Events during the past week suggest that the Ukraine crisis is about to enter a new and dangerous phase. Russia’s main role over the past month has been to shore up the rebels in the east and prevent Ukraine’s army from winning a decisive victory, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.
Now Ukrainian forces have suffered severe setbacks around Donetsk and Luhansk. Several thousand troops were surrounded and offered safe passage to Russia. The opening of a new front in the south, pushing towards Mariupol on the Black Sea coast, adds a massive new burden on the Ukraine government side. Its army is demoralised and accusations are being made that Kiev has betrayed its troops by failing to give them enough support.
The political sea change has a shattering impact. Kiev deluded itself, following the liberation of Slovyansk in early July, into believing that military victory over the rebels was possible. This looked a possibility for some time. It would only be a matter of time once Donetsk and Luhansk had been surrounded before the war would be over, they thought.
But that was never on the cards.
The Kremlin has been determined all along that its investment in the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk would not be wasted. The big question now is what will be next?
Mariupol is the target and this would open up a supply-line from the coast. But Mariupol is still in the Donetsk region and an assault there can still be construed as a borderline case between incursion and invasion.
The stakes will really increase if-and-when a decision is made to push further. It is quite possible that the push in the south will continue towards Kherson to establish a link with Crimea. It is also possible that a move north will be made to incorporate Dnipropetrovsk, home to crucially important industries to the Russian military-industrial complex. Even Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, may be in danger.
The likely interpretation is that no decisions have been made yet, beyond shoring up what has already been taken. If a decision is made to push on, then it will finally be a case of real invasion, with mechanised brigades advancing under artillery support. The Russian air force would be called in to destroy the Ukrainian air force and provide close ground support.
Kiev would be forced by such escalation into introducing martial law and would call for national mobilisation. Nato would be under heavy pressure to intervene and this would be viewed by the Kremlin as an act of war by Nato against Russia.
This is decision-time for Kiev and the West. The endless talk about warnings, red lines and ‘unbearable sanctions’, must now end. There is a simple choice - either the West gets into serious talks with Russia about a partitioning of Ukraine or it prepares to face the Russian war machine.
Do the West’s political leaders have what it takes to make that choice?