Is there a chance that Ukraine will regain lost territory? With the recent arrival of long-range rocket systems supplied by the West, Ukrainian officials hope they can do just that, first by pushing Russian forces south in their planned counteroffensive. “The battle of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, could be the key to this new strategy,” wrote Anicée Van Engeland, professor of international security and law at Cranfield University, in The Conversation. “This could provide the Ukrainian Armed Forces with a window of opportunity to begin claiming territories where the Russians are deployed – and perhaps other territories that local pro-Russian groups are seeking to identify as their own.”
If the Ukrainian counter-offensive succeeds, Putin may come to deem the cost of victory too high. Russia has committed 85% of its volunteer army to the fighting, a US Department of Defense official told The Times, and is struggling to find recruits. “US officials and outside analysts both agree that if Russia wants to go beyond Donbass, they will have to take a step they did not want to do: mass mobilization,” said Julian Barnes of the Times last month. “Russia will have to conduct military conscription, recall soldiers who have already served, and take politically painful steps to rebuild their strength. So far, Putin has not wanted to do this.
But the tide could easily turn against Ukraine. Zelensky recently told members of Congress that if Putin locks down the current frontlines 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 a disaster for Ukraine, leaving it militarily weaker and more diplomatically isolated come spring,” said Hal Brands, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. . wrote at Bloomberg. “And if Ukraine throws too many of its resilient but battered forces into an advance in the south, it could leave itself vulnerable to a new Russian offensive in the east.”
Alternatively, Ukraine could become a victim of its own success. If his forces encroach too much on what Russia may soon officially designate as its own territory in the Donbass, Putin could retaliate with low-yield nuclear weapons designed for battlefield use. “Before the end of this year, Russia will have declared the areas of occupied Ukraine part of the Russian state,” said Richard Barrons, a retired British general. predicted. “So if a Ukrainian offensive went over this self-proclaimed new border, the use of nuclear weapons to break up the attack would be on the table. It’s not unthinkable, it’s just unpleasant.”
On the other hand, James Stavridis, a retired American admiral, maintained that Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons because he has other, less risky means to terrify Ukraine and intimidate 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, US officials said Russia appealed to Beijing for military support, which he has so far appeared to refuse. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan, which the Chinese government viewed as a provocation, could prompt a reassessment of its stance on Ukraine, Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman suggested.