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Where is the war heading? Russia struggles to regain the initiative while Ukraine is growing


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The Conversation

Salvador Sánchez Tapia

Professor of Conflict Analysis and International Security, University of Navarra, Spain

The pendulum of the war seems to have swung back with the Ukrainian offensive in September on the Kharkov sector. The Kiev government has managed to regain some of the territory lost at the beginning of the war. Although at a slower pace, the offensive continues and calls into question the firmness of Russian control over the Donbas territories it seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukraine's change of stance fuels expectations of a final and complete victory over Russia, which could be 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 considering that Russia is on the way to being defeated - something possible - is today as inaccurate as it is premature.

The Ukrainian offensive

Ukraine's military capabilities have progressed extraordinarily since the beginning of the war thanks, yes, to the combat experience acquired in these months but, above all, because of the attendance received from the West in the form of material, intelligence, training, planning capacity and command and control means. Day by day, Ukraine is more capable and dares to do more, as shown by the way the offensive has been prepared and executed.

However, the Ukrainian operation has been limited in scope. We are not facing an offensive of an operational level that would encompass the entire Russian front and that could cause its collapse and a total defeat of Russia. At present - and 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 to 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 adopt measures to contain the Ukrainian penetration and to re-establish the status prior to the offensive. The advertisement of the decree of partial mobilization of three hundred thousand reservists and, above all, the threat of the use of 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, it can be intuited, to the will of resistance of the Russian public.

The possibility of Russia crossing the atomic threshold cannot be simply ignored, especially if the annexation of the Donetsk and Lugansk territories to Russia, which is behind the referendums announced in the two territories, is consummated.

Without going to that extreme, Russia can respond by reinforcing units on the Ukrainian front - which it must carefully weigh in order not to break its home front -, by intensifying the employment of means of fire on targets of tactical and strategic value and by holding firm in the hope that the arrival of winter will tip the balance back in its favor. All in all, it does not seem logical to expect Russia to recover its capabilities to the point of reversing the current trend, regaining the newly lost territory and extending its control of Ukraine even further to the West.

Recently, President Zelensky has expressed his ambition to regain 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 a charter to a status arrived at through the illegitimate use of force. If this is the strategic goal defined by the president, he is still far from achieving it, neither militarily, nor by means of eventual negotiations that seem distant due to the lack of will of the parties.

Western support

What if that goal were achievable? Should the West support Ukrainian efforts to achieve it? 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 attempting 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 those terms could, moreover, bring down the Putin regime without, for the time being, a replacement with whom the West could come to understand, and who could adopt a stance even more opposed to the West than Putin's, blocking the possibility of cooperation. This is not entirely convenient if one thinks of China as the real challenge to global security in the medium term deadline.

With all moral reservations, the pragmatic path of negotiation should be explored if what is sought is a stable peace acceptable to both sides. 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 regain the initiative and because it considers that the territory occupied so far does not meet its security needs nor is it able to justify its choice of war. It will not be achieved without an external stimulus to move the contenders to the negotiating table.