War in Ukraine: Will It Reach the Point of no Return?

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Sergiu CEBAN
All actors in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict now face the dilemma of whether to continue or gradually subside the hostilities
After 170 days of war between Ukraine and Russia, the major hostilities have concentrated primarily in the Donetsk region. The main goal of Russian troops is to move the front line away from Donetsk and fully “liberate” the territory of the so-called DPR, while tying up Ukrainian forces in the country’s eastern regions for as long as possible. According to military experts, the sides’ actions over the past weeks have frozen the vast majority of the front line. Yet, many prominent experts believe that Ukraine and Russia are preparing for a new war phase in the southern direction. Moscow has dragged a 25,000-strong strike force to the Crimean-Kherson section. The possible targets of these formations, if an offensive is being prepared, include the encirclement of Nikolayev or the capture of Kryvyi Rih. A move to Zaporizhzhya is also possible for a subsequent strike into the rear of the Donbass AFU grouping. At the same time, the Russian occupation authorities in the captured territories are speeding up preparations for “referenda” on joining the Russian Federation. Due to the unstable situation in these regions, voting is planned to be carried out in a non-traditional mode (online, door-to-door polling, and mailings). On top of this, public opinion is also brought to the desired degree to accept the results. The overall situation seems to be used by the Kremlin to put pressure on the Ukrainian leadership to resume negotiations and accept Russia’s “peace terms”. In the meantime, Kyiv is doing its best to destabilize the situation in the occupied territories in order to prevent the “referenda” from being held there. Strikes by long-range missile systems against Russia’s communications and arms depots also continue. Still, there is reason to believe that in this “referendum way” Moscow is pushing the Ukrainian command to an unprepared and desperate counteroffensive. But it is far from certain that such a move will succeed and that the AFU will not suffer irreparable damage. The tactic of destabilizing the Crimean Peninsula, as well as the Russian regions bordering Kharkiv Oblast, was a symmetrical response. Apparently, the socio-political warm-up in Russia is expected to force the Russian leadership to divert forces and resources. Hence the active efforts to expand the frontline zone with the deepening of the strike coverage of the territories under Russian control. The situation around the Zaporizhzhia NPP, where a very ambiguous state of affairs has developed, has received a wide international resonance. The plant is de facto controlled by the Russian Armed Forces, while its maintenance continues to be carried out by Ukrainian personnel. Kyiv sees a serious threat in arranging an IAEA delegation visit, since it could lead to the legalization of Russian control over the NPP. So, Ukraine proposes to transfer the plant under international control and withdraw occupation troops. Kyiv is also using this story to get the West to impose another round of sanctions against Russia’s nuclear power industry and to deal another painful blow to the Russian economy. Turkiye is playing an increasingly prominent role in the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation. It is Ankara, in fact, that sets the international tone, showing an interesting way of building relations with Moscow based on its national interests. Not only has Turkiye not joined the sanctions policy of the West, but it also actively builds up the political and commercial capital of relations with Moscow, becoming a kind of a hub between the West and Moscow and the main mediator in the negotiations. A grain deal reached and then implemented proved to be a clue for many stakeholders, and is now seen as an important precedent. The point is that with broad international consensus the conflicting sides have enough fervor to negotiate. Because of this, more often can we hear suggestions that Kyiv and Moscow should develop their negotiating potential and try to look for solutions to other issues, not just those related to the economy but also those that could partly address aspects of a future peace treaty. So far, things in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are completely stuck in limbo: no full-fledged war – but no peace either, no defeat – but no victory either. The Kremlin lacks the strength for a landslide victory on the battlefield, but on the other hand it has the margin of safety to prevent its defeat or a financial and economic collapse. Under these circumstances, it is logical that the Kremlin is seeking negotiations (there have been enough signals: statements by certain talking heads, constant hints of peace from Ankara, etc.), but at the same time Moscow is not ready to retreat from its fundamental demands (recognizing the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s neutrality, the “LDPR” status). So, either Kyiv agrees in principle to a conditional “Istanbul 2” – and then the hostilities cease and the sides sit down at the negotiating table. Or there will be a further escalation, with many points of no return. Therefore, Ukraine and Western partners are probably in the decision-making phase, as Kyiv’s further confrontation is only possible with military and financial-economic support from the West. One must admit, assistance in arms and finances has turned sporadic after six months, which gives no clear certainty that anyone’s ready to seriously invest in Ukraine’s victory. Most likely, there are plans to drag Russia into the long-running conflict on Ukrainian territory. Moreover, there is a fair number of politicians in both Washington and Brussels not enthusiastic about stepping into winter amid this war. On the other hand, in case of further escalation, it cannot be ruled out that the Kremlin might act decisively by taking the unpopular decision on partial mobilization and will try to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. If successful, the geography of the neighbouring country will shrink, entailing perilous challenges for the rest of the region, especially Moldova and Romania. Hence, all parties to the conflict now face the tough choice of whether to continue or gradually phase out the hostilities. Each has its own set of not only potential losses, but also of potential “rewards”, albeit with very unclear chances of winning them. Coming to an agreement right now will be very difficult. But if a dramatic escalation happens in this war (nuclear disaster, use of tactical nuclear weapons, massive destruction of infrastructure, etc.), doing that will be almost impossible.