How the U.S. Lost the Ukraine War

Russian forces meeting 'strong and wide' Ukraine resistance | Russia-Ukraine  war News | Al Jazeera

The effect of Western sanctions may cause historians of the future to look upon the conflict in Ukraine as a net defeat for Russia. In terms of the military struggle itself, however, Russia is winning.

Watching American and European news coverage, you might ask yourself how can that be? It comes down to war aims. Russia has them. They are achievable.

The United States doesn’t have any.

“As the war in Ukraine grinds through its third month,” the Washington Post reports, “the Biden administration has tried to maintain a set of public objectives that adapt to changes on the battlefield and stress NATO unity, while making it clear that Russia will lose, even as Ukraine decides what constitutes winning. But the contours of a Russian loss remain as murky as a Ukrainian victory.”

War aims are a list of what one side in a military conflict hopes to achieve at its conclusion.

There are two kinds.

The first type of war aim is propaganda for public consumption. An overt war aim can be vague, as when President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to enter World War I in order to “make the world safe for democracy” (whatever that meant) or specific, like FDR’s demand for the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers. A specific, easily measured, metric is better.

            Covert war aims are goals that political and military leaders are really after. A covert war aim must be realistic. For example, contrary to the long-standing belief that he viewed the outbreak of the Korean war as an irritating distraction, Stalin approved of and supported North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950. He didn’t care if North Korea captured territory. He wanted to drag the United States into a conflict that would diminish its standing in Asia and distract it from the Cold War in Europe. The Soviet ruler died knowing that, whatever the final outcome, he had won.

            A publicly-stated war aim tries to galvanize domestic support, which is especially necessary when fighting a proxy war (Ukraine) or war of choice (Iraq). But you can’t win a war when your military and political leaders are unable to define, even to themselves behind closed doors, what winning looks like.

America’s biggest military debacles occurred after primary objectives metastasized. In Vietnam both the publicly-stated and actual primary war aim was initially to prevent the attempted overthrow of the government of South Vietnam and to prevent the spread of socialism, the so-called Domino Theory. Then the U.S. wanted to make sure that soldiers who had died at the beginning of the war hadn’t died in vain. By the end, the war was about leveraging the safe return of POWs. A recurring theme of accounts by soldiers in the jungle as well as top strategists at the Pentagon is that, before long, no one knew why we were over there.

Again, in Afghanistan after 2002, war aims kept changing. Mission creep expanded from the goal of defeating Al Qaeda to apprehending Osama bin Laden to building infrastructure to establishing democracy to improving security to using the country as a base for airstrikes against neighboring Pakistan. By 2009 the Pentagon couldn’t articulate what it was trying to accomplish. In the end, the U.S. did nothing but stave off the inevitable defeat and collapse of its unpopular Afghan puppet regime.

Clear war aims are essential to winning. Reacting to his experience in Vietnam, the late General Colin Powell led U.S. forces to victory in the first Gulf War with his doctrine that a successful military action enjoys strong domestic political support, is fought by a sufficient number of troops and begins with a clear military and political objective that leads to a quick exit. After Saddam Hussein’s forces were routed from Kuwait, George H.W. Bush ignored advisers who wanted to expand the conflict into Iraq. America’s mission accomplished, there was a tickertape parade down Broadway, the end.

The U.S. too often involves itself in foreign conflicts without declaring clear war aims—or even knowing themselves what they are. In Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, unclear or shifting war aims led to endless escalation followed by fatigue on the home front, declining popular will and defeat. Our involvement in the proxy conflicts in Yemen and Syria also have the character of forever wars, though American voters won’t pay much attention as long as the cost is limited to taxpayer dollars rather than their sons and daughters.

I wrote a piece in 2001 titled “How We Lost Afghanistan.” Given that the U.S. had just overthrown the Taliban, it was cheekily counterintuitive. But I was looking at the Afghan war from the Afghan perspective, which is why I was right and the mainstream media was wrong. I see a similar situation unfolding in Ukraine. We are so misled by our cultural biases that we fail to understand the Russian point of view. The U.S. failure to articulate war aims stems from arrogance. We think we’re so rich and powerful that we can beat anyone, even if our strategy is half-assed and we don’t understand politics on the other side of the planet, where the war is.

President Joe Biden’s approach to Ukraine appears to boil down to: let’s throw more money and weapons into this conflict and hope it helps.

That’s not a strategy. It’s a prayer.

Biden says he wants to preserve Ukraine as a sovereign state and defend its territory. But how much territory? How much sovereignty? Would Biden accept continued autonomy for the breakaway republics in the Dombas? The White House appears unwilling to escalate by supporting an attempt to expel Russian forces from eastern Ukraine, much less Crimea—where they are welcomed by a population dominated by ethnic Russians. Short of a willingness to risk nuclear war, the likely ultimate outcome of the U.S. position will be a Korea-like partition into western and eastern zones. A divided Ukraine would create a disputed border—which would disqualify a rump Ukrainian application to join NATO.

Russia’s primary demand is that Ukraine not join NATO. If America’s goal winds up resolving the main reason President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, why is the U.S. involved? A war aim that neatly aligns with one’s adversary’s is grounds for peace talks, not fighting.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently added a second Ukraine war aim: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Weakened to what extent? Reduced to a failed state? Mildly inconvenienced? Not only is the policy dangerous, it fails to define a clear objective.

Russia, on the other hand, has secured its allies in the autonomous republics and created a buffer zone to protect them. Crimea will remain annexed to Russia. NATO membership for Ukraine, a chimera to begin with, is now a mere fever dream. Unlike the U.S., the Russians declared their objectives and achieved the important ones.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

8 Comments. Leave new

  • alex_the_tired
    May 9, 2022 10:50 AM

    In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the observation is made that in case of a fire, a married woman goes for her children, a single woman for her jewelry. Biden is standing in the middle of a conflagration that makes hell look like a dew-dappled deciduous forest and what’s he doing? What’s he trying to save? It’s like watching a deer in the headlights.
    I wonder if the Republicans will manage to pass legislation after the midterms that actually requires Biden to crawl over to Trump and lick his shoes when Trump gets sworn back in. Or will they just settle for Biden’s sworn admission that he, personally, masterminded the stealing of the 2020 election with the help of a band of crackerjack computer hacker pedophiles based out of D.C.?
    No matter. If they do, Pelosi will simply claim it as a victory.

  • SomeoneElse
    May 9, 2022 11:42 AM

    How the U.S. Lost the Ukraine War?
    Wishful thinking at best !

    The US plotted that war, like any other it ever got into. Remember USS Maine, anyone?

    Granted, the US was even more devious this time, and set a trap for Poutine to fall in -which he did- to make it a war by proxy.

    And not only against Russia, but in a way against all NATO nations to coerce them even more into going against Russia and also most probably against China.

    And, at a minimum, selling more and more weapons to all “allies” in the mean time.

    How could all the people be so dumb as to wilfully accept shortages or price gouging in the name of a war they’re not even fighting?

    The only good side is that all this business is surely accelerating the climate apocalypse…

    And also -alas much too slightly- pushing the Doomsday Clock forward.

  • SomeoneElse
    May 9, 2022 11:45 AM

    P.S. There were NO comments posted on May 9, 2022 11:42 AM NYT

  • This willingness to adopt (and promote) ignorance over accurate information is pretty universal. It makes no sense to make bad (subprime) loans, at least for the organization known as the bank, but for the CEO, whose salary depends on loan volume, it makes enormous sense. Society is rife with examples of a few making enormous profits at the expense of the many, and Ukraine is only one of the most recent examples.

  • You are asking the right questions. Why can’t we find the answers? Oh, because they don’t want to be pinned down with specific war aims? The military-industrial complex wants everyone to instinctively go along with saving the Ukrainians so we can send more weapons without debate? Why is there a debate when it’s about human infrastructure? It’s too “soft”? When our government fails to support families in so many ways how can the citizens support the government?

  • jackalope66
    May 11, 2022 9:34 PM

    This military war is just a skirmish in the Financial World War that has been going on since 1914.

    Future historians will probably not see this as a net defeat for Russia:

    • alex_the_tired
      May 12, 2022 3:25 PM

      Definitionally, it isn’t a defeat. Russia has gained territory in what used to be Ukraine. Unless they have to surrender every single hectare, they won. Look at the Sacklers. How much did they pay as a fine/settlement for the opioid epidemic? Call it 100 marklars. How much did they MAKE on the epidemic? Call it 3,000 marklars. It’s the same thing in the Ukraine. If I were Putin, I’d come back every year until I owned the whole damned thing. Even if I do, someone will still buy my oil and the grain that used to be Ukraine’s. …

  • The US does have an ultimate objective in the current hot conflict with Russia (via proxy Ukraine). It has been an objective for some time. The conflict is not an isolated event but one with serious context. The US wants to control/possess Russia’s vast natural resources by forcing Putin out of office, theoretically by destroying his public support with a war of attrition AND economic sanctions. With that, it can cut off energy supplies to its perceived #1 enemy, China.

    Putin’s real “crime” was to stop Boris Yeltsin’s decade-long asset & resource giveaway party to the US. (See, “Failed Crusade” by Stephen F. Cohen.) Even Yeltsin, however, was sober enough to warn the US that continued expansion of NATO would lead to serious problems. The ensuing continued expansion of NATO could be interpreted as the desire of the US and NATO to cause serious problems with Russia(!?!) Well, they now have one, punctuated, after months of poorly faked diplomacy, by ignoring ANY consideration of the draft treaty Russia presented to the US at the beginning of the year that comprehensively addressed Russia’s security needs.

    The (visible) US meddling/provocation in Ukraine started in 2004 with a (cringe-worthy) so-called “color revolution.” The provocation has “progressed,” including the 2014 coup, to the present at which point it is apparent US is willing to sacrifice every Ukrainian and the entire European Union, if necessary, to get rid of Putin. Note that the Russian conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia were US (failed) practice runs for the Ukraine operation.

    After ten weeks of the “Special Military Operation” (SMO), Russia is crushing Ukraine militarily and Putin’s domestic approval rating is over 80%. The only grumbling offered by Russians is an inability to understand why its military is, apparently, going so slowly and meticulously. (Ironically, this is superficially the same complaint by US media “expert war analysts.”)

    The US economic sanctions have backfired mightily as the short-sighted, if hys-terical, US leaders have been outmaneuvered by Russia. The US considers itself “the essential country.” Thus is can’t conceive of Russia having decided itself no longer interested in dealing with the West (US, UK, EU, Canada, Australia, NZ, Japan, South Korea.) After 20 years of US lies, abuse and contempt (on the spe-cific NATO expansion issue, alone) Russia reasons that it can operate just fine servicing the energy and critical mineral needs of the remaining >6 billion-person “market.” The US previous (several) rounds of sanctions has in significant part forced Russia into its current state of virtual self-sufficiency.

    With the freedom that self-sufficiency has conferred, Russia was able to tell (and troll) Europe that the Russian energy supplies on which Europe is so dependent can now only be purchased in rubles, the Russian currency. At least this will test 1) US claims that it can supply the missing energy (at a much higher cost, of course, if at all!) and 2) who among the Middle East energy producers will supply energy to Europe (i.e., remain allied to the West) if the US can’t.

    The real issue is that >6 billion people may be paying for their energy in rubles. Thus, President “Dirty Harry in Adult Depends™” may well have destroyed a very important pillar of US imperialism: the US dollar as the global reserve currency, as in – the “petrodollar”! Also, the financial piracy demonstrated by the US in its con-fiscation of >$300 billion of Russian foreign reserves sends a message that every country in the world can readily interpret — in a way Biden and his advisers were apparently unable to do. Way to go JB! I know it was an “innocent” mistake, but played as well as any genuine “Russian agent” could ever dream!!! Get that man another diaper … quick!

    The public Russian objectives for its SMO in Ukraine was to 1) demilitarize it and 2) denazify it. Objective #1 is going well, the non-“shock & awe” pace self-imposed to minimize civilian casualties. The second objective is a problem. This is because the US, itself, as I have claimed, is the de facto successor to the Third Reich having amassed an empire probably never conceived by Hilter in his wild-est conqueror’s dreams. It has done so with many of the same, and some new and exciting, criminal tactics over a longer time period. It has done so with the same essential fascist ideology: obsessive hatred of socialism/communism. As implied, above, the current situation is only a very visible part of a bigger, ongoing struggle … of a faltering, self-destructive hegemon going very grumpily into multi-polar senescence.

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