Who or What will end the War in Ukraine?

You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.
Napoleon Bonaparte

The war in Ukraine has reached a point where it can go either way or nowhere at all. Moscow’s ambition to stay relevant in global politics has impeached its ability to successfully wage a war in Ukraine. The military ambition set forth by Putin lacks strategic substance because of its inability to address basic canon in military strategy. As Kyiv looks to create an attrition atmosphere and duplicate Operation Barbarossa as winter sets in, Russia has to serve a decisive blow in order to save face and create momentum for another time and date. Signing annexation of territories amid retreating from other zones is not how the Kremlin might have imagined the showdown it was planning to execute since it first began looking beyond Crimea. For Putin, morale of Russia’s armed forces in proving their efficacy in war is one thing; substantiating his ability to coerce NATO and Europe into accepting terms that he intends to solidify is entirely another. Escalation control demands that for Russia to assert its credibility against impending defeat or at least mass retreat as a gesture of crisis termination, nuclear signaling would be an apt terminator of any counteroffensive. This means that Putin would have to somehow signal his intent to offer some counterforce or countervalue reprisal, should Ukraine be consolidated by extensive NATO assistance. This means either indicating a willingness to deploy tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian forces or creating demonstration strikes against symbolic targets to reinforce Russia’s commitment to the cause. For NATO, this situation is nothing short of what the Soviet Union was attempting during Abel Archer and Autumn Forge in 1983. The main questions here are: has Moscow overshot its strategic necessity in the Ukraine war or is NATO overreacting whenever it looks at Putin’s nuclear signals?

Ukraine and Russia have a historic connection and one which was further solidified during the Soviet Union era. This relationship is marked by Ukraine’s ability to provide extensive overwatch on the main centers of population and economics for Europe, and serves as the one place where the Russian navy can actually claim hegemony. This recent engagement ensures Russia is able to fully display its potential as a sophisticated military while deploying its Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missiles from air-based platforms and Kalibr cruise missiles from naval platforms. Strategically speaking, Russia can posit its Ukraine campaign like America did for Afghanistan: way beyond intended goals but absolutely perfect for weapons testing. If these claims hold true, Russia becomes the only hypersonic weapon systems operator in the world with battle-tested hardware. So even if it is unable to convince the world of its original intent on invading Ukraine, this success is success enough. For the world, Ukraine has sufficient incentive to go nuclear and given its history as being one of the largest caches for Soviet nuclear arsenal, Ukraine seems to have heritage favoring the same. For Kyiv, NATO and Europe or even America would not want to extend their extended deterrence offer to Ukraine to avoid further complication to escalation, but having to deal with Moscow’s incursions yet another time means opinion might sway in favor of nuclear optimism.

One solution to the problem does reside with nuclear optimism but the risk is too great. Ukraine, despite being far away from induction into NATO or even being able to secure continual support from allies and strategic partners, has all the factors that allow nuclearization. All nuclear weapon states in the world today had the same excuse and despite international woe, developed their arsenals and secured cessation of hostilities. The downside however, is that despite having nuclear weapons, these states have been unable to ward off crises and intrusions; for Ukraine, this means that having nuclear weapons is not actually a sure guarantee of Russia never calling its deterrence bluff. This is and continues to remain a feature in nuclear deterrence maintained by Pakistan and India, where controversial territorial claims have always sparked escalation-intensive crises that were prevented by diplomatic intervention and severe reparations on both parties. Another option could be to utilize the NATO framework by either becoming a full member or seeking an extended deterrence agreement with any strategic partner. This framework is also not desirable as that stands to complicate the already tumultuous situation and upset the delicate balance maintained by such states with Russia. Even if Ukraine does move to upgrade from ‘enhanced opportunity partners’ status to full membership, NATO might not want to permanently upset Moscow by choosing to acquiesce to this request. Even the US would not want to escalate its role further than it already has by providing assistance to Kyiv.

Russia’s Shock-and-Awe has run its course and Ukraine is wary of attrition for fear of nuclear reprisals. The onset of winter might create a ‘Battle of the Bulge’ like situation and the Russian offensive might falter, if not fail completely; but it is not clear whether Russia will be able to sustain the costs of war amid economic strangulation. Russia lacks potent allies while Ukraine has curried global attention. This means that with the right amount of asymmetric warfare against Russian forces amid the current retreat, Ukraine can use global momentum to its advantage. This not only puts Putin in an awkward position where he would have to choose between hedging his bets or offering nuclear signals, but also weakens his leadership potential back home. For now, the onus to gain ground rests with Ukraine’s armed forces which might have to face a deficiency of equipment should its allies decide to withdraw and prevent deterrence disequilibrium. If Ukrainian armed forces are able to take back at least one annexed territory, pressure on Putin and the entire Ukrainian campaign might prove to be a potent crisis termination strategy. The question that remains pending is whether Ukraine will switch to use asymmetry to its advantage or will continue to seek assistance from abroad and hope to weather out the ordeal. The jury on this one still seems to be out.

Who or What will end the War in Ukraine?

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