For Months a Narrative that Russia Can’t Win/Already Lost Was Unanimous, Now Quietly Erodes

In an interview with Newsmax, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has painted a grim picture of the war as it recently-passed its 100th day. 60-100 of his soldiers are becoming casualties every day, while a separate interview saw him say that Russian forces control 20% of the country’s east and south.

These figures clash from the narrative the West has been receiving by a whole host of retired or active-duty Western military officials, international security reports, and expert analysts, who for months have been seeing that Russia “can’t win” or has “already lost.”

On February 28th, a mere four days after the war began, major Western media and think tanks started up a can’t win/already lost narrative that continued almost until present day.

Author of the successful book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Harari, started it off when he wrote in The Guardian “less than a week into the war, it seems increasingly likely that Vladimir Putin is heading towards a historic defeat,” claiming that his aim in invading Ukraine wasn’t security concerns, but “a dream… of rebuilding the Russian Empire.”

On March 15th, Max Boot, a neo-conservative writer and senior fellow at the comically-hawkish Council on Foreign Relations wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “Putin Can’t Win the War in Ukraine.” In it he analyzed the perceived lack of progress in the country and concluded he would either be a defeated or engage in a disastrous long slog that would destroy the Russian Federation’s military, economy, and morale.

Then the Russian encirclement and siege of Kyiv failed to take control of the city, leading to another wave of can’t win/already lost narratives.

National security reporter Robert Burns wrote in AP that the failure to take Kyiv was a “defeat for the ages,” including a quote from Frederick Kagan, a military historian at another imperial think tank, The American Enterprise Institute, that it was “stunning.” Kagan is the brother of the man largely responsible for the coup d’état in Ukraine during 2014 which started the ramp up in tensions that led to the present war.

On May 8th, BBC published a viewpoint from defense analyst Michael Clarke, a former director of the Royal United Services Institute, a premier London security and foreign policy think tank. In it, Clarke described Putin’s only options as “different kinds of defeat,” and opened the op-ed by describing the conflict as “one that Russia cannot win in any meaningful sense.”

These examples are but four drops in the sea of media narrative on Russia’s insurmountable travails and inevitable collapse of its special military operation in Ukraine.

But why then, with all the finest thinkers and strategists of NATO member states united in their certainty of an inevitable Russian collapse, has the war continued, and more and more, seems to be heading towards a disaster for Kyiv, and an ideal outcome for Moscow?

Moving the goal posts

For as long as there has been war in modern times, the first battlefield is language. Specifically the language of victory conditions.

Kagan, Clarke, Boot, and all the rest made a big mistake in their analyses – they substituted any real reckoning of Putin’s objectives in Ukraine with what they imagined Putin’s objectives to be. In other words, Russian victory conditions were set by a consensus among Western security experts, and not by Kremlin strategists.

Consider one man’s take on the outcome of the war. Retired colonel Douglas Macgregor, an American hero of the Battle of the 73rd Easting, has made appearances on a variety of paleo-Conservative and Libertarian media programs saying exactly the opposite. It was Zelenskyy, and not Putin, who had already lost.

His reasoning? Destroying Ukrainian air fields and surrounding Kyiv was to neutralize any Ukrainian counter attack – it was a holding action; while the actual objective of land-locking Ukraine and seizing Donbas was carried out. Today, unlike the vast majority of Western predictions, Macgregor’s are coming to pass. The sanctions regime has not disrupted Russia’s warfighting capabilities, and hasn’t destroyed their currency markets.

The Ukrainian military’s ability to operate in the east and south has been restricted to a few counter attacks by garrisons inside of cities, and outside of Odessa, all Ukrainian lands along the coasts of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea are under Russia’s control. The ruble is stronger than it was pre-invasion, and most European energy companies are still buying Russian gas, while Russian oil has found buyers across Africa and Asia, where almost no one has joined in the sanctioning of the country.

Looking forward

At time of writing, the front page of Al Jazeera includes a conservative assessment of the war by a Greek security and international finance team, who, unsurprising, conclude in every way that Russia is losing.

What Macgregor didn’t have time to say on a cable news spot he has since added in interviews on the Scott Horton Show, and others. Eastern Ukraine is far flatter than the west. Establishing Federation control over Donbas provides a nearly 400 kilometer buffer zone of flat open space where any invading NATO force could be bombed.

Shutting the country off from sea lanes is basic grand strategy, and also secures passage of Russian trade ships to the East, the only place they will likely be headed in the next few years. Macgregor believes that a battle for Odessa is looming, and there the end game of major territorial changes will occur.

As for the can’t win/already lost narrative, it arose from misunderstandings of Russian objectives, and since the war has continued despite all of the preconceived objectives going unfulfilled, Western experts have had to change their tune.

In late-May the Atlantic Council dismissed attempts by German, Italian, and French leaders urging a negotiated peace as appeasement. In it, writer Denis Soltys claims the “current aggression fits a culturally well-embedded script,” and that it has nothing to do with eastward NATO expansion, but is rather down to “imperial instincts.”

Interestingly, Soltys says appeasement would be terrible for Russia herself, because it would reward its leaders rather than revealing them as inept. Here one catches a glimpse of the evolution of the can’t win/already lost narrative, one in which Russia has not only already lost, but that to prove this the war should continue.

It’s now been broadly reported that some Western leaders, particularly those in the Baltic states and the U.S., have been actively discouraging Ukraine from seeking a ceasefire. Has this media and think tank-driven assuredness of total Russian ineptitude, economic collapse and impending destruction dampened a potential greater public outcry towards an end to the fighting?

A recent report from the New York Times is harrowing, and draws attention towards a gradual shift in understanding that Russia is not losing, nor will this war end quickly.

Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analysis, a research institute in Arlington, VA., told the Times in a telephone interview that “this is a war where territory is going to change hands, there’s no logical stopping point in the conflict and there’s no stalemate.”

The reporter, Andrew Kramer, details that the Territorial Defense Force, a nationally-mobilized militia which experienced a flood of volunteers in the early days to the celebrations of Western media, has recently been mandated by law to fight beyond the provinces and cities from which they were raised, sparking protests among mothers.

It remains to be seen how many weeks will pass before any of these voices change their tune. It’s difficult for someone to admit they were wrong, but saying so, knowing that it may have contributed to the continuation of a war, would be harder still.

Andrew Corbley is founder and editor of World at Large, an independent news outlet. He is a loyal listener of Antiwar radio and of the Scott Horton Show. Reprinted with permission from World at Large.