, stepped up their military assistance to Ukraine, and have largely curbed the European reliance on Russian hydrocarbons. 

Amid such reversals in its own fortunes, Russia did not achieve its maximalist aims and has had to settle on more moderate military goals even if its anti-Ukrainian rhetoric remains genocidal. But has Ukraine achieved victory given the basic failure that so far characterises Russia’s war effort? If so, how does this victory even look?

The fact of the matter is that Ukraine has indeed achieved a strategic victory, but that victory remains amorphous in form. Put plainly, Ukraine remains an independent, sovereign country with its government intact. That alone was far more than what many had expected in early 2022. For some observers, the conventional war was expected to conclude rather swiftly, with whatever remaining Ukrainian resistance to the Russian military occupation taking the form of an insurgency. Partisan warfare, however, remains a relatively minor subplot to the Ukrainian struggle against Russian aggression. The conventional war continues, with Ukraine’s armed forces looking more like a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) power with each passing week.

A complete Ukrainian victory would surely involve a full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, not just with respect to the lines that more or less held in mid-February 2022, but also with respect to its internationally recognised borders as they held in mid-February 2014. It would also involve membership in both the European Union and NATO – two Euro-Atlantic institutions that Ukrainian society has only become more determined to join since last year. Finally, it would involve Russia coming to the sincere realisation that it has no special rights over Ukraine or any of its sovereign neighbours. This intellectual change may yet be the hardest goal to achieve because it would require decolonising the mind-set of the Russian political and cultural elite, but it is a lesson that still needs to be imparted.

Nevertheless, Ukrainian victory would remain significant even if the outcome ends up falling well short of such a comprehensive triumph. Joining the EU but not NATO, or vice versa, would be a major milestone. If Ukraine stays outside of both those organisations despite the defence it has put up for European values and undertaking the remaining reforms it will have to carry out, then that rejection would represent Europe’s failure, not Ukraine’s. More territorial liberation, whatever its extent, would still denote victory. After all, for all of its incompetence on the battlefield, Russia is still Russia: an immense country that can bring a lot of metal to bear on Ukraine and manipulate the threat of nuclear devastation to deter outside support. The odds have always seemed to be against Ukraine and so any assessment of victory must take that disadvantage into account.

The fact of the matter is that Ukraine has indeed achieved a strategic victory, but that victory remains amorphous in form. Put plainly, Ukraine remains an independent, sovereign country with its government intact.

Of course, Ukraine’s strategic victory is bittersweet precisely because the cost is so high and the trauma so impactful. Estimates vary between 7,000 Ukrainian civilians and 30,000 civilians killed. Sexual violence permeates daily life in those areas under Russian occupation. Many Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes, with over eight million still outside the country. Russia still controls about 20% of Ukrainian territory, the liberation of which will lead to the loss of many more Ukrainian troops. Ukraine lost 30% of its national output in 2022 and may only very slightly rebound in 2023. Massive funds are necessary to rebuild the country, but international investors might be deterred from financing projects if the threat of destruction remains pervasive. At least 40% of Ukrainian energy infrastructure has suffered serious damage upon repeated missile and drone attacks. It is sometimes all too easy for non-Ukrainians to overlook that painful toll amid stories of impressive Ukrainian heroism and candid footage of Russian military incompetence.

Ukraine has achieved much in the last year despite what it has had to suffer. Unfortunately, the ongoing war means it will have to endure more hardship. Yet, these present difficulties will not be in vain considering Ukraine’s own advances in fighting corruption and deepening alignment with free and open countries around the world. Few outside Ukraine gave the country much of a chance. Those doubters have been proven decisively wrong. Those skeptical that Ukraine will be able to convert its basic strategic victory over Russia into lasting positive political change will likewise be wrong.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is the Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo.

Embedded image credit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd (CC BY 2.0 cropped)

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