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Leonid Bershidsky

Victory and Defeat Are Hard to Define in Ukraine

The variety of outcomes that either Russia or Ukraine could declare as a victory is matched only by the scarcity of outcomes that can last.

Neither victory nor defeat will necessarily bring peace.

Neither victory nor defeat will necessarily bring peace.

Photographer: Andrey Borodulin/AFP via Getty Images

One of the most striking things about the Russo-Ukrainian war of 2022 is the variety of outcomes that both sides could declare as a victory — and the scarcity of outcomes that can last. What will determine the success of any declaration is its intended audience. What matters in the real world, however, is whether the outcome establishes a balance of forces and interests between the belligerents such that further armed conflict makes no sense, or even becomes impossible. 

Both sides’ declared goals in the war are relatively ambitious, even after Russia appeared to scale down its own. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s vision of victory includes the return of Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukraine. Russia aims to expand its control of Ukrainian territory to the entire Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east and a slice of the Ukrainian Black Sea coastline in the south, turning Ukraine into a landlocked nation. The invaded territories may even be claimed as parts of Russia rather than allied unrecognized statelets.