Is There Any End to the Ukraine War in Sight?

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Is there a chance Ukraine could recapture lost territory? With the recent arrival of Western-supplied long-range rocket systems, Ukrainian officials are hoping that they can, first by expelling Russian forces in the south during their anticipated counteroffensive. “The battle for Kherson, in the south of Ukraine, could be key in this new strategy,” wrote Anicée Van Engeland, a professor of international security and law at Cranfield University, in The Conversation. “It could provide the Ukrainian armed forces with a window of opportunity to begin claiming back territories where Russians are deployed — and perhaps other territories that local pro-Russian groups seek to identify as theirs.”

If the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds, Putin could come to deem the cost of victory too high. Russia has committed 85 percent of its volunteer army to the fighting, a U.S. Defense Department official told The Times, and is struggling to find recruits. “American officials and outside analysts both agree if Russia wants to move beyond the Donbas, they will need to take a step they have been unwilling to do: a mass mobilization,” The Times’s Julian Barnes said last month. “Russia will need to conduct a military draft, recall soldiers who previously served and take politically painful steps to rebuild their force. So far, Putin has been unwilling to do so.”

But the tide could easily turn against Ukraine. Zelensky recently told members of Congress that if Putin locks in the current front lines in the south, Ukraine will struggle to remain a viable state — and that could very well happen if the counteroffensive fails. “A failed offensive that ends in a retreat would be disaster for Ukraine, leaving it militarily weaker and more diplomatically isolated come spring,” Hal Brands, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, wrote in Bloomberg. “And if Ukraine throws too many of its resilient but battered forces into an advance in the south, it could make itself vulnerable to a renewed Russian offensive in the east.”

Alternatively, Ukraine could become a victim of its own success. If its forces encroach too far on what Russia may soon officially designate its own territory in the Donbas, Putin could retaliate by using low-yield nuclear weapons, which are designed to be used on the battlefield. “Before the end of this year, Russia will have declared areas of occupied Ukraine part of the Russian state,” Richard Barrons, a retired British general, predicted. “So should a Ukrainian offensive roll over this new self-declared border, the use of nuclear weapons to break up the attack will be on the table. This is not unthinkable — it is only unpalatable.”

On the other hand, James Stavridis, a retired U.S. admiral, maintained that Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons, as he has other, less risky means of terrifying Ukraine and intimidating the West: chemical weapons.

The involvement of China, one of Russia’s closest allies, is another potentially game-changing variable. In the first weeks of the invasion, U.S. officials said that Russia made appeals to Beijing for military support, which it has so far appeared to refuse. But the recent visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, which the Chinese government saw as a provocation, could spur a re-evaluation of its posture toward Ukraine, the Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman suggested.

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