By Nikita Billier
Since autumn 2022, Russian and Ukrainian forces have been facing each other on a 1,000-kilometre-long frontline in eastern Ukraine, in what has become a war of attrition punctuated by massive missile attacks across Ukraine.
The Russian winter offensive has stalled out with heavy losses and minimal gains, but Ukraine’s ability to sustain its own counter-offensives remains unclear.
Russia benefits from its extensive reserves of manpower and equipment, but months of poorly-executed offensives have whittled away at these stockpiles.
Ukraine has also suffered significant losses in repelling these attacks but has built up reserves far from the frontline to save for later deployment.
Both sides also face the logistical challenge of supplying their forces with ammunition, with shell shortages now also plaguing the Russian military. The war will continue through the remainder of the year and beyond.
Will new Ukrainian counter-offensives in the spring and summer tip the balance in favour of opening negotiations?
A diplomatic way out of the crisis seems unlikely. Ukraine’s NATO backers hope that by giving Ukrainian forces the military means to break through the frontline and threaten Russian positions in Crimea, the Kremlin will be willing to negotiate, without issuing new nuclear threats.
However, this assumption is hampered by the fact that no territorial concessions are acceptable to the Ukrainians, while Moscow denies Ukraine’s legitimate existence as an independent nation.
The assumption that the United States (US) and China could force the belligerents to the negotiating table is further undermined by the rivalry between these two great powers and China’s much stronger ties with Russia than Ukraine.
While the risk of nuclear escalation is currently considered low, the fact remains that Moscow’s use of such a weapon cannot be ruled out if Ukrainian forces make major advances into Russian national territory, or what the Russians consider to be such territory.
The risk of an escalation by widening the conflict is not negligible. It corresponds to at least two scenarios that could take place at the same time.
First, that of a regional expansion in the Balkans: Moscow is threatening to destabilise Moldova by supporting pro-Russian oligarchs and separatists in Transnistria.
In response, Europeans are increasing their assistance to Moldova. Russian options are also limited by a lack of direct access to Moldovan territory due to Ukraine’s successful defence of the Port of Odesa in spring 2022.
Nikita Billier is a France-based political and security risk analyst covering Europe.