13 months after the start of the War in Ukraine, there is increasing evidence of escalation at multiple levels with limited horizontal or geographical expansion in the war fighting so far.
As fighting on the frontline during the winter was frozen [sic] around Bakhmut in the Donetsk Oblast, the level of escalation was limited with Russian targeting of energy and power infrastructure using one way Shahed drones and missiles.
Miraculously it may seem that Ukrainians survived the harsh winter and are prepared for a spring summer offensive. As this new phase of war commences, there are also indications of escalations happening at multiple levels – nuclear, conventional, sub conventional, economic and political and the asymmetric.
Here is a review of the past 72 hours that may give a glimpse of what may be ahead-
The Strategic Nuclear
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia will be deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, a close ally of Russia.
The reason ostensibly was a demand by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko for stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
While this is the first time that Russia is stationing nuclear weapons outside sovereign territory, the Russian President’s logic was that the US has provided an umbrella for NATO countries for decades thus Russia was justified in supporting a close ally.
"Firstly, the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long deployed their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allied countries," he said and thus it would not be in violation of non proliferation agreements.
The tactical nuclear weapons will be controlled by Moscow.
Interestingly the announcement of the deployment was made days after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow and the mention that, "all nuclear powers must not deploy their nuclear weapons beyond their national territories, and they must withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad," in the joint statement.
From the point of view of nuclear postures, the U.S. and NATO towards which this move is meant have reacted rationally so far. "We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture," the US Defense Department said in a statement. "We remain committed to the collective defence of the Nato alliance."
What the reaction will be once the weapons are actually deployed, a move that will be followed by the United States surveillance network very closely independent of the Russian statements remains to be seen?
Indeed, at one level this could be a strong support to Mr Putin’s ally Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and bolster support for him in Minsk. The reaction of the opposition in Belarus remains to be seen?
How does China sees this development particularly after the joint statement mentioning non deployment of nuclear weapons beyond national territories?
Is this in defiance of the joint statement or there has been a tacit understanding on the issue at the highest level between Putin and Xi is not clear so far.
If this is in defiance of a Putin Xi joint statement than Beijing is not expected to take kindly to the same and will signal a breach of trust.
At the conventional level Russia and Ukraine are preparing for opening multiple fronts in the spring summer.
Ukraine has already declared an intent of commencing an offensive once adequate military support is available from the West.
Apart from the Leopard 2 tanks the first 18 of which have now reached Ukraine, an assurance of a million artillery shells has also been provided by the European Union yet it is believed that Ukraine wants more including possibly fighter planes.
With an average consumption of 6000 artillery rounds per day by the Ukrainian armed forces so far which may go up in case an offensive is launched a million rounds will barely cater for six months of fighting.
On the Russian side special mobilisation has not been ordered but local recruitment is being organised with incentives of higher pay and bonus for success in operations.
Reorganisation and regrouping of command with replacement of commanders on the front line is also taking place as per the Institute of Study of War which depends on milbloggers and Telegram channels for sourcing of information.
The outcome of the conventional operations when launched will be determined by the employment of combined arms combat units in an integrated manner with use of ground and for Ukraine newly inducted weapons platforms. Head-on frontal operations in urban areas are unlikely to result in major success or change of the frontline but will cause heavy casualties on both sides.
Institute of Study of War has reported that “Ukrainian partisans conducted an improvised explosive device (IED) attack against an occupation law enforcement officer in Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast”. The attack is reported to have, “wounded Russian occupation police chief Mykhailo Moskvin after blowing up his car in Mariupol on March 27”. There is no independent confirmation of this report which has also been carried by various Telegram channels.
An increase in such attacks can be anticipated as the summer season gets going.
Economic and Political Controls of Territory
Institute of Study of War has also reported that Russian officials and authorities in the annexed territories have approved a draft law on March 26 to create free economic zone (FEZ) in the Kherson Oblast and the draft law has been approved by the Russian cabinet.
Meanwhile preparations for the September referendum in these areas have been reported by the Institute of Study of War through Telegram channels which could not be independently confirmed.
Water may be the new target for asymmetric denial of the resource in the war zone and beyond. Thus apart from electricity infrastructure, sources of water are anticipated to be on the radar of Russian forces.
Attempts to disrupt the Black Sea Grain deal which has been recently extended may also be forthcoming.
The plan by China to end the War in Ukraine with 12 points appears to be still born and can only take off in case there is any direct communication between President Xi Jinping and President Zelensky which is not in the offing so far.
Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to have highlighted the need for an “immediate cessation” of the war during a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 25.
With no serious efforts for temporary cessation of hostilities much less the war, escalation tracks are expected to continue in the summer ahead. Watch this space for more.