It has been three months since the outset of the Russia-Ukraine war. Before examining possible scenarios of outcomes, it would be prudent to briefly examine the genesis of the conflict.
The basis of the crisis stems from the protracted Russia-Ukrainian war that began in early 2014. The roots of the issue began soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; Both Ukraine and Russia continued to retain close ties. In 1994, Ukraine agreed to abandon its nuclear arsenal and signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances on the condition that Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States would issue an assurance against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.
Five years later, Russia was one of the signatories of the Charter for European Security, where it "reaffirmed the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance, as they evolve".
Despite being a recognised independent country since 1991, as a former USSR constituent republic, Ukraine had been perceived by the leadership of Russia as being part of its sphere of influence. In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced Ukraine’s aspirations of gaining admission into NATO. It may help to take cogniaance of the factor that Ukraine was being wooed by the Occident to counterbalance Moscow’s umbrella of influence.
In March and April 2021, Russia started to mass thousands of military personnel and equipment near its border with Ukraine, representing the highest force mobilisation since Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014. The deployment of Russian troops precipitated an international crisis and generated concerns over a potential invasion. Satellite imagery depicted movements of armor, missiles, and other heavy weaponry. The troops, however were partially removed by June.
The crisis was renewed in October and November 2021, when over 100,000 Russian troops were again massed near the border by the year end. In December 2021, Russia advanced two draft treaties that contained requests of what it referred to as "security guarantees," including a legally binding promise besides its concerns regarding Ukraine’s admission into NATO as well as the security treaty’s troops and military hardware stationed in Eastern Europe to be downscaled. NATO had rejected these requests, and the United States warned Russia of "swift and severe" economic sanctions should it invade Ukraine.
In further developments, Russia began a slow evacuation of its embassy staff at Kyiv beginning in January 2022. The motives of the evacuation were shrouded in mystery and were subjected to multiple speculations.
By mid-January, an intelligence assessment produced by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence estimated that Russia was in its final stages of completing a military buildup at the Russia-Ukraine border, amassing 127,000 troops at the region. Among the troops, 106,000 were land forces and the remainder being navals and air forces.
Furthermore, there were 35,000 more Russian-backed separatist forces and another 3,000 Russian forces in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. The assessment estimated that Russia had deployed 36 Iskander SRBM systems near the border, many stationed within striking distance of Kyiv. The assessment also reported intensified Russian intelligence and combat sustainment units, such as movements of ammunition and field hospitals.
In the last week of January 2022, major Russian forces were relocated and deployed to Belarus under the auspices of the planned joint military exercises to be held in February that year. Namely, the headquarters of the Eastern Military District was deployed to Belarus along with combat units drawn from the District's 5th, 29th and 35th Combined Arms, Army 68th Army Corps, as well as the Pacific Fleet’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade.
Ukrainian and American officials believed that Russia's decision was to use Belarus for an attack on Ukraine from the north due to the close proximity of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border with the city of Kyiv.
On February 12, 2022, Biden and Putin held talks via videoconference. The US president said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would cause “widespread human suffering” and that the West was committed to diplomacy to end the crisis but “equally prepared for other scenarios.”
Putin complained in the call that the US and NATO have not responded satisfactorily to Russian demands that Ukraine be prohibited from joining the military alliance and that NATO pull back forces from Eastern Europe.
In response to expectations of a renewed invasion following the military buildup of over Russian troops near the Russo-Ukrainian border, some of the NATO member nations in January 2022 began providing military aid, including lethal weapons. Pre-existing British and Canadian military training programs were bolstered in January 2022.
In anticipation of a Russian invasion, NATO and other western allies began providing military hardware to Ukraine. On 31 January 2022, Poland, which had remained under Soviet occupation, following WWII, announced the decision to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons, including light ammunition, artillery shells, light mortar systems, reconnaissance drones, and Polish-made Grom surface-to-air missiles.
On 24 February 2022, the cat-and-mouse games were finally over and Russia launched a full-fledged attack on Ukraine. In the subsequent months, various fallouts emerged, the most prominent was an exodus of refugees followed by stringent economic sanctions against Russia.
The dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the havoc that Israeli forces wreaked on the hapless Palestinians and the continued aggression of Indian forces against Kashmiris got drowned in the crescendo of Western condemnation of Russia and extensive media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. In the backdrop of the commencement of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, then Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Moscow much to the chagrin of the US.
Pakistan offered its good offices to mediate between Ukraine and Russia but its proposal was spurned. In the aftermath, Imran Khan was removed through a motion of no-confidence, and has been crying foul since.
Let us now look at possible outcomes of the conflict.
Diplomatic efforts: Despite the UN’s overtures to both protagonists to come to the peace talks, but there is little progress. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also offered his good offices to negotiate between Ukraine and Russia for cessation of hostilities.
Changing scenarios: It was expected that Moscow would achieve a swift victory but owing to resilience of Ukraine propped up by western support, Kiev, the capital, is yet to fall. Russian forces have abandoned the siege of Kyiv and are now focusing on conquering the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. It is estimated that separatists and Russian forces now control roughly half of the territory of the provinces (oblasts) of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Spillover of the conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine: Till now, the conflict is limited to the parameters of Ukraine but there is a possibility of escalation into neighbouring regions sucking the confrontation into a third world war.
The West has so far desisted from putting boots on the ground since it would make the occident a co-belligerent in the conflict. Similarly, it has consistently resisted President Volodymyr Zelensky’s demands for a no-fly zone in Ukrainian skies to prevent NATO planes from colliding with Russian MiGs.
Nonetheless, military aid to Ukraine is rapidly increasing. On March 16, U.S. President Biden announced $800 million in new security assistance to Ukraine. On April 28, Biden urged lawmakers to quickly approve a proposed $33 billion-plus spending package that will last through the end of September. A portion of these funds would come from Russian assets confiscated by the U.S. in a bid to assist Ukraine, avoiding a direct attack on Russia.
In retaliation for western support to Ukraine, Russia may decide to cut off the gas and oil supplies to the entire European Union, just as it decided to turn off the gas to Poland and Bulgaria at the beginning of May. The European economy will be suffering. Germany is entering a recession as its GDP will fall by at least 5% in 2022, and by up to 20% if the war lasts several months.
Some Western analysts are also predicting Russia’s defeat. This is rather far-fetched and if pushed into a desperate position, Moscow may launch nuclear weapons, which could have severe ramifications.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts must continue to end this latest conflict, which has taken a huge toll of life and property as well as hurt egos.
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