( Six minute read)
The war is now in its ninth month and has a long way to go, it isn’t remotely over.
In other words, the beginning of 2023 in the Ukraine looks a lot like 2022.
It has triggered a global energy crisis and supply chain problems that have halted post-pandemic recovery in many poorer countries.
The war has evolved into one of attrition, grinding on with no end on the immediate horizon.
Putin’s idea that was, the Ukrainian population would either accept their fate as a Russian colony or perhaps even welcome it, is a farcical as Hitlerism vision of a fatherland.
The fighting in Ukraine is effectively now divided into two theatres:
The Donbas region in the east, much of which Russia has captured, where Ukrainian forces are seeking to slow Russia’s advance, and the south, where Ukrainian forces are preparing to launch a counteroffensive to recapture lost territory, with a possible renewed Russian offensive in the east.
At the moment, though, that path seems firmly closed off with the arrival of German manufactured tanks, and American tanks promised if they are supplied in the near future.
If the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds, Putin could come to deem the cost of victory in the east too high.
If the counteroffensive fails.
A failed offensive that ends in a retreat would be disaster for Ukraine, leaving it militarily weaker and more diplomatically isolated come spring.
Alternatively, Ukraine could become a victim of its own success.
If its forces encroach too far on what Russia may soon officially designate its own territory in the Donbas, Putin could retaliate by using low-yield nuclear weapons, which are designed to be used on the battlefield.
So should a Ukrainian offensive roll over this new self-declared border, the use of nuclear weapons to break up the attack will be on the table. This is not unthinkable — it is only unpalatable.
The Kremlin’s possession of nuclear arsenal means no one can force it to stand down without total annihilation
If anything we are closer to the war spreading.
Short of annihilation this is no longer just a question of who beats whom.
The war asks, how much are we willing to tolerate the unchecked and aggressive use of force, particularly across national boundaries by bigger powers.
However reconsidering the West role in the democratic world after its messy and chaotic exit from Afghanistan.
Inevitably this will mean serious reflection at its (ongoing) history of propping up dictators and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of diplomacy.
For the war to truly end and for peace to be stable, there has to be some change in Moscow.
The quickest and least bloody path to ending the conflict runs through a settlement negotiated by both sides.
At some point the supply of Western weaponry will dwindle.
Putin’s willingness to escalate and target civilian infrastructure, shows that his all or nothing attitude has not abated.
Remember that he has other, less risky means of terrifying Ukraine and intimidating the West. Chemical weapons.
Putin has made it clear that Russia has no intention of retreating.
Someone is dreaming or receiving the wrong message that events suggest the war is over. I’ve seen nothing to indicate that any administration has any war termination policies other than the problem is that much of the discussion has relied on a series of unstated and unexamined assumptions about war termination and escalation.
Scrutinizing these assumptions, however, reveals two conclusions.
First, Russia does have a plausible path to victory in the conflict, and will likely prevail absent a significant increase in Western military assistance. Second, the Russians do not have an effective counter to increased Western aid to Ukraine.
If we accept this line of argument, it seems clear that absent a significant increase in outside support for Ukraine—minimally, a dramatic increase in supply of military equipment, but more likely some sort of direct intervention in the form of a peacekeeping mission or imposition of a no-fly zone—Russia will ultimately prevail.
The challenge, however, is to control escalation to avoid the possibility of, in the worst case, a general nuclear exchange. The fear i seems to be that Russia will escalate the conflict, either in intensity or geographic scope in response to an increase in aid or direct intervention.
But why do we think this would be the likely Russian response?
Russia could escalate to nuclear weapons, of course. But to what end? Can Russia win a nuclear exchange?
It is difficult to construct a plausible argument regarding that.
There is no nuclear option, whether tactical or general, that provides Russia with a war-winning solution, except in the case that a Russian use of nuclear weapons induces the rest of the world to surrender to Russia’s demands.
The issue of escalation has to be placed in the context of strategic logic.
Escalation is a danger particularly when one side or the other possesses some degree of escalation dominance—that is, that escalation changes the conflict in a way that benefits one side or another. There is no evidence, however, that Russia possesses any degree of escalation dominance at present.
On the contrary, in the current situation, Russia benefits to the extent the conflict remains Russia against Ukraine.
Let us make no mistake.
Russia is currently on a path to victory because its strategy is now grounded in a logic of terror and brutalization. Every day that Russia is able to strike Ukrainian civilians with near impunity pushes Ukraine’s leadership closer to the need to surrender in order to prevent a virtual, or literal, genocide. The only way to reverse this is a dramatic increase in outside assistance to Ukraine.
The Russians may be brutal, but they are not irrational.
As stretched as they already are, the last thing they need or can sustain is a wider conflict. Escalation dominance rests with NATO and the West. We should take advantage of it. We just aren’t being helpful in terms of encouraging an end to hostilities.
And there’s a lot we could be doing to spur negotiations along.
In any case, there is no reason to assume that irrationality or a desire to die a martyr’s death animates Putin.
Wars often continue beyond the point at which, with hindsight, they might in terms of rational strategy have been better stopped. the ending of wars is often associated with some form of regime change.
For Putin, whatever his original goals for the war, the continuation in fighting is now essentially about regime survival. Even if the costs of the war continue to grow, and even if some kind of political settlement could be reached, Putin is likely to continue to fight in the hope of obtaining a settlement that can plausibly be portrayed as a victory, because without this his political position may be fatally weakened.
In ending the fighting between Russia and Ukraine, traditional structural obstacles to conflict termination are likely to create major challenges, irrespective of the mounting costs for both sides.
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