Dr. Frank Hoffman on “Defining and Securing Success in Ukraine”

What is the way forward in the Ukraine crisis?  In today’s post Dr. Frank Hoffman joins us again to discuss that very question in his thoughtful but extremely candid way.  As he puts it, “[n]ow is the time to reassess collective strategies for bringing this conflict to an end rather than accept the costs and consequences of its protracted character.”  

In an extraordinarily realistic manner, Frank reviews the current situation, examines the larger dynamics, considers the strategic options, and concedes that a diplomatic and political solution “will require painful compromise on both sides.”  He adds that “[t]hese are not ‘face-saving’ gestures or ‘off ramps’ but a pragmatic reality about ending this conflict.”

Seriously, Frank’s essay is a ‘must read’:

Defining and Securing Success in Ukraine

by Frank Hoffman

            The war in Ukraine has passed its 100-day anniversary and a grinding war of attrition has arrived.  The predicted stalemate scenario is being borne out with the Russians making slow and costly advances, which is all that they can hope to achieve.  The question of the day, to borrow the title of a famous book, is Tell Me How This Ends.  General David Petraeus’s famous question looms just as large today. 

          There is a lot of sentiment behind ensuring that Putin cannot win this war, and for declarations that “Ukraine must win” but not a lot of ideas on how to make that happen anytime soon.  Some columnists passionately claim The War Won’t End Until Putin Loses and press for a clear military defeat. Yet, the persistent “Putin Must Lose” school does not offer a viable way to generate that end state and does not weigh the related costs or risks.  

            While there seems to be some clear and public aims in the United States, there is less agreement in NATO and precious few ideas on the ways and means to obtain them.  As Ian Bremmer noted in a dispatch from Davos:

There’s a lot of consensus around Putin needing to be stopped and Ukrainians deserving all the help we can give them. But that’s where the unity ends. How does the conflict end? Can the Ukrainians actually win? Does that require humiliating the Russians? Or does Putin need to be offered an off-ramp? On those questions, there’s no agreement whatsoever.

            It is time to ask, as Eliot Cohen did, what is our goal or What Victory Will Look Like.  Is a battlefield victory by Ukraine the right goal and what would generate that result?  What are the realistic chances of success?  This paper examines the ongoing war and explores options that lead to ending the conflict in some way that would constitute success or “victory.”  

          Decisive victory in a purely military sense is an unlikely prospect.  A frozen conflict, a larger and longer version of Donbas across the entire Ukrainian frontier, is increasingly likely despite the efforts from the West to induce Russia to back down. 

          The prospects of a grinding stalemate are evident and extending the fighting creates spill over consequences for other U.S. strategic priorities.  A war of endurance may play to U.S./European economic advantages but could evolve in a way that harms longer-term interests. 

            Now is the time to reassess collective strategies for bringing this conflict to an end rather than accept the costs and consequences of its protracted character.  

Is Victory Possible?

          Thus, few political or military options seem available aside from continuing the current approach which is predicated upon massive security assistance to provide the arms the Ukrainian people need to defend themselves. 

          Is the Alliance strategy and contributions enough?  Can Ukraine build off its initial success around Kyiv and thwart the Russian Army in the eastern and southern coastline?  Some analysts believe that Kyiv could restore the status quo ante that existed before Russia launched its attack in February. 

          Assessing the relative chances of Ukraine’s ability to not just hold the line but regain the 20% of its territory from occupation raises a key question for the West.  Can success be obtained with a strategy that relies so heavily on Ukraine to bear the entire human costs of the combat? 

          President Zelensky has vowed to retake all of the occupied territory.  Is this feasible, and at what cost?  The Ukrainians make it clear they are willing to bear that horrific cost, while also recognizing that they want to convert that battlefield success into a durable political solution.

            Yet, Ukraine, even with massive military transfusions, may not be able to regain its lost territory by force of arms.  It would require offensives that would require combined arms maneuver against dug in Russian forces for success, reversing the conditions of the prior battles and victories in the north. 

         Ukraine itself is suffering grievous losses and it has a smaller manpower base.  Russia is adapting and is making some gains, including in the contested Donbas.  It is also learning lessons, as undoubtedly defeat is often a good teacher. 

          More likely, another frozen conflict will ensue, with Putin simply digging in and annexing his current holdings.  A stalemate, with Russian occupying a swath of Ukraine, and Kyiv’s economy reduced by 40 percent, could result.   

Defining Success

             U.S. strategic aims are reflected in the policy goals announcement made by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “what we want to see is a free and independent Ukraine, a weakened and isolated Russia, and a stronger, more unified, more determined West.”  Secretary of Defense Austin’s comments about that second policy aim were misunderstood as a unilateral escalation

           The implications of the policy and the consensus behind these goals is revealed by the accelerated security assistance the U.S. is providing, and by the type of weaponry being supplied.  Congress substantially increased aid to Ukraine for the coming year to over $40 billion more in aid.  More aid, much more aid, seems needed if Ukraine is to regain most of the territory Russia initially seized.

           It is time to question aims, assumptions and risk.  Most importantly, we need to ask if we have a Theory of Victory for this war.  Kyiv has now made their own hypothesis for a theory of victory much clearer.  It may not be realistic but it is clear. 

           Is the strategy and its inherent logic realistic about the complexities of the conflict?  Does the military notion of victory and defeat capture the only options to resolve the conflict or at least stop the horrific violence?  What trade space exists for negotiations, including territory or political constraints on both sides?  Too many have deflected this issue, deferring to Kyiv. 

          But there are Western chips on the negotiating table; sanctions relief, security guarantees, reconstruction costs, freedom of navigation, etc.  Kyiv has borne the butcher’s bill and thus should sit at the head of the settlement table, but it cannot write checks for U.S. taxpayers or unilaterally pass on bills for the West to pay.  Moreover, the goals its sets for reclaiming territory from Russian occupation have to be balanced against how much security assistance is available and offered. 

            The answer for the larger questions involve generating a broader  Theory of Success for the West.  The U.S. representative to NATO called for a strategic defeat of the Russian Federation.  Those comments should mean that Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is completely stopped.  But that statement and Mr. Austin’s widely cited comment in Poland about “weakening” Russia came across as a call for regime change to allies in Europe.  The Secretary’s statement simply outlined a longer term goal, consistent with Mr. Sullivan’s, to ensure that Russia cannot simply regroup and reattack Ukraine next year. 

          Yet, this has surfaced cracks in the West about desired political outcomes and what constitutes “victory.”  Is that about defending Ukraine, or a military defeat of Russia’s armed forces, or a larger and more enduring end to tensions with Moscow?  The two contests are inter-related but winning in Ukraine does not necessarily and automatically resolve the larger contest.

            Opinions on U.S. objectives vary and emotive calls to embrace Ukrainian victory as the singular goal are increasingly voiced now, with little distinction between what actions best serve Washington’s or the West’s interests.  We also need to align our strategy with Ukraine’s leadership.  We need to gain an agreement on what constitutes success in Ukraine and with the larger challenge posed by Putin against Europe writ large. 

            To reassess objectives going forward, we need to be clear eyed about Putin’s agenda.  This is far more than a fight between Moscow and Kyiv.  As the Atlantic Council noted, Putin seeks to dismantle the entire post-Cold War European security architecture and reestablish a Russian sphere of influence over Eastern and Central Europe.  He wants veto authority over how states in Europe exercise their sovereign rights of political, economic and security association. He has designs on a weaker if not dissolved NATO. 

           We also need to understand Putin’s theory of victory, which is not hard to capture.  Putin’s logic is based on his willingness to pile more men and materiel, and accept higher losses, in order to simply grind down Kyiv’s defense through sheer brute force. 

          As Russian expert Kier Giles at the UK-based Conflict Studies Research Centre put it, Moscow seeks to “keep up the pressure on Ukraine longer than Ukraine can keep up Western interest in supporting it in its fight for freedom.”  That is Moscow’s theory of victory in a war of endurance they started. 

Strategic Options

            Having explored the contours of the strategic interaction, what options does the West have given what we have observed and learned from 100 days of war?  Can diplomacy resolve this crisis or should overt military from NATO be deployed inside Ukraine?  This next section  compares diplomatic and military options, and concludes with a discussion about merging them into a more comprehensive strategy focused on compelling an end to the war.

            Prospects for Diplomacy.  Key European leaders including the French President and the Italian foreign minister have advocated diplomatic solutions to the war.  They hope that Putin will rationally assess his diminished chances of a battlefield success and seek to get out from under the massive sanctions package levied on Moscow. 

          I am not sure we can count on rationality in the Kremlin.  He is clearly not, as John Mearsheimer once claimed, “a first-class strategist who should be feared and respected.” 

          Putin’s judgment is shaped by imperial illusions as shown by Jeff Mankoff in his impressive book, Empires of Eurasia. The imperial histories of Europe cast a long shadow that influences events today.  Russia seems schizophrenic, trapped between delusions of power and vulnerability. 

          As William Burns, the U.S. director of the CIA put it, President Putin is “stewing in a very combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity.”  The American intelligence community finds Putin more unpredictable than ever.  

           Would some sort of negotiated settlement with a Russian withdrawal from selected areas be feasible?  Perhaps, but does it matter or is a sustainable solution feasible at all?  The real question may be “why do we think a negotiated settlement is a useful end state?” 

          Putin does not have a strong track record for honoring his commitments. His dismissal of the Helsinki and Budapest accords, and violation of the INF Treaty, should suggest that attempting to secure a meaningful, lasting agreement is problematic. There are calls for negotiations to this conflict but little common ground on what the deal may look like.  The Italian proposal, a cease fire and some concessions to promote a peace conference, is thin gruel.  Both sides have flatly rejected it.

          Given the dynamics on the battlefield, both sides will have problems compromising and dealing with their domestic politics.  Putin obviously has less concerns about his domestic base, but his actions to tightly control the information space and dissent inside Russia suggests he knows that his authority and position can be challenged.  He needs to deliver some benefit for the horrible costs his war has imposed on his economy and his devastated military. 

            President Zelensky is strong politically but also has constraints. In a recent survey, 82 percent of Ukrainians polled stated that territory should not be given to Russia in trade for peace and “under any circumstances, even if this prolongs the war.” 

          Just 10 percent of Ukrainians who participated in the poll indicated that they were willing to cede land now to gain peace.  Given this, Zelensky cannot politically accept an agreement that locks in Russia’s current position inside Ukraine, or survive politically if he goes against the majority of his electorate. 

            At this point, neither side seems prepared to negotiate.  Russia is making incremental progress in Donbas and holds a lot of terrain.   The Ukrainians have mobilized and shifted to securing their eastern and southern region, and expect greater success they absorb advanced weaponry. 

          A settlement is not in sight and a premature deal would alleviate the horrible suffering inside Ukraine temporarily.  Russia may only regroup and threaten Ukraine’s freedom and peace in Europe yet again. 

          At this point there seems to be no available mechanism or motivation to implement a political solution or even a cease fire.  The latter may be palliative, stopping the massive violence, but it is certainly not conducive to long-term stability if it simply locks in the current battle lines and tensions, and with Putin holding three times more ground than before the war.

            More Direct Military Force?  If a political solution is not likely are there military options that require consideration?  A few analysts have argued that NATO should call Russia’s bluff and use armed force for specific and narrowly defined humanitarian purposes, including No-Fly Zones or escorted naval convoys to enforce freedom of the sea.   Some have called for more forceful options including some sort of a  U.N. Peace Enforcement Operation.   

            More recently, advocates have called for a naval corridor to keep supplies and grain flowing to and from Odessa.  Using a NATO force to sustain trade going into and out of Ukraine’s ports is possible but depends on Turkey and other allied nations supporting the maritime force that ensures that Ukraine is not blockaded.  The Russian Navy was postured to secure its interests in the Black Sea, but the naval combat power those plans were built upon now rest literally on the bottom on the Black Sea.   

            Of course, invariably, using force comes with potential risks of escalation.  The authority and appetite for intervention, whether no fly zones or humanitarian escorts, in Ukraine are limited.  Direct intervention has little appeal inside the Alliance, especially from states that have underfunded defense for years. 

          Most observers feel that direct and overt intervention, with either planes in the air over Ukraine or troops on the ground is a step too far.  There is a risk that Putin would simply escalate further and possibly attack a NATO ally. 

          Putin and his foreign minister never fail to condition Western policy makers with less than subtle commentary about their tactical nukes.  Numerous Western leaders have cited fears of World War III and the specter of global war repeatedly since the start of the war.

           While there are few credible advocates for more direct intervention, the risk calculus needs recalibration due to Russian losses and clear dysfunction.  Putin has little military force left to deploy, his army is starting to field legacy and junkyard quality systems.  He may attempt to escalate the conflict in response, inside of Ukraine or beyond in NATO countries, if the West was to inject any overt form of military force.  But to do so would doom what’s left of his military and hirelings to obliteration.  

          As one former U.S. policy official commented, “If the Ukrainian military can fight the Russian military to a standstill, imagine what it would look like if the United States and its allies joined?” 

          There is now months of evidence to assess how a contest of arms between Russia and a professional combined arms force will play out.  Ukraine’s chances of offensive maneuver and regaining all its lost ground may not be likely, but I am more confident than RAND expert David Johnson that the United States would prevail due to its qualitative advantages as well as evident and enduring Russian deficiencies.  It’s not hubris to conclude that U.S. forces would be effective in Ukraine, while also recognizing that Russia’s armed forces have been learning too.  

            However, there are members in NATO not willing or able to provide combat forces for such an operation.  An intervention could be a coalition of the willing, but activating that coalition may impose costs or risks to non-participating NATO members.  Nor does the alliance want to accept the risk of an attack on an alliance member that would trigger a debate on Article V obligations. 

          A rupture in the alliance hands a win to Putin.  Moreover, geographic access for large ground forces into Ukraine is not easily resolved without major diplomatic and logistical challenges.  The same is true for keeping the Black Sea open and preserving freedom of navigation in those international waters with naval power. 

            Contrary to claims, realistic strategic gains from the use of force by the West are possible.  Yet, the uncertain dynamics of escalation and shared risks have to be factored in.  Gains may be acquired but possibly at the cost of larger even vital interests to Washington and NATO.  

          At this point, defined NATO and U.S. goals are being gained and vital interests preserved without taking that risk.  The President has made it clear that there are limits to U.S. goals and to our support, and he defined what his government will not do in Ukraine.  That includes placing combat forces inside Ukraine. 

          Hence the current approach with diplomacy, unprecedented sanctions, intelligence sharing, and robust security assistance.  Thus our theory of success is tied to Kyiv’s success and their theory of victory, which requires substantial fighting and far more additional military aid across a longer time horizon.   

            A Third Way: Comprehensive Compellence.  We should increase our level of political and economic and military pressure with an approach that seeks an end to the fighting and the establishment of Ukrainian territorial integrity including the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. 

          This approach, Comprehensive Compellence, uses all elements of statecraft to pressure Putin to stop his aggression.  Having failed to deter last February, we now seek to compel or induce Putin to stop his massive and brutal incursion. 

         The elements of this approach are integrated and include political, military and economic costs together to increase pressure and urgency.  The new EU oil embargo and the recent U.S. decision to send the longer-range HIMARS advanced rocket systems to Ukraine indicate that we can still add more pressure. 

          Using Russia’s frozen hard currency reserves to pay for reconstruction could be added as a mechanism to create that pressure, albeit there are legal considerations to address.  Even that funding will only address half of Ukraine’s damages and recovery. The recent announcement from European leaders to endorse Ukraine for candidate status in the EU is a productive element of a comprehensive effort targeting the long-term.    

            Comprehensive compellence need not be all stick and no carrot as one commentator accurately noted.  Carrots or diplomatic inducements could be part of a concerted approach that academics call Coercive Diplomacy towards Putin.  Some relief on various travel sanctions and property seizures from Russian oligarchs may be offered, as well as potential security guarantees for Russia and Ukraine, to initiate discussions.  

          Energy embargoes have not yet taken effect, and maritime tanker embargos  may need to be added.  Future energy options can be offered as an incentive later, as Putin may find that his subordination to China unappealing especially as evidence grows that Russia’s status as an energy superpower is declining appreciably.  Restrictions on Russian cultural and sporting events could be rescinded, as we are not at war with Russia’s culture, just the regime. 

         Zelensky has openly discussed a neutral status for his nation, and at one time acknowledged that territorial concessions were possible.  Those concessions may no longer be acceptable to Kyiv, given the dynamics of the war and Ukrainian losses. 

          But diplomacy and a political solution will require painful compromise on both sides.  These are not ‘face-saving’ gestures or ‘off ramps’ but a pragmatic reality about ending this conflict.  Judging from the President Biden’s New York Times piece, the need for a political solution is ultimately recognized.  The measured strategy implementing that policy right now should be strengthened and made more urgent until Mr. Putin realizes he cannot outlast the West and he has to settle or accept “frozen sanctions” for his frozen war.   

            Being pragmatic does not mean support for appeasement or a “sell out” of Ukraine.  Quite the contrary.  So instead of worrying about Putin’s feelings and his self-inflicted humiliation, the allies need to worry about the stability of Europe and the people of Ukraine.  That should help clarify NATO’s goals and frame an end-game for the Alliance.  

          There is a larger conflict involved about Russia’s relationship with the West.  While the decline of Russia is quite evidently not a myth, it is a persistent problem.  We should address that in formulating our goals and appreciate the “bigger picture” about the West and Putin’s Russia.

The Beginning of the End?

            In Churchillian terms, it is probably only the end of the beginning.  But it is still the right time to define and declare what the West requires for strategic stability, and what it collectively accepts as conflict resolution parameters.  Putin should not be allowed to dictate Moscow’s control over its ‘near abroad,’ as that does not advance a stable order or sustain free and independent Europe with NATO as a crucial element of its security.

          A free and neutral Ukraine is possible, but it should not be neutered economically.  Thus its freedom to seek alignment with the EU should not be surrendered, and its access to the Black Sea regained and assured.  Freedom of the seas in the Black Sea must be restored.

            To gain these goals, the West will have to cohere politically, and sustain its endurance in terms of the collective pressure against Moscow.  Persistence and prudence is a useful combination to gain the desired end state.  Russia is not going away, but nor can it be allowed to operate against its neighbors the way it has for the last decade. 

          Lawrence Freedman is surely right that the systemic advantages of the West favor Ukraine, and that time favors Ukraine.  It has asymmetric advantage in motivation and morale which counts for a lot.  Clearly, given Ukraine’s existential challenge, it can mobilize more manpower despite the significant population differential (Russia’s 145 million to 44 million in Ukraine). 

          But Kyiv’s endurance is predicated upon an assumption of sizable external support.  As long as it receives the support from the West, it can continue to thwart Russian advances.  That assumption will be sorely tested by economic conditions including inflation, recession, energy prices, and empty food shelves in several regions.

          This could test the West’s collective unity and its resolve to give Ukraine continued economic and billions of dollars of military aid.  Even Zelensky understands the lagging support and growing ‘fatigue in the West.  Given the Administration’s avowed aim of making its foreign policy deliver tangible results for working class Americans, it has an upward fight to sustain the popular support needed to maintain the aid it has accelerated.   

            Other considerations including NATO readiness and industrial base concerns are germane as well.  Stocks of munitions in NATO countries are being drawn down appreciably.  The temporal dimension in a contest of wills may favor the autocratic regime since Putin does not have to face opposition or answer to his electorate.  As Brookings’ Constanze Stelzenmüller notes, “We have a democratic handicap that Putin is completely free from.”

            The West’s approach so far has been comprehensive and deliberative, and not yet successful.  Hence, emphatic calls for escalating support in terms of more advanced weaponry and embracing decisive victory.  That support should have been offered long ago. 

          Yet, a zero-sum victory mentality seeking a clear cut, military defeat might be the surest way to lock in a drawn out contest with Russia.  It’s also the riskiest option in terms of Russian reactions and undesirable consequences, and could be the fastest path to the collapse of the coalition and the consensus behind economic sanctions and energy embargoes.  That consensus and the support are tenuously linked and must be preserved to ensure Kyiv’s future.   

            In war, as Churchill once noted, “the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” Risk accrues over time, for both sides.  More risks to global security, including famine, emanate from this conflict each week.  The instability Putin threatens by weaponizing wheat poses significant consequences for countries struggling to import grain and dampen food insecurity. 

            Miscalculation and escalation are constant risks.  Reducing those risks and their likely implications is in our interest ultimately.  A comprehensive solution, mixing sticks and carrots, should be on the table at some point to reduce the possible risks and the real costs of this horrible crisis.    


            Rather than simply manage the consequences of this conflict, the West should define our common goals and push for an end game to establish the better peace that should be the ultimate objective.  The strategic discipline demonstrated to date by the U.S. government, employing all the tools of statecraft in close linkage with allies and parties, is the surest path to that end point.    

            Ukraine’s military success against Putin’s aggression is a necessary step in the larger contest with Moscow.  The bigger picture requires us to implant in Putin’s mind an acute appreciation for the West’s capacity and willingness to defend the existing order.  To advance that goal, the strategic pressure generated to date must be increased, until Moscow realizes it cannot obtain its larger goals by this malevolent campaign.

          Putin has not been compelled to stop his rapacious quest against Ukraine, and not deterred from barbaric violations of international law.  We have to make him aware that he has lost and will continue losing.  That conclusion should be made compelling in the darkest recesses of the Kremlin and Putin’s psyche.

About the author:

Dr. Frank Hoffman is a former senior Defense official and strategic advisor and retired Marine officer. He is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the National Defense University, has been long affiliated with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and currently an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, earned a Master’s in National Security Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from King’s College, London. These comments reflect his own personal views and not necessarily those  of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


The views expressed herein are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or any other governmental or non-governmental agency.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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