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Russia’s War in Ukraine Is About So Much More Than Territory

Russia Ukraine Bucha
Russian T-80 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Sitting across the table from Sergey Lavrov, the long-serving foreign minister of Russia, I listened, open-minded but unpersuaded by his attempts to paint Russia as a victim on the world stage.

He insisted Russia was not a junior partner to America or China and expressed his intent to rearrange what he claimed as a prejudicial, rules-based order. He lamented everything: from NATO expansion to artwork that the Soviet Union had lent for an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that was never returned. I thought he sounded petulant and hellbent on constructing a new world order based on chimeric notions of the past.

In 2018, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Russia on a Stanford Fellowship. After a few weeks in Moscow, I spent Thanksgiving with a family in the city of Tyumen. Despite the bitter cold outside, I found the people incredibly warm. In the heart of Siberia, I shared a meal with people who were willing to open their home to an American stranger and break bread. We discussed Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Brooklyn Bridge,” and I promised that I’d show them around New York if they ever visited.

As an active duty Marine infantry officer, this was a rare chance to view foreign affairs from a seat at the table, rather than looking down the barrel of a gun. Today, I’m studying strategy at the US Naval War College and examining the instruments of power that nations possess to achieve their national interests.

One of the core concepts US Naval War College students study is called “war termination,” where we examine why so many countries struggle to end wars under favorable conditions. The culminating point of victory is when a nation has a strategic advantage to achieve its policy objective. When governments fail to recognize this moment, they miss an opportunity to maximize their leverage at the bargaining table. Russia nearly accomplished what Sun Tzu describes as the “acme of skills,” that is, “to subdue the enemy without fighting.” After they declared their intent to conduct “peacekeeping operations” in the Donbas region, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine indicated there was “no need” to complete his military’s mobilization and expressed a willingness to pursue a diplomatic solution. This was the moment Russia should have entered into negotiations.

But now that Russia chose to invade instead, what is the value of a destroyed Ukraine, a decimated Russian economy, a disgruntled Russian population actively protesting in the street, and a world largely united against Russia? Had Russia consolidated its gains in the Donbas, it might have enjoyed a Crimea-type scenario where they establish a new status quo after weathering a moderate amount of international condemnation. Instead, Russia will find itself bogged down in a protracted conflict that diminishes its standing on the world stage. This scenario reminds me of when Hannibal failed to capitalize on his successes in 216 BC by besieging Rome. One of his commanders, a Carthaginian cavalry officer quipped, “You know, Hannibal, how to win a fight; you do not know how to use your victory.”

Last month, President Vladimir Putin of Russia framed the “peacekeeping operations” as a defense of what he calls the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, two fictitious satellite territories that he is trying to create from Ukrainian land he stole through force in 2014. Although these actions were internationally condemned and sanctioned, it appeared to be a fait accompli scenario. Russia was on the verge of achieving its political objectives to expand its sphere of influence and discourage NATO from admitting Ukraine into its alliance. But, any hopes of a quick, decisive victory were dashed when President Putin decided to advance his forces beyond the Donbas region. Facing a determined Ukrainian Army and taking devastating losses, it’s clear Mr. Putin overplayed his hand and is now locked into a sunk cost fallacy, where Russia must invest more machinery, lives, and treasure to salvage whatever they can from this conflict.

Many observers highlight Russia’s logistical challenges and failures to establish air supremacy — where their warplanes could fly over Ukraine at will, unchallenged — but I would argue their critical vulnerability in this fight is their inability to compete in what the military calls the information domain, and what is more commonly known as the court of public opinion. Russian belligerence has galvanized Europe and sparked a revolutionary moment: the new, continent-wide narrative that Mr. Putin cannot control. Tales of the Ghost of Kyiv and the sailors of Snake Island spread like wildfire around the world, uniting countries that, until this event, were fractured. T.E. Lawrence wrote: “The printing press is the greatest weapon in the armory of the modern commander.”  What we are witnessing is the printing press in the hands of each citizen. Social media has decentralized and democratized the flow of information. The veracity of these mythical stories does not matter because they become international folklore overnight, which causes nations to rally around Ukraine and buttresses their ability to execute a Fabian strategy.

As I departed Moscow, I reflected on the bitterness I experienced in the Duma and Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense; I was dismayed by Minister Lavrov’s intransigent view of the world. During our conversation, I asked him how Russia intended to reconcile its misgivings about NATO and the long list of perceived transgressions against his country. His reply was ominous and unbecoming of a diplomat. He suggested that Russia possessed the means and the will to establish a more favorable international order. If that was truly his intent, I replied that our next meeting was likely to lack the decorum exhibited in his conference room and reminded him of the Marine Corps’ ethos of “No better friend. No worse enemy.” After a week of fighting in Ukraine, it remains to be seen just how hard Russia will push the world order, and how hard the world’s people will fight to maintain it.

Major Tom Schueman is an active-duty infantry Marine. In 2018, while enrolled in an M.A. program at Georgetown University, he was awarded a Stanford Fellowship that brought him to Moscow as part of his scholarly research. He is currently studying strategy at the US Naval War College.

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Major Tom Schueman is an active-duty infantry Marine. In 2018, while enrolled in an M.A. program at Georgetown University, he was awarded a Stanford Fellowship that brought him to Moscow as part of his scholarly research. He is currently studying strategy at the US Naval War College.