Does Ukraine war escalation have an endgame?

Ukrainian determination remains undimmed but Western arms delays, battlefield changes, and a swing in momentum means that the grinding stalemate some predicted has not come to pass.

A soldier fires a missile from the Ukrainian army's Grad missile system towards Russian positions near Bakhmut.
A soldier fires a missile from the Ukrainian army's Grad missile system towards Russian positions near Bakhmut.

Does Ukraine war escalation have an endgame?

In eastern and north-eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have pushed Ukrainian forces back from several towns and villages along the frontline, while Ukraine’s second city—Kharkiv—is taking a battering under daily bombardment.

Ukraine’s willingness to fight has never been in doubt, but the balance in this war seems to have shifted slightly in Russia’s favour recently following Russia’s seizure of the key towns of Avdiivka and Bakhmut. Some may regard Russia’s latest advances as an indication of its pending victory, but Ukrainians’ determination to defend their country should not be underestimated, and as every military analyst knows, wars have their ups and downs.

When Russia invaded in February 2022, President Vladimir Putin assumed it would be a quick victory. The plan was to impose a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv, make administrative and territorial adjustments, and kill any prospect of NATO in Ukraine. The West’s half-hearted reaction to Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014 will have emboldened Putin and encouraged him to try to take the rest in 2022. When he did, he realised that the rest could not be swallowed as easily.

Leaning on friends

Since 2022, Ukraine’s supporters have been bold in helping it defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, but as the war drags on, divisions over the approach and scope of military aid among allies have become more visible. NATO’s members have agreed that Ukraine will one day become a member, but not immediately.

If Ukraine were to join tomorrow, it would trigger an Article 5 obligation. NATO members, including the United States, would then be at war with Russia. Almost totally dependent on allies for weaponry and ammunition, Ukraine gets most of its support from NATO members, who do so off their own backs, not through NATO.

NATO says it is “helping Ukraine defend itself” but talks only about “the delivery of humanitarian and non-lethal aid”, adding that “individual member countries are sending weapons and ammunition, and training Ukrainian troops to use this equipment”. To date, Ukraine’s Western friends have delivered Kyiv the arms it needs, but mainly on the condition that they be used against Russians occupying Ukrainian territory, not for attacking Russia on Russian soil. That is now changing.

A view shows the damaged facade of a high-rise building in Moscow following an alleged Ukrainian drone attack on August 23, 2023.

Hitting Russia in Russia

Those who want Kyiv to be able to use their weapons against the Russians in Russia argue that not doing so restricts Ukraine’s war effort when the Russians operate under no such restrictions. For instance, Russia’s continued shelling of Kharkiv relies on supply lines in Russia, missile sites in Russia, ammunition storage depots in Russia, aircraft in Russia, and even troops in Russia, who may be close to the border.

If Ukraine is to stand any chance of preventing Russia’s destruction of Ukraine, they say, it must attack the enemy over the border. With a range of 300km, Washington's ATACMS ballistic missiles recently gifted to Kyiv allow it to do so.

Hearing the argument, some Western nations are now adopting a more nuanced policy, among them Canada, France, Germany, Poland, and the UK. The US also appears to be listening, with President Joe Biden giving a limited thumbs up on 30 May. However, still worried about the Kremlin warning of nuclear escalation, Biden's go-ahead is not a blank cheque. The US maintains much of its prohibition on the cross-border use of tactical missiles for long-range strikes.

Since 30 May, however, it has allowed American kit to be used to hit Russian forces in Russia who are attacking or preparing to attack Kharkiv. Whether this includes Russian tactical aircraft launching glide-bomb attacks remains unclear. Russia has said it will respond but has not said how. Using tactical nuclear weapons would be a last resort since it would not bring victory, only the probable loss of China as a friend. Still, nobody knows what Putin would do if Russia genuinely felt under attack.

Assessing the battlefield

Ukrainian officials keep making the point that if Ukraine falls, others in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe will suffer the same threat and the same fate, whether they are NATO members or not. The Ukrainians have shown courage and patriotism by resisting Russia’s far larger armies for more than two years and inflicted serious damage. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have died, thousands of others have been injured, hundreds of tanks have been destroyed, and half the Black Sea Fleet has been sunk.

Still, in this war of attrition, Russia has vast reserves of manpower compared to Ukraine, while its defence production capabilities dwarf those of Kyiv. On paper, almost every factor favours Russia. Both Putin and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky have shuffled their top military personnel in recent weeks, which could be seen as dissatisfaction from both Moscow and Kyiv with the pace and direction of war.

Mourners cry over the coffin of a combat medic of the Hospitallers volunteer battalion, who was killed in action in the Kharkiv region, during her funeral ceremony at Saint Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv on June 2, 2024.

In recent weeks, Russia has intensified its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure while also targeting civilians in residential buildings and markets. Its objective is to break the Ukrainian spirit and destroy its economic infrastructure. Yet Russia can neither swallow a country of around 38 million people nor wipe it from the map. Instead, it is trying to turn it into a “safe country” by shrinking it and taking a crescent of land, from Kharkiv down to Crimea, with Donbas in the centre.

Plotting next moves

Diplomatically, Russia’s friendliness with China, the Gulf states, and India has been crucial to its not being isolated. Ukraine has friends in the West, but not enough to force its foe to back down. Western sanctions, to a large extent, are not working. Ukraine’s recently launched diplomatic initiative, to be held in Switzerland on 15-16 June, is expected to discuss nuclear safety, food security, and humanitarian issues. It may also be a springboard to other things.

Senior Ukrainians think it may launch a process in which the international community begins to define the principles and key elements of a possible future settlement, as Zelensky criticised China for lobbying against the summit on behalf of Russia. He is not alone in his thoughts. After a recent meeting in Prague, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said China was “propping up Russia’s war economy”, adding that Russia could not have waged war on Ukraine without China’s support.

A fight to the end?

In terms of leadership, Putin will reign for a further six years at least, while Zelensky is in post until Ukraine’s next elections, which have been postponed until after the war. Both men show no signs of wavering. F-16 fighter jets are expected to arrive soon in Ukraine from Europe, and America’s ATACMS ballistic missiles are yet to be fully utilised beyond Crimea, where Ukrainian attacks have shown Russia’s supposedly superior S-400 air defence system to be vulnerable.

Analysts say Ukraine could achieve further victories, possibly even destroying the hated Kerch Bridge linking Russia to Crimea, but elsewhere, its problems are mounting. Its stock of artillery shells has shrunk. Its effective drones are now being jammed by the Russians. More young men are needed for the ranks, and many avoid enlisting. And near Kharkiv, the Ukrainian army has taken heavy losses, eliciting criticism of deficiencies in defence

Presidents Zelensky and Putin have both sought to win the information and messaging war, but deep down; they will both know that they need to start preparing an end game that they can portray to a domestic audience as a “victory.”

font change

Related Articles