The war in Ukraine is far from over. The country recovers areas and also self-esteem. Russia does not rule out pressing the nuclear button if it feels deeply threatened
The pendulum of war seems to have changed direction with the Ukrainian offensive in September on the Kharkov sector. The kyiv government has managed to recover a part of the territory lost at the beginning of the war. Although at a slower pace, the offensive continues and questions the firmness of Russian control over the Donbas territories that it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukraine’s change of position fuels expectations of a final and complete victory over Russia, which could see itself evicted from the territories it has occupied since 2014. Is Ukraine winning the war? The answer to this question depends, to a large extent, on what “winning the war” means for Ukraine, although to consider that Russia is in the process of being defeated – something possible – is today as inaccurate as it is premature.
The Ukrainian offensive
Ukraine’s military capabilities have made extraordinary progress since the beginning of the war, thanks, yes, to the combat experience gained in these months, but above all, because of the assistance received from the West in the form of material, intelligence, training , planning capacity and means of command and control. Day by day, Ukraine is more capable and dares more, as the way the offensive has been prepared and executed shows.
Still, the Ukrainian operation has been limited in scope. We are not facing an operational-level offensive that covers the entire Russian front and that could cause its collapse and a total defeat of Russia. Today – this may change in the future – Ukraine does not seem to have the capacity to plan and execute such a large-scale operation, much less sustain it.
Russian response: mobilization decree and nuclear threat
Russia, although it has suffered losses and damage to the combat morale of its units that is difficult to quantify, is not on the verge of collapse, although the very nature of the war means that this possibility cannot be ruled out.
Moscow, after the initial knockout, begins to take measures to contain the Ukrainian penetration and restore the situation prior to the offensive. The announcement of the partial mobilization decree for 300,000 reservists and, above all, the threat of using nuclear weapons, are facts that speak eloquently of the damage that the offensive has done to Russia, to the combat morale of its units and, sensed, to the Russian public’s will to resist.
The possibility that Russia crosses the atomic threshold cannot be simply ignored, especially if the annexation to Russia of the Donetsk and Lugansk territories, which is behind the announced referendums in the two territories, were to be consummated.
Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian people for less than 20 minutes to present his partial mobilization plan and referendum in the areas held by the invading Russian troops. /
Without going to that extreme, Russia can respond by reinforcing the units on the Ukrainian front – which it must weigh carefully so as not to break its domestic front –, intensifying the use of firepower on targets of tactical and strategic value and standing firm waiting for the arrival of winter tilts the balance in your favor again. Still, it does not seem logical to expect Russia to recover its capabilities to the point of reversing the current trend, regaining newly lost territory, and extending its control of Ukraine even further west.
Recently, President Zelensky has expressed his ambition to recover all the territories that Russia has taken from him since 2014. Such an aspiration is legitimate, understandable and consistent with respect for the international order, which cannot give charter to a situation that has been reached through the unlawful use of force. If that is the strategic objective defined by the president, he is still far from achieving it, neither militarily nor by way of possible negotiations that seem distant due to the lack of will on the part of the parties.
The support of the West
What if that goal was achievable? Should the West support Ukrainian efforts to achieve this? A dilemma arises here between the desirable and the practical. The full restoration of its territorial integrity is a matter of law, for Ukraine and for the entire international community.
The problem is that trying to do so could lead to an escalation of the Russian response in the terms used by Putin in his threat, which could end up dragging the West into the conflict, with unforeseeable consequences. A Russian defeat in these terms could, moreover, bring down the Putin regime without, for the time being, being able to glimpse a substitute with whom the West could come to an understanding, and who could adopt an even more contrary position towards the West than Putin’s, blocking the possibility of cooperation. This is something not entirely convenient if you think of China as the real challenge to global security in the medium term.
With all moral reservations, the pragmatic path of negotiation must be explored if what is sought is a stable and acceptable peace for both parties. This solution seems distant; Ukraine rejects it thinking that the recovery of all the lost territory is not a chimera; Russia, because it needs to recover the initiative and because it considers that the territory occupied up to now does not meet its security needs nor does it justify its option for war. It will not be achieved without an external stimulus that moves the contenders to the negotiating table.
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