What do the war efforts of Israel and Ukraine have in common? One might answer that each is highly dependent on material assistance from the United States, or perhaps that each government sees itself engaged in an existential fight following a violent military incursion by its enemy. But what is most notable at this moment is that both are engaged in war efforts that, despite imposing heavy casualties on their opponents, are in danger of strategic defeat.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin remarked that Israel, in its military campaign against Hamas, risked turning a “tactical victory” into a “strategic defeat” if its military failed to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Almost exactly a month earlier, Gen. Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces, lamented that Ukraine’s “[s]trategic objectives have not been achieved this year.” This was at the same time that Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, made his widely noted comments that “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough” in the Ukrainian military’s counteroffensive this year.
In both cases, the individuals singled out the strategic aspect of warfighting, and specifically failure on that front. What does it mean to strategically lose, both generally and in the specific cases of the wars in Ukraine and Gaza?