The War in Ukraine Is at a Decisive Turning Point

The War in Ukraine Is at a Decisive Turning Point

The War in Ukraine Is at a Decisive Turning Point

Can nuclear escalation be averted?


Two recent and dramatic developments suggest that the war in Ukraine has reached a decisive turning point. On the battlefield itself, Ukrainian forces—bolstered by significant deliveries of advanced US and European weapons—have scored a decisive victory in the northern Kharkiv region, freeing over 3,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory from Russian control and decimating the underperforming Russian forces that had been deployed there. Meanwhile, in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin—exhibiting no remorse for his brutal invasion of Ukraine—announced a “partial” mobilization of Russian reserves and warned of horrific, even nuclear responses to any further Western arms aid to Kyiv. With no peace talks currently under way, it appears that the fighting in Ukraine will proceed at ever-increasing levels of violence, with a corresponding increase in human casualties and physical destruction.

Understandably, most Western news coverage of recent developments in Ukraine has focused on the Ukrainian victories around Kharkiv and Putin’s hair-raising speech of September 21. After watching Ukrainian forces be battered by Russian artillery in the eastern Donbas region for much of the summer, Western reporters took obvious pleasure in covering the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the north, which exposed numerous shortcomings in Russian combat effectiveness. Putin’s speech, coming at the peak of the Ukrainian offensive, suggested an unwavering determination to continue the fighting at whatever cost, including a highly unpopular call-up of military reservists and the possible initiation of nuclear combat with the West.

What is largely missing from this reportage, however, is an assessment of the war’s mounting costs in human and material terms—an assessment that deserves close attention, given the danger that these costs could grow substantially. On September 18, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported that it had verified the deaths of 5,916 Ukrainian civilians, including 379 children, as a direct result of the Russian invasion, with another 8,616 civilians suffering severe injuries. (These numbers, the OHCHR indicated, are probably much lower than the actual count, given the difficulty of verifying casualties in active battle zones.)

There is no equivalent tally of the number of Ukrainian soldiers who have died in battle, but a senior Ukrainian official said in June that the country had lost approximately 10,000 combatants since the start of the war, with another 30,000 wounded—steep losses for a nation with a much smaller population than Russia’s. At that time, moreover, Ukraine was said to be losing 100 to 200 soldiers per day, so the cumulative counts of dead and wounded at present could be double the figures reported in June.

The Russian invasion and continued attacks have also inflicted immense destruction upon Ukraine’s cities, towns, factories, and other vital infrastructure. From the very beginning of the war, Moscow has targeted these nonmilitary facilities in an apparent drive to sabotage the Ukrainian economy and make life intolerable for ordinary Ukrainians, forcing many to flee. This would be consistent, of course, with Putin’s deranged view that Ukraine does not constitute an authentic nation and that Ukrainians who resist a Russian takeover are Nazi supporters and so not entitled to a peaceful existence. According to a report from the Kyiv School of Economics, Russian attacks have caused $113.5 billion in damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure as of August, an amount that rises with each day of continued fighting. With Ukraine itself unable to pay for its postwar reconstruction, the major Western nations will be tasked with providing the necessary funds—a mounting expense that may prove difficult to render, especially given rising public discontent over soaring energy costs attributed to the war and Western sanctions.

While the Ukrainians have borne the brunt of this mayhem, it is worth noting that many Russian soldiers have also perished in the fighting. And while it may be difficult for many of us to feel sympathy for those victims of battle—they were, after all, invaders of a sovereign nation—it is evident that many of the young (and not so young) men who were sent to fight in Ukraine had little choice in their deployment and were given misleading information about the reasons for their presence there, often being told that they were there to “liberate” fellow Russians from a Nazi regime. According to US military estimates, as many as 80,000 of those men have died since the invasion began, and some estimates place the figure much higher. News of these losses, and the shock and grief they have generated among the dead soldiers’ families, has helped trigger widespread popular resistance to the “partial mobilization” ordered by Putin on September 21.

Now, with both Ukraine and Russia planning new offensives, the question thus arises: What new horrors can we expect from the fighting in Ukraine? And that, in turn, raises another: What can be done to prevent more mass slaughter?

As to the first of these, it would be risky to provide any firm predictions. What we can expect, however, is that the Ukrainians will launch new offensives in the north and east, following upon their recent successes around Kharkiv, while at the same time increasing their pressure on Russian forces around Kherson, in the south. The Russians, for their part, are likely to deploy additional forces along the front lines everywhere and use their advantage in heavy artillery to pulverize advancing Ukrainian forces. At the same time, Moscow is carrying out sham referendums in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, presumably the first step toward declaring them integral parts of Russian territory—a move, it is widely assumed, that will then be used to justify even greater Russian efforts to ensure their defense against further Ukrainian assaults, including, presumably, by launching massive rocket attacks on adjacent Ukrainian territory.

These moves are bound to significantly increase the number of dead and wounded on each side, and to inflict extensive damage on Ukraine’s vital infrastructure. This, in turn, will increase the pressure on top leaders to escalate the fighting in one way or another, whether to avert defeat or to punish the other side for perceived atrocities.

For Ukrainian leaders, the obvious solution to increased Russian attacks on their cities and infrastructure is the acquisition, from the US and other Western powers, of long-range missiles capable of striking Russian bases far behind the front lines. In particular, they seek the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which possesses a range of 190 miles, and additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), with a range of nearly 50 miles. The Ukrainians have already employed the HIMARS with devastating effect, destroying an estimated 400 Russian arms depots, command posts, and logistical facilities; acquisition of ATACMS, if approved by Washington, would enable them to strike key Russian assets in Crimea and Russia itself. The Biden administration has so far ruled out giving ATACMS to the Ukrainians—fearing that their use against targets in Russia could trigger dangerous Russian escalation—but pressure is growing in Congress for deliveries of the missile.

And, if pressed to the edge of defeat, what sort of escalation does Putin have in mind? In his speech of September 21, he accused unidentified Western leaders of threatening the use of nuclear weapons against Russia and then went on to say: “I would like to remind those who make such statements regarding Russia that our country has different types of weapons as well, and some of them are more modern than the weapons NATO countries have. In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”

Most Western observers have interpreted Putin’s remarks as implying the use of so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons, possibly in some limited fashion, to intimidate the Ukrainians and persuade the Western powers to cease their support for Kyiv. On September 25, President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that the United States had warned Russia that the country would suffer “catastrophic consequences” if Moscow used its nuclear weapons in such a manner, without spelling out what this might entail. But Putin did not specifically threaten nuclear weapons use in his September 21 address, and it is possible that Moscow would resort to other extreme measures, such as multiple cruise missile attacks on Ukraine’s cities and infrastructure, with a resulting loss of human life. This, no doubt, would eliminate any further restraints on the transfer of ATACMS and other sophisticated US arms to Ukraine, leading to a further intensification of the violence and rising numbers of dead and wounded on both sides.

Can any of this be prevented?

At present, there are scant signs of interest on either side of negotiating a cease-fire and a negotiated end to the war. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has ruled out negotiations with Moscow so long as Russian forces occupy Ukrainian territory, and President Putin has expressed no desire to engage in such talks. But it is possible that developments on the battlefield or in the contending capitals could alter this equation. Further Russian military setbacks—say, the loss of Kherson to the Ukrainians—combined with growing unrest at home and a failure to mobilize additional troops could lead Putin to seek a dialogue with Zelensky, perhaps officiated by third parties, such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and/or Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. For his part, Zelensky might eventually welcome such an overture, especially if the Ukrainian ground offensive sputters and his forces experience steep losses.

While it may be too early to predict outcomes of this sort, it is not too early to consider the possible terms of a future peace agreement. Ideally, Russia, as the aggressor, would agree to remove its forces from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea and the Donbas region. But given Putin’s determination to hold on to those territories at any cost—including an escalation in the violence—some other arrangement will have to be constructed. Hence, a starting point for the negotiations might include: the removal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territories occupied since the February 24 invasion; the phased demilitarization of the Donbas region with international peacekeepers deployed there to keep the peace and, in time, oversee a popular referendum on the region’s preferred political status; and a Ukrainian pledge to stay out of NATO for an extended period of time. Obviously, the two contending parties would want to modify these measures to their perceived benefit, but it is hard to imagine any peace settlement that diverges too far from these fundamental accommodations.

Until such time as Russian and Ukrainian leaders announce a cease-fire and commence negotiations leading to a mutually acceptable peace agreement, the United States and its European allies should do all they can to facilitate such an outcome and avoid steps that might make it more difficult to achieve. President Biden has wisely chosen to avoid any steps that might precipitate a dangerous escalatory response by Russia and he should maintain this stance in the future, in particular by denying the transfer of ATACMS missiles to Ukraine. To the degree that he can, moreover, Biden should encourage Erdogan and Modi to continue their conversations with Putin and Zelensky about the terms of a possible peace settlement.

The fighting in Ukraine will not stop tomorrow, but it is vitally important that world leaders do whatever they can to reduce the level of violence there and lay the groundwork for a cease-fire and formal peace settlement. Too many people have already died in the war, and without a greater international drive to stop the killing, many more are likely to perish.

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