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Ukraine: Grim Prospects Amidst Vertical and Horizontal Escalation

In the first half of October, the War in Ukraine has taken a turn for the worse with both sides Russia and Ukraine claiming success in political cum military objectives, there is a vertical and horizontal escalation which has dangerous portends. Here is a review of the escalatory trajectory, prospects for negotiations and the way ahead with winter providing a window for reconciliation, if at all.

Vertical Escalation

Vertical escalation at the strategic level entails expanding the war from the conventional to the nuclear at the higher end of the spectrum and sub conventional at the lower.

Sub Conventional

The physical manifestation has occurred at the sub conventional level in Ukraine with tacit acceptance of the attack on the bridge in Crimea by Ukrainian officials and Kremlin’s targeting of civilians in Kyiv in retaliation on October 10th which has resulted in 19 killed and dozens injured.

As per the Russian FSS Ukrainian intelligence is involved in the attack. The FSS statement reads, "The Federal Security Service [FSS], together with the Investigative Committee, established that the organiser of the terrorist attack on the Crimean Bridge was the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry, its head Kyrylo Budanov, employees and agents”.

Russian response to terrorist attacks claimed or unclaimed has always been punitive in nature as is evident from the Chechen conflict in the 1990’s or in the Syrian civil war since 2011.

Thus, if Ukraine is planning use of militancy and terror to undermine support to Russia in the annexed territories, Kyiv will have to be prepared for consequences which may come directly in the form of attack on civilians in the non-combat zones.

The impact of this is expected to be on a call by Ukrainian people to restrain the government, but in general it is seen that artillery or aerial bombardment rarely subdues the people and the impact is the opposite. Thus, there have been calls in Ukraine for sustainment of the war rather than restraint.

Nuclear Brinkmanship

The general escalation in hotspots in the international arena is disconcerting. Mass retaliatory Russian strikes across Ukraine on October 10 killed 14 people and injured dozens in Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Russia's former President Dmitry Medvedev in a stern warning said that retaliatory strikes were only the "first episode".

The EU has called out the missile attacks on civilians in Ukraine as a war crime.

The vertical escalation in the higher domain – nuclear is presently in terms of brinkmanship with mention of the N Word by Russian leaders obliquely.

President Vladimir Putin during a ceremony related to accession of occupied territories in Ukraine promised to “protect” the newly annexed lands “with all the forces and means at our disposal,” indicating the possible use of nuclear weapons.

However symbolic escalation in the form of say simulation of a test or increasing readiness level of nuclear forces has not been seen.

The United States is also very clearly seeking nuclearization of the war as even use of a tactical nuclear weapon can have disastrous consequences.

This assumes importance with annexation of the occupied territories by Russia, as technically these are provinces of the Russian Federation. Thus any threat of seizure of these could for Moscow justify a nuclear response.

The rebuff in the UN General Assembly resolution on October 12th over annexation of occupied territories hopefully sends a signal to Moscow for restraint.

Never the less Ukraine may do well by sticking to the conventional domain where the armed forces have placed the Russians on the defensive in search of a strategy for retaining the occupied territories. Escalation in the sub conventional may not be fruitful and will lead to increase in casualties to civilians.

Horizontal Escalation

Linked is the horizontal escalation in terms of geographical expansion. Horizontal escalation in the military domain of occupation of Ukrainian territory by Russia has been followed up by political annexation.

Russia’s annexation of occupied territories is essentially seen as an attempt to politically assimilate these lands which are Ukraine sovereign territory since breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed “accession treaties” formalising Russia’s annexation of four occupied regions in Ukraine, “Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk”. This is said to be on the basis of a forced referendum.

The horizontal escalation has multiple consequences with Moscow having to defend sovereignty and Ukraine in turn having to regain, “lost territories.”

In this context the vertical escalation in the nuclear dimension also comes into play as has mentioned hither to fore.

Horizontal escalation can also been seen as building of an anti Russia alliance with NATO support to Ukraine.

NATO support to Ukraine

An increase in support by the United States and NATO members to Ukraine may be seen as essentially deterrence strategy to keep the war away from their borders.

The consequences of the same however are resulting in creating fear of a military defeat in Russia with recent counteroffensive success by Ukraine which has very quickly adapted to the newly acquired weapons including the long range multi rocket launcher the HIMARS.

The volumes of military assistance to Ukraine runs into billions of dollars. United States has invested more than $17.5 billion in military assistance. As of September 9, 2022, nearly 50 Allies and partner countries have provided security assistance to Ukraine in a report submitted to the parliament in UK.

In turn Russia is increasingly viewing the Special Military Operation in Ukraine not just as a war with that country but also one in which United States and NATO have become stakeholders in the conflict, an unstated aphorism.

As Vladimir Frolov writes for Carnegie Endowment, “Moscow has also changed its rhetoric on U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. This is now being referred to as “direct participation in hostilities,” and the Kremlin is warning that it could lead to an inevitable military conflict between the United States and Russia—though all the actions of the Biden administration have been aimed at avoiding such a conflict, and supplying weapons and intelligence was common practice even during the Cold War”.

The Russian strategic leadership does have an understanding that modern wars are essentially won by alliances.

While Ukraine has won support of NATO members which includes the United States, Russia is essentially reliant military alliance with Belarus and political and diplomatic support of countries as China and India – who are reluctant in many ways and only provide the necessary cover in the UN Security Council and General Assembly through abstention.

United States intelligence sources have claimed that Russia is seeking military assistance from Iran and North Korea. Iranian kamikaze drone Shahed is said to be used by the Russians in recent attacks including on civilian targets.

Never the less any military support by these countries will remain miniscule in comparison with that of the US and NATO members as has been brought out herein.

Prospects of Negotiations

The prospects for negotiations remain poor for now as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has refused to hold talks with his Russian counter part Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin remains firmly entrenched in Moscow and there are no credible signs of an alternate leader emerging.

Ukraine’s position of seeking return of territorial sovereignty by force if necessary is another barrier.

While the Black Sea grain deal is a positive development transposing this to the military, political and diplomatic field will remain a challenge.

A detailed discussion by Vladimir Frolov on prospects for negotiations has indicated a level of procrastination is preventing the two sides – Russia and Ukraine from engaging with each other and the same is the case on the nuclear level between the United States and Russia.

Conclusion – A Long War

Given present state of escalation Russia and Ukraine appear to have adopted hard line postures which are unlikely to change with war remaining an option for both sides howsoever dire the consequences may be for the people at large particularly Ukraine.

Ukrainians are willing to suffer the privations of a long war for now, which will make the task of breaking their will for Moscow through use of force increasingly difficult particularly with the Russian military remaining in a disarray.

To mobilize adequate combat power for the Russian armed forces to defend the occupied territories effectively is unlikely in the short term and may take months.

And as Ukrainian forces continue their advance prior to the winter threat of escalation – vertical and horizontal remains high.

Perhaps the winter will provide some hope of reconciliation or at least a forced cease fire.

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