Where is the war in Ukraine headed?
THE question is vital, not just for countries involved but the whole world, how the war between Russia and Ukraine will unfold and what its outcome will be.
Most important, particularly, is the likelihood of the invasion spiraling into a wider conflict, which could lead to nuclear war.
Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland set off a great war. The same could happen now if NATO and Russia attack each other. Nuclear weaponry makes this scenario potentially catastrophic and therefore highly unlikely.
Ukraine’s security is not important enough for the West to risk it. There is also, luckily, the fact that very little of Ukraine has fallen to Russia so far.
The war now seems a stalemate. In the first week, Russia took a lot of territory (though still a small portion of Ukraine’s huge area), but has not made significant gains since then.
The capital Kyiv is still not occupied. Russian losses are high. Russia clearly was poorly-prepared for the offensive. It did not seek air superiority at the beginning. The logistics are a disaster.
Russia’s numerous blunders even reportedly include one general communicating on an unsecured channel and getting tracked and bombed by Ukrainians (Russians having apparently not learned a lesson from what they did to Dzhokhar Dudayev).
It appears Russians assumed victory would be quick and easy and were surprised by the level of Ukrainian resistance.
If Russia did not put much preparation into the invasion and the war is not going as they expected (understandable, as no war of this nature happened since WW2), this creates a chance they will back down upon not getting what they were hoping for.
But history has shown that once you dig yourself into a conflict, there is often no going back.
Putin might consider survival of his regime and achievement of his goals dependent upon success in Europe’s biggest war since 1945.
His leadership has always hinged upon exuding strength and making Russia look powerful.
But from now on, the world will be much more wary of Putin’s government and may continue ostracizing Russia, which is already a loss for Moscow. So Putin may be determined not to let this war end in Russian humiliation.
But what is it he wants? Russia’s original goals for invading Ukraine may change depending on how the conflict proceeds, but the Russians are likely to continue fighting until they permanently annex parts of Ukrainian territory or make Ukraine submit to their will, giving Russia greater power over the region.
After an initial bumbling performance, Russia is stepping up its offensive, correcting many mistakes and launching heavier attacks on Ukraine, including on more civilian targets, evidently to raise the costs for Ukraine.
That shows Russia’s resolve is strong. Ukraine might end up yielding to Russia’s demands. But in what ways could Russia lose the war?Ukrainians may continue mounting a prolonged resistance.
Russia’s economy will also crumble further if international sanctions continue. Both factors could prompt Russia to give up, especially through popular domestic pressure.
Putin’s domestic support has been based on Russians prospering economically and he pitches the current invasion to them as a minor military operation.
Ukraine’s resistance can be boosted by help from abroad, but military aid coming in from neighbouring NATO countries is likely to provoke Russia to take action against corridors of aid into Ukraine.
Russia can make an accusation such as chemical or biological weapons being sent in to justify attacking foreign players.
This is the only way the conflict is likely to escalate, as no other country wants to engage Russia militarily.
Thus, the war is a volatile situation for Europe.But the fact that the two belligerents, Ukraine and Russia, are Europe’s two biggest countries is a key factor to consider.
The vast amount of territory involved, that too on Europe’s periphery, is why Russia was willing to launch the invasion, as it provides Moscow safeguards against a disastrous outcome.
It would be unthinkable for, say, France to invade Germany today, as they occupy tight spaces in Europe’s midst. Less is at stake in Ukraine.
Russia can make huge territorial gains while still letting the Ukrainian state survive and is less threatened by a counterattack.
Its armies have a lot of space to manoeuvre. Russia can have the benefit of doubt by making its goals and its operations appear ambiguous as it proceeds.
On the downside, these circumstances may let the war drag on for a long time.
If that happens, Ukrainian guerrilla resistance will be an important force.
It will encourage more extensive Russian attacks on Ukrainians, a dire humanitarian scenario that can further pressure foreign intervention.
But, contrary to what some fear, Ukraine is unlikely to go down Syria and Afghanistan’s path because its status as an industrialized country should enable greater stability.
How the war concludes will determine the region’s long-term stability. Putin’s government somehow falling may be the only way the tensions underlying the war can disappear.
Ukraine submitting to Russia’s demands like not joining NATO will calm the situation, if only in the short-run.
Should the war end as a frozen conflict, lack of resolution will set the stage for further trouble.
Putin’s Russia will improve capabilities and plans and become a bigger threat to tackle. NATO too will militarize more.
Frozen conflicts are often a major source of trouble.Look at where the outcome of 1947 Kashmir war has led Pakistan and India for seven decades.
Kashmir is now a nuclear flashpoint.There are so many ways this perilous situation can unfold.
But what is very likely is that today’s war in Ukraine is just the beginning of a highly troubled period.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.