Within days of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the State Department undersecretary of state for political affairs, Victoria Neuland, declared that the U.S. objective in the conflict is the “strategic defeat” of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
One month later, Nuland doubled down. “It is clear that Russia will lose this conflict. … It is only a matter of time.”
At Davos one year ago, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen added Europe’s voice to the American chorus. “Putin’s aggression must be a strategic failure,” she said.
It is well and good, and indeed to be expected, that when the guns start sounding leaders will seek to rally their troops to the cause. Remember George W. Bush’s famous, if premature “mission accomplished” declaration, well before the decisive conflict in Iraq commenced.
But when the real work of waging war commences, President Joe Biden, and the public whose endorsement he seeks, must, in word as well as deed, answer the question: What indeed does such high-sounding rhetoric really mean? How will we know when we have arrived at such a solemn and expansive if indefinite objective as Russia’s strategic defeat?
Putin has paid very close attention to the statements coming from Washington. He cannot afford to have illusions about Washington’s objective or dismiss its intentions as hyperbole.
“The goal of the West,” he declares, “is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia. To finish us off. That’s exactly how we understand it all. It’s about the existence of our country. But they cannot fail to understand that it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield.”
In a war notable for Washington’s incremental, and so far strategically unsuccessful, escalation of the means—military as well as economic and financial—employed to attain Russia’s strategic defeat, the clarity of U.S. aims today is no more definite than it was at the war’s outset.