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The West Needs a Theory of Victory

The Russian Federation has undermined the European security architecture and the rules-based international order sponsored by the U.S. and its Western allies. Through its bellicose actions in Ukraine, the Black Sea and Baltic regions, through its Belarussian proxy hybrid maneuvers against the European Union, the Kremlin is actively seeking to erode the post-Cold War order in Europe and beyond. 

Vladimir Putin has made Russia’s general disagreement and general intentions regarding Europe’s security architecture as clear as possible both in his speeches at Munich and at the Valdai Club, back in 2008. Most recently, Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia will present a new proposal for a new security pact in Europe. An agreement that should assure the end of NATO’s expansion to the East and a more consistent voice for Russia in Europe’s (security) affairs. Potentially, even an implicit veto right for Russia over any key institutional and political changes in Europe.

Russia seems to have a clear picture of how its preferred future will look like. A Europe without NATO, with a restrained U.S. more concerned about Asia-Pacific than about Europe. A new security architecture from the Atlantic Ocean to Vladivostok that places Russia at its core, not the margins. A Europe in which Russia has a central seat at the table can have a substantial say about institutional and political evolutions and a veto right over the fate of post-Soviet countries. Potentially even of those Central and Eastern European nations currently part of NATO. It is an ambitious future that sees Russia as a resurrected European power able to shape the future of the continent in the same way the Russian Empire looked over post-Napoleonic Europe. It is how Russia defines, in political and strategic terms, what victory means. It is Russia’s theory of victory. 

If a strategy is designated to provide us with a plan and direction towards a particular end, a theory of victory defines what victory looks like. In the absence of a theory of victory, one can win the war but lose the peace. A theory of victory provides a picture of how the world should look like after the competition ends. How should Europe look like if we are to be victorious? How should we think about Europe’s security architecture if we are to win the current competition with Russia? 

While Russia seems to have a well-defined theory of victory, the West does not seem to have one. The status quo is unsustainable, yet most European countries seem to focus on preserving the status quo by patching the enlarging holes that emerge. How would Europe’s future security architecture look like from a Western perspective? What would it entail for Eastern Europe, for example? And what role would the U.S. and Russia play in such a security order? Neither Brussels, Paris, Berlin, or Washington have formulated answers to these questions. All capitals, together with their allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, seem more worried to maintain the status quo and stop the erosion of the current order. 

Yet, the order is invariably undermined by internal and external fractures. Russia’s revisionist ambitions will need to receive a reply from the West. A reply that will uphold European and North-Atlantic values and principles. A response that will safeguard the political autonomy and national sovereignty of European people, especially those vulnerable nations in Central and Eastern Europe. The West needs to formulate a credible theory of victory in its emergent political competition with Russia in Eastern Europe and beyond. How should Europe’s security architecture look like when all this is over? 

Asking this question at this time may sound like putting the cart before the horse, yet a theory of victory is essential for us to know how victory looks like. Are we competing just for the sake of it or are we responding to Russia’s challenge because we have a better, more suitable, and just image of the future? And how would that look like?

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