What should be the strategy of victory? We need to start a public discussion

After the offensive operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the summer of 2023, despite the complete dedication of the Ukrainian army, did not yield the desired result. There is a lack of quality public discussion about Ukraine's future optimal strategy in the war with Russia.

Читати українською

Author: Mykola Bieleskov, Chief Consultant at the Military Policy Department of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, Senior Analyst at the Charitable Foundation "Come Back Alive". All opinions expressed in the text are personal and in no way should be interpreted as the official position of the NISS and the Charitable Foundation "Come Back Alive".

Translated by Daniel Asher

"The challenge for strategy in the course of war is to balance ends and means, where both may change in the course of the war itself." - Sir Lawrence Friedman (from the book "Modern Warfare: Lessons from Ukraine").

The public's conceptual vacuum is dangerous for two reasons. First, the lack of a strategic vision makes it difficult to maintain two points of consensus: internal (on the need to continue the struggle to strengthen the negotiating position) and external (on the need to assist Ukraine in exercising its right to self-defense).

Second, the lack of clarity and at least internal agreement on the triangle of “goals, resources, and means of achieving goals” creates a favorable environment for various Russian influence operations aimed at eroding the above two points of consensus.

Our partners also hint at the lack of strategic vision. These reflections do not claim to be exhaustive, but are merely an attempt to stimulate public discussion on the issue.

Frames of reference and key objectives

The key strategic aspects of the current confrontation necessary for developing a strategy are outlined in my article here. are outlined in my article here. In this article, I would like to outline just a few of the key tasks that our future strategy should address.

  1. The main objective remains unchanged: to inflict an adequate level of damage on the enemy's troops and, in general, on the Russian Federation's ability to raise, maintain and employ the necessary number of troops, to guarantee at least a sustainable ceasefire for at least 5-7 years. During this time, further qualitative development of the Armed Forces of Ukraine should take place to achieve a deterrent effect. Ultimately, the task is to promote the beginning of a post-imperial transition within the Russian Federation through comprehensive military and non-military influence.
  2. To preserve Ukraine as a functioning state in the currently controlled territories, despite Russia's active attempts to systematically undermine it by launching combined missile and UAV strikes against [Ukraine’s] critical infrastructure and essential services.
  3. Prevent societal unrest and turmoil within the country and maintain unity on key goals in the war against Russia.
  4. To preserve the demographic capacity of Ukraine to the maximum extent possible while simultaneously implementing task #1.

It is within the framework of these tasks that a grand national strategy for the future should be formed.

At the same time, it is worth noting Russia's ability to adapt. Yes, our enemy does not currently have the military potential to quickly achieve maximalist goals on the battlefield. However, it has demonstrated the ability to maintain sufficient intensity of hostilities on the frontline from Kupyansk to Kherson, gradually increasing the number of troops from 420,000 to 510,000, despite monthly losses of 17,000 to 20,000 killed and wounded - which is, in turn, part of a comprehensive strategy to deplete our country.

Similarly, in terms of ideology, Russia has moved from the confusion of the first months of the full-scale invasion to a thesis of the existential nature of the current confrontation, wherein Ukraine is a tool in the hands of the West to inflict a “strategic defeat” of the Russian Federation.

Understand what kind of war you are fighting

One of the key tasks of any military and political leadership is to understand the intricacies of the current war at the tactical and operational levels, which, in turn, must be incorporated into the country's overall strategy.

In terms of tactics, the key features of the current Ukraine-Russia war are an increasingly transparent and clearly visible battlefield (especially to a depth of 10-15 km from the contact line), as well as a growing number of weapons that are combined with intelligence assets into appropriate ground and air-based reconnaissance-firing and reconnaissance-strike complexes.

However, since both Ukraine and Russia have access to the relevant technologies, the result is a confrontation reminiscent of the [World War 1] Western Front of 1915-1917, in that the front line moved slowly despite the extraordinary efforts of the parties.

The presence of different reconnaissance-firing/reconnaissance-strike systems on both sides, with the inability to establish and exploit air dominance, means that it is easier to detect and destroy a concentration of forces than it is to quietly concentrate and deploy the necessary forces for offensive actions.


Under these conditions, defense will dominate the offensive. This dynamic played in Ukraine's favor in February-September 2022, when the key tasks were to deplete the enemy within the framework of strategic defense and create the preconditions for offensives.

However, when it was the turn of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to conduct offensive actions in the summer of 2023, this dynamic began to play against Ukraine. Therefore, it was only in November 2023 that the then-head of the Armed Forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, noted the peculiarities of the current war at the tactical and operational levels that give defense an advantage over offense and outlined the challenges faced by the party trying to conduct offensive actions.

Of course, defense does not automatically dominate offense in this war. Ukraine's ability to maintain a solid front line and ensure the right balance of attrition depends on the systematic supply of air and missile defense systems along with ammunition (both for the country's needs and for the protection of ground forces), as well as ammunition for cannon and rocket artillery, cruise missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles.

Otherwise, there is a threat of the frontline slipping. In fact, in the Avdiivka area in January-April 2024, Ukraine and international partners saw hints of what could happen in the absence of a consistent supply of weapons of the relevant categories in sufficient quantities for more than six months along the entire frontline.

At the same time, the hostilities of 2022-2023 clearly showed that four distinct capabilities will determine the contours of the battlefield, provided that the strengths of manned aviation are relatively equal:

1) reconnaissance and strike UAVs of various types;
2) cannon and rocket artillery with missile weapons;
3) air defense and missile defense;
4) electronic warfare and electronic warfare systems.

It is the effective combination of the relevant systems and appropriate engineering support that makes the defense active and sustainable, and ensures the proper balance of attrition. Likewise, the combination of these systems should create conditions for successful offensive actions in the event of at least local information and fire dominance.

However, achieving such a state of affairs is a challenge in terms of synchronization and scaling of use, and a long-term question for the future.

Optimal military strategy for the future

The balance between immediate political tasks, available military potential, and the ability to use it is the key task of any military strategy.

The events of February-October 2022 provide a positive example of the right balance in Ukraine's strategy. The result was not only the stabilization of the front line, but also successful offensives by the Ukrainian Defense Forces in Slobozhanshchyna and the right-bank Kherson region.

At the same time, the attempted offensive in the summer of 2023 is an example of what happens when political and military aspects are not properly balanced.

Ukraine and its Western partners must accept the fact that in the context of the described positioning, relying on rapid action and the annihilation of enemy troops during an offensive without proper support will lead to the opposite of the desired result. I mean not only significant losses of personnel and equipment on the front line without achieving the ultimate goals, but also the growth of apathy and despair within Ukraine and abroad due to the inability to ensure a result proportional to expectations.

A defense-dominated war requires a very careful accumulation of advantages and weakening of the enemy for decisive offensive actions at a certain point.

Unfortunately, Ukraine and its partners came to this realization after the summer campaign of 2023. In practice, this awareness should be transformed into an active defense over the next year and a half, aimed at stabilizing the front line and ensuring a favorable balance of attrition.


The approval, albeit with a significant delay, of the US aid package and the intensification of European efforts to assist Ukraine have provided the minimal necessary equipment needed.

At the same time, defense does not require the same level of synchronization skills and scale of action as offense. All of this correlates with the political need to ensure that the Russians are unable to advance and thus strengthen their own negotiating position.

After all, today the Russian political leadership assumes that it is capable of conducting successful offensives, which in turn reduces the desire to negotiate.

At the tactical level, active defense requires not only long-range firepower to destroy enemy concentrations to the maximum depth in case of concentration.

Ukraine's defense forces should return to the practice of elastic defense developed by the German army in World War I. Elastic defense includes three lines of defense (front, main, and reserve), which allow gradual depletion of the enemy, exchanging space for time, and restoring the front line through counterattacks by reserves brought in from the depths.

High-quality elastic defense requires not only proper engineering support for defense, but also training at the tactical and operational-tactical levels.


Of course, active defense alone does not automatically solve the issue of liberating the temporarily occupied territories and restoring territorial integrity, which remains the goal of Ukraine's policy, based on official statements.

The task for the next year and a half should rather be to create conditions for returning to this issue in the future. However, here and now, active defense is the only alternative scenario in the current environment. An attempt to act beyond what is possible here and now can only worsen the situation for Ukraine.

At the same time, this approach does not restrict Ukraine from carrying out measures to destroy Russian military infrastructure in the temporarily occupied Crimea to further guarantee freedom of navigation in the Black Sea and undermine the rear of the Russian group in mainland southern Ukraine.

Similarly, active defense along the front line does not prevent the transfer of hostilities to the territory of the Russian Federation in order to undermine the ability to generate, support, and use the overall combined grouping of Russian troops in the broad and narrow sense.

In practice, this means strikes on refineries, defense industry, and logistics. Additionally, these strikes should create more and more dilemmas for the Russian air defense system, which will have to decide whether to meet the needs of a combined grouping of troops or cover critical infrastructure in the country.

Risks and threats

Any strategy must also be based on an understanding of risks and threats. This refers to a number of external and internal factors that can complicate the successful implementation of this approach.

Expectations of success

Firstly, living in the modern information age involves constant work with target audiences that expect a positive result. Maintaining the focus of the international community requires constant success stories from the frontline, which presents certain problems.

On the one hand, the classic examples of successful actions at the front are the rapid liberation of territories and the defeat of large groups of enemy troops, which is a measure of success within the annihilation strategy. In the context of active defense, Ukraine cannot show the audience such results.

As a result, there should be a reassessment of what constitutes Ukraine's success in the context of interaction with Western governments, their think tanks, and the media. It may not only be about the ability to stabilize the front line, but also to ensure a favorable balance between the country's retaking and functioning in the controlled territories. Wider audiences should focus on deep strikes on military targets in the temporarily occupied Crimea and on the territory of the Russian Federation, as well as the destruction of important elements of the enemy's military structure, such as aircraft, ships, SAMs, and radars.

On the other hand, the desire for the war to be covered by the international media only in a positive light, without identifying problems and weaknesses in our actions, leads to a loss of interest on the part of the international community. Ukraine has to find a difficult balance between different aspects of the war’s coverage, keeping in mind two points: the importance of keeping the focus on our confrontation with Russia, and the need to discuss problems in order to solve them.

Minimalist consensus of allies

Another challenge is to support the minimalist consensus that “Russia must not win and Ukraine must not lose” with adequate resources. Raising funds simply to stabilize the front lines, as the events of the past seven months have shown, may become increasingly difficult. Those who are skeptical that further assistance will be forthcoming can argue, “We want a clear vision that leads to victory (at least in the form of defeating the Russian Federation and liberating the lost territories), not just maintaining the front line.” This issue requires a separate approach.

At the same time, it is clear that the aforementioned minimalist consensus does not allow for realistic planning for the liberation of the temporarily lost territories.

For a number of reasons, our partners, led by the USA, avoid defining Ukraine's victory as the defeat of the combined armed forces of the Russian Federation on the battlefield and the liberation of all lost territories, believing that the victory will be the preservation of Ukrainian statehood as such in the territories now under our control. Ukraine will continue to seek to change this narrative, but must take it into account here and now.


Domestically, the problem of proper management of all available limited resources remains unchanged, balancing the tasks of holding the front line and maintaining the normal function of the country.

One of the greatest challenges is the continued recruitment of people into the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as this issue is a combination of various problems and cannot have a single simple solution.

Improving the system of troop training, battlefield management, and ensuring at least more active rotation of units, along with receiving the minimum necessary material assistance from partners, should be the basis for attracting recruits to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

At the same time, the problem of mobilization illustrates the deep gap between the dominant postmodern liberal system of values, which is based on the comfort of the individual and the unattractiveness of military service as a future career, and the problem of defending the state in the face of external aggression, which is a reference to the more bellicose period of European history that lasted until the end of the first half of the twentieth century.

Whereas earlier as the modern era matured, the key was the security of the state from external threats around which citizens united as a single nation, in the postmodern era in Europe and North America, the core of everything is the individual and their rights, which comes into conflict with the need to fight, and thus the risk of being injured or killed. The impact of this conflict can be seen even in the inability of European countries to attract a sufficient number of soldiers to professional armed forces even in relatively peaceful times.

Therefore, in addition to solving the current problems that deter people from joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine, a broad discussion is needed around a new balance between the common interests and priorities of the state and its individual citizens, which should, in turn, be part of a renewed social contract.

To not lose is to win

In a war of attrition and the dominance of defense over offense, the ability to simultaneously hold the front line, ensuring a favorable balance of attrition and gradually accumulating advantages over the enemy, and guaranteeing the stability and normal functioning of the country is a much more important indicator of success than the rapid liberation of temporarily lost territories.

The next year and a half will be a critical period. It is at this time that contradictions should begin to grow in the Russian Federation against the backdrop of a significant redistribution of GDP in favor of warfare, and the Soviet stockpile of armored vehicles and artillery barrels, on which Russia relies heavily today, should begin to run out.

The image of omnipotence that Moscow is trying to project to the outside world should not deceive anyone. Russia also faces the dilemma of balancing limited resources to wage war and maintain the functioning of the country.

At a minimum, Ukraine's task is to bring the Russian leadership to the conclusion that it is impossible to change the situation in its favor militarily today and in the near future, despite the maximum use of their resources.

This, of course, requires not only effective action on our part, as described above, but also the appropriate involvement of our partners in the future. The second task is no less of a challenge than the first. But it is something around which we can unite the population inside and outside the country, remembering that any strategy is the art of the possible.

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