The Ukrainian offensive had primarily political objectives, and the main criterion for its success was to change sentiment in Russian society and the perception of the situation by the country’s leadership. Such planning was characteristic of Kiev throughout the conflict. Much of Ukraine’s effort, and perhaps most of its losses, have come in operations designed to create a strong media impact.
The stubborn defense of cities declared “fortresses” under unfavorable conditions, risky forays by specially trained subversive units into “old” Russian territory with videos posted on TikTok, and attacks on symbolic buildings in Russian cities (the Kremlin, the skyscrapers in Moscow-City, etc.) are typical examples of such actions. It is quite likely that this strategy is based on Western ideas about public attitudes to war that were formed during American and European overseas campaigns such as the illegal Iraq invasion.
To use a cinematic metaphor, Ukraine tried to play the role of a kung fu master in an old Hong Kong action movie who, by pointing his finger at specific pain points, expects to knock out an opponent of greater strength and size. But the master has a poor knowledge of anatomy, so he always misses, hitting the places where there are very few nerve endings.
The attitude of Russian society towards the conflict is such that only after several crushing fiascos on the battlefield (encirclement and defeat of large groups of troops) would it agree to admit defeat and withdraw. Minor failures only encourage Russia to devote more and more of its resources to victory. And those are many times superior to what Ukraine can muster (even with all the help the West can provide).
Western visions of the end of the conflict
The failure of the counteroffensive thus showed that the strategy of ending the conflict on terms acceptable to the West has reached a dead end. What were these terms?
A return to the 1991 borders, or even to those of February 23, 2022, was never seriously considered. Nor was Ukraine’s territorial integrity a priority for the US and its allies. Just as the desire to annex new territories was not the main original motive for Moscow to launch its operation.
At the root of the conflict was a disagreement over Ukraine’s place in the regional security system. Russia sought to eliminate the potential threat from the country by forcing it to accept neutral status and agree to restrictions on its defense industry and armed forces.
However, it is important for the US to maintain Ukraine as a potential military bridgehead. Therefore, an outcome in which Kiev loses a substantial part of its territory but remains an American outpost, with subsequent rearmament, US military bases, etc., is acceptable to Washington. In other words, for the Americans it does not matter how much land Ukraine loses as long as it remains economically viable, and controls its main political centers.
By ending the conflict on such terms in the near future, the US could temporarily reduce spending on military support for Kiev and “freeze” the conflict. This would allow the Americans to turn their attention to crises elsewhere in the world and, above all, to focus on containing China.
In the future, with Ukraine incorporated into the system of Western institutions and under the rule of a Russophobic nationalist regime, Washington could at any time return to using the country as a military tool to deter or strategically defeat Russia