The war has reached a grinding phase. Russia still aims to subjugate Ukraine, but with Euroatlantic security at stake, the West could do more to prevent it.
In a nutshell
- The battle in Donbas may set the further course of the war
- A Russian victory in Ukraine would undermine Euroatlantic security
- NATO needs better responses to Russia’s nuclear blackmail
In military theory, any fight, duel, conflict or war can have three possible outcomes: victory of one side, victory of the other side or a draw. How could these three scenarios work out in the case of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war? At stake, in the longer run, is nothing less than Euroatlantic security.
It is presently a war of attrition, with both sides suffering massive losses. In the pitched battle in Donbas, the main Russian forces are slowly gaining territory but are failing to encircle and destroy the main Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians are counterattacking locally on the wings in the Kherson and Kharkiv areas.
In the south, the Russians are putting considerable effort into consolidating their occupation of the conquered territory to secure a land bridge to the Crimea Peninsula they captured in 2014. While the Russian army now needs to mobilize more personnel and is moving ever-older equipment from its strategic stockpile to the front, Ukraine’s forces are being supplied with newer, offensive military hardware from Western countries. The Russian side is trying to disrupt this assistance with long-range missile attacks. However, it is already suffering from a shortage of precision-guided munitions to target such supplies throughout Ukraine. All in all, a stalemate has been taking hold for some time now.
The war has reached a pivotal point: from here, it could develop in several ways. Russia can still seek a complete victory. For Moscow, it would mean the destruction of the Ukrainian army east of the Dnieper River and incorporation into Russia of the territories it likes to call Novorossiya (Donbas and all southern Ukraine with Odesa and possibly the Kharkiv region). Also, it wants the government in Kyiv to fall and what would be left of Ukraine to be politically subjugated to Russia.
Moscow could conceivably settle for a more limited victory. However, it would expect to keep the captured territories of Donbas and a land bridge to Crimea – the currently occupied territories of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.
On the other hand, Ukraine would consider itself victorious if it managed to push the Russian forces back to where they stood before the February 24 invasion. And an inconclusive stop of the hostilities would have to mean freezing the conflict in its present status, possibly with some territorial adjustments.
Struggle in Donbas
There are numerous indications that the outcome of the battle for Donbas could prove to be a pivotal military factor shaping the further course of the war in Ukraine – and, possibly, the conditions for its termination or interruption. However, it does not follow that one side’s victory in Donbas would necessarily mean its success in the entire conflict. And the battle’s inconclusive outcome would not necessitate the war’s freezing. Two factors may be powerful equalizers: a political change in the combating parties, especially in Russia, and the Western conduct of its proxy warfare.
A militarily defeated and territorially truncated Ukraine would end up entirely dependent on Russia.
These caveats aside, from a broad Euroatlantic security perspective, a Russian victory would be the most undesirable outcome of the war.
This scenario could materialize if, for example, the Western weapons do not reach the Ukrainian troops beyond the Dnieper fast enough and in sufficient quantity. An encirclement of Ukraine’s main forces and their destruction in the Donbas cauldron could follow, resulting in Russia’s seizure of the territory of all eastern Ukraine.
If Russia wins
Most assuredly, Russia would not stop there, and we would see a further war escalation. Especially if Russia’s nuclear blackmail proves effective, and the West stops short of taking active de-escalation measures to curb the Russians’ freedom to escalate the conflict. In such a case, after a few weeks of regrouping and preparation, Russia would likely resume its offensive toward Odesa and Transnistria and probably turn against Kyiv to finally bring down the Ukrainian state. A militarily defeated and territorially truncated Ukraine would need to redefine itself – politically and organizationally. Inevitably, it would end up entirely dependent on Russia.
Russia would emerge from the war empowered and encouraged to confront the West more resolutely. Russian society, caught in the euphoria of the nation’s military triumph, would rally around the flag, braving the economic hardships caused by Western sanctions.
Ukraine would no longer pose a strategic and political challenge to Moscow. The imposed peace terms would make sure it remained strategically unthreatening.
The West’s loss in its proxy war would leave Russia in a better strategic position vis-a-vis NATO than it is today. It would dominate the Black Sea, and on NATO’s eastern flank, the strategic situation of Poland and the Baltic states would deteriorate despite Finland’s and Sweden’s entry into the alliance.
Especially dangerous would be the positive verification for Russia of its nuclear blackmail method: Russia would be encouraged by the effects of openly using such threats so far and become even more aggressive. The West would find it challenging to develop an effective response to this strategy. As a result, it would become more vulnerable to Russia’s nuclear blackmail than it is today.
The ongoing Russia-West confrontation, branded by some, including this author, the Second Cold War, would develop in the years to come under more adverse conditions for the West than before. A West that could not effectively respond to the Russian war against Ukraine would come out of this test geopolitically enfeebled, internally frustrated and politically divided. The greatest loser would be the NATO alliance. The defeat would most likely prompt a profound leadership crisis in Western Europe and necessitate reorganizations, especially in security matters. The United States, discouraged by the disjointed response to war and, in some cases, plain defeatism of its allies, could begin to lose interest in supporting Europe’s security. Witnessing all this, China would undoubtedly be tempted to increase its challenges to the West in the Indo-Pacific area.
If there is a stalemate
The second option regards the possibility of the Donbas battle ending without a clear winner. Based on the course of events so far, this seems somewhat likely. The Russian army may be unable to encircle and destroy the Ukrainian army in Donbas, and the Ukrainians will not manage to repel the Russians back to their prewar positions. The stalemate’s natural consequence may be a political search for conditions for a temporary (at the least) truce and the starting of (arguably protracted) peace negotiations involving agreed third parties.
This development may also be combined, after a time, with the mutually acceptable introduction of international peacekeeping forces and international observers into the contact zone of the two armies. The lengthiness of the negotiation process will make it a frozen conflict situation, like that in Donbas before the war – only in less favorable circumstances for Ukraine. The frozen zone would most probably include the territories of southern Ukraine and the so-called Crimean Bridge, connecting Crimea with Russia by land. That would give Russia control over the Kakhovka Reservoir and ensure fresh water delivery from the Dnieper to Crimea (via the North Crimean Channel).
President Putin’s Russia may prefer to respond to the Donbas stalemate with an escalation attack, applying the doctrine of upping the ante it has followed in Ukraine.
Such a resolution could not be reached quickly, assuming the sides’ reluctance to accept it. For one, President Putin’s Russia may prefer to respond to the Donbas stalemate with an escalation attack, applying the doctrine of upping the ante it has followed in Ukraine. It is also unclear whether Ukraine, unthreatened in its sovereign existence after the unresolved Donbas battle, would accept a freeze in the war for the duration of perhaps indefinite peace negotiations. Suppose these attitudes prevailed in Moscow and in Kyiv. In that case, we could witness continued tangential fighting, with Ukraine attempting to reclaim the territories it lost in its eastern and southern parts.
In such an extended, lower-intensity war, Ukraine could score local tactical successes and lay the groundwork for a better bargaining position in future truce and peace talks. Such a scenario could be more likely and give Ukraine a chance of success if the West shifted to active de-escalation strategy in its proxy war with Russia.
Limited Ukrainian success
Finally, what could be the consequences of Ukraine’s victory in the Donbas battle and at least partial rollback of the Russian troops in that region? Or, even more radically, of Ukraine regaining positions like the prewar status quo in the northeast – while Russia maintains its occupied territories in the south? Unfortunately, this is not a likely scenario – if the West sticks to its current passive strategy in the proxy war with Russia.
After an operational defeat in Donbas, Russia would presumably refuse to accept the loss. It can be expected to persist in fighting to maintain the broadest possible tracts of occupied territory both in Donbas and the south. In this scenario, the risk of escalating the war, including with mass destruction weapons, would be the greatest. Russia’s well-described “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear deterrence strategy calls for tactical nuclear strikes if its conventional forces face a defeat and vital interests of the Russian state are at stake. In this war’s case, Moscow could resort to such measures to prevent the loss of the occupied land bridge to Crimea, i.e., the Azov coast on the Mariupol-Kherson axis.
Guaranteed land access to Crimea is strategically the most critical matter for Russia in this war, more important than the domestic political benefits of annexing Donbas, even just eastern Donbas. One may even suppose Russia could be ready to swallow concessions in Donbas if it lost the battle there. However, it will be prepared to go to the most extreme lengths in defense of the corridor to Crimea, using nuclear weapons too.
Much will change
Under the existing circumstances, halting the hostilities and freezing the conflict could conceivably allow Ukraine to return to its prewar lines in Donbas, but not in the south. A radical shift in the Western approach to the proxy war would be needed to change this scenario. Only if NATO responded to President Putin’s nuclear threats by actively pushing for strategic de-escalation Ukraine’s return to the Sea of Azov could become more feasible. International guarantees for Russia of overland access to Crimea and supplying the peninsula with fresh water from the Dnieper River would seem necessary to close the deal.
A collapse of Russian aggression and success of the joint Ukraine-West defense effort would accelerate the strategic rapprochement between Ukraine and the West and strengthen the eastern flank of NATO and the EU. At the same time, it would weaken and seriously defer neo-Cold War challenges and threats from Russia, devoid of offensive capabilities for a long time. A defeated Russia would have to revise its imperial ambitions, which could accelerate political changes within that country.
Enhanced role of nuclear deterrence
One particularly significant result of Russia losing the war in Ukraine would be final proof of the weakness of Russia’s conventional forces. This determination would have far-reaching consequences by elevating the role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s defense strategy and its ongoing confrontation with the West. Cold War II would become more nuclear-focused than ever before, necessitating a significant update of NATO’s nuclear strategy, especially regarding nonstrategic nuclear weapon systems.
Regardless of how it ends, the war in Ukraine is certain to change the strategic security environment for the Euroatlantic alliance, especially in the Central and Eastern European region. Nothing will be anymore as it was before it, and the period of post-Cold War relaxation will become a distant memory. A new phase of the Cold War between Russia and the West is descending on us.
There are many indications that the battle in Donbas will shape the war’s outcome and the conditions under which it may end. There are chances that Ukraine will not lose it and can defend its political future. However, the scenarios depend mainly on the type and scale of Western involvement in supporting Ukraine’s war effort.