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Ukraine has strong restrictions on the use of the military equipment provided by "the West", notably the fact that they must be only used as a defensive measure.

Russia's targets are varied and include non-military ones: power plants, roads, ... They are useful to indirectly impact Ukraine.

Is it common/typical/heard of for a country to win a war without targeting the enemy infrastructures?

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  • While "war" may be "diplomacy continued by other means". This question does not appear to be about policy or politics.
    – James K
    May 14 at 16:35
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    This Q doesn't really merit closure on "promote/discredit", though it is a bit uncomfortable for Ukraine supporters. And, between "purely military" - off limits here. Vs. "with a political dimension" it does merit its place here as well. However, the specific characteristics of the Russia-Ukraine war are very different from many past examples, making predictions for the future pretty much a matter of opinion. It's just one of the many aspects - war of choice vs war of necessity, population sizes, international support, etc... and probably not the most significant factor. Upvoted but VTC May 14 at 18:32
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    How far back would you accept examples? Some of the Mongol conquests were eventually repelled by simply waiting out long enough for them to leave. May 15 at 2:51
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    Maybe this should go to the History SE.
    – Allure
    May 15 at 6:48

5 Answers 5

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There are examples of wars in modern times that were "won" by simply holding out until the cost for the invaders became so large that they decided to withdraw. Examples are:

  • The Vietnam war was won by North Vietnam when public opinion made it too politically difficult for the US to continue the war.
  • The War in Afghanistan was won by the Taliban after 20 years of guerilla warfare when NATO forces decided to withdraw in 2021.

If we look further back in time, we could also consider World War 1, where (at least in the European theater) the vast majority of destruction and loss of life happened at the frontlines, while the harm to most of the civilian population and infrastructure was due to indirect consequence of the war.

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    Russia/ussr lost in Afghanistan in the same manner as the US
    – Ccm
    May 14 at 14:53
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    And the British before that. Thrice, actually. However, the idea that Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires" is massively overblown. The British Empire collapsed after WW II, not after the three invasions of Afghanistan, and while the loss in Afghanistan may have slightly accelerated the fall of the USSR, it was neither the cause nor a driving factor. And, contrary to what right-wing nut jobs seem to think, the US are still there. May 14 at 19:34
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    If you only count the Vietnam war not including them conquering the South, including Saigon, with tanks. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1975_spring_offensive May 14 at 20:05
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    @Ccm: Yeah, but the Najibulah gov't lasted somehat longer after the Soviet departure. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghan_Civil_War_(1989%E2%80%931992) May 14 at 20:22
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    @gormadoc but NV didn't have to attack the US (or France) which was the actual enemy despite various SV governments being used as figureheads. Of course this question is loaded with semantics, ie is Ukraine attacking Russia in Crimea "offensive" etc etc.
    – eps
    May 14 at 23:07
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Firstly it is incorrect to say that Ukraine is fighting in a strictly defensive mode. Or even that they are limiting their strikes to military targets. They attacked the Russian Volgograd oil refinery twice over the past two days.

https://www.kyivpost.com/post/32515

This is far from the first time they have engaged in such behavior.

Secondly wars are frequently won, not by the side that is stronger or inflicts more damage but rather by the side that is more willing to take casualties for the cause. Although Russia seems to be that side in the conflict, the current Ukraine strategy is to just hold on until Russia gets tired of losing soldiers. As of this writing for every Ukrainian soldier killed, seven Russian soldiers are (according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy) Can Russia indefinitely fight while facing such odds? Possibly. The chances of them getting fed up with it are probably greater.
     

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    I believe that these attacks are with Ukraine's own weapons (in this case - drones). I think that they cannot use, say, a US rocket launcher to destroy a city or target the Kremlin (if they had the ability to hit at such a range)
    – WoJ
    May 14 at 13:01
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    of course Zelensky is going to say something like that, but the fact remains that Ukraine's average front-line soldier is around 45 years old and Russia isn't even close to running out of people they can dump on the front (politico.eu/article/ukraine-a-struggle-for-the-ages)
    – eps
    May 14 at 22:05
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    And this might just be semantics, but the odd attack on infrastructure in Russia doesn't seem to be meaningfully "offensive" but rather mostly for morale/propaganda purposes. Also there is no chance Russia just gets fed up and gives back Crimea, which is de facto Russian territory at this point.
    – eps
    May 14 at 22:41
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    We don't know real odds. The exact number of casualties is classified from both sides. Seven to 1 is too good anyways.
    – Groovy
    May 15 at 11:48
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    @Groovy We're not as in the dark as you're making it out to be. Similarly to Covid, there are a large number of extra deaths in both countries. The Economist has been reporting on this for quite a while. economist.com/graphic-detail/2023/07/10/… or economist.com/graphic-detail/2024/02/24/… May 15 at 14:46
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Is it common/typical/heard of for a country to win a war without targeting the enemy infrastructures?

"without targeting the enemy infrastructures" is a relative thing. Relative to how much fighting is taking place. But the examples are more numerous even between neighbors. Much of the fighting in Africa didn't involve large air forces (or missile forces) levelling the enemy cities like in WW2. Somewhat random example: Ogaden War. (That was also a bit of successful 'defensive war', where the invading forces were repelled, but there was no other immediate follow-up. Yes, it's true that Ethiopian troops eventually entered Somalia... decades later.)

Likewise most of the fighting between Israel and their Arab neighbors didn't involve much targeting of infrastructures beyond airports. At least before the wars in Lebanon.

And even if you consider Korea, which was fought to a 'draw', neither of the superpowers involved (all of them really in that one--the Soviets had pilots and the Chinese the ground troops) didn't target infrastructure outside of the Koreas. So it also depends what the war goals are.

As for the somewhat different title Q: about a "strictly defensive posture", IDK how you'd define that. But even taking Philipp's examples of resisting a superpower, that was not done without an offensive element be it e.g the Tet Offensive or the final Taliban offensive that avoided engaging US forces but did not spare its Afgan ally, "increasing the number of districts [the Taliban] controlled from 73 to 223 in the first three months of the offensive".

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  • The difference for Afghanistan is that the Taliban did have nominal control over the country in 2001; attacking democratic forces originally installed by the US is defensive in that sense. Similarly, Ukraine pushing out after the early days did not call the defensive nature of the war into question.
    – gormadoc
    May 14 at 21:59
  • N.B. I'd forgotten about the 1982 war, so there was an attempt by Ethiopia to pay back in kind. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1982_Ethiopian%E2%80%93Somali_Border_War May 14 at 22:09
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As has been noted by the other answers, there are several recent examples of this happening. But those examples are largely irrelevant if we are focusing on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, because the conflict has very little in common with the wars of France/US-Vietnam, US-Afghanistan, or USSR-Afghanistan. It's very clear that Russia, or at least Putin, considers at least part of the current conflict to be existential in nature, and there's simply no plausible scenario that they pack up and leave completely like those other examples.

Ultimately, the answer is largely going to center around what "win" means. At least outwardly, Ukraine has defined this as everything returning to the status quo of 2013 -- that is the eastern front fully intact including Crimea. Assuming that, the answer is clearly no, they cannot win that (and the rest of the captured east) back without offensively driving Russia out of that area. Again, there's simply no universe in which Putin simply folds and gives back Crimea. It's also extremely unlikely that he is overthrown by someone who would give those things up, either. Crimea is simply too important for Russia to consider that, and the Russian public would never stand for it.

If "winning" means Russia agrees to stop further incursion into Ukraine and the current status quo (Crimea and some of the east belongs to Russia) prevails, then yes, and to be frank that is the most likely end to the conflict.

edit: it should also be noted that the Ukraine/Russia conflict is much more conventional when compared to almost every other recent major conflict. The action is happening on a conventional "front" between two major belligerents, similar to the NK/SK war. This is nothing like Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc -- where there was an ambiguous front combined with significant guerilla warfare. There are no Crimea guerillas to speak about.

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    It's important to note the difference in "existential" in Ukraine. For Ukrainians it genuinely is existential, not only in that Putin's stated policy is for Ukraine to cease to exist as a country, but also for the well-documented massacres of civilians by Russian forces. For Russia, this is existential for Putin - it directly threatens his dictatorship - but it does not in any way affect the existence of Russia or the lives of almost all Russians.
    – Graham
    May 15 at 5:42
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    A not-entirely-impossible scenario could be that Putin dies (or something to that effect) without a clear successor and a major power struggle breaks out in Russia, making the war an uncomfortable and expensive distraction. Having to focus on securing a place in a new Kremlin order could reasonably drive various strongmen to reduce their involvement in Ukraine, even possibly to the point where that allows Ukraine to gain significant ground.
    – TooTea
    May 15 at 9:36
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No. But the modern tactic of war is to hold out until the invader/aggressor suffers high political or economic costs.

Its the simple fact you cannot always win or overpower and thus need to go down to simpler tactics.

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