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Is the current standoff in Ukraine another 'calm before the storm' moment?

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

The Russian ground offensive in Ukraine is starting to show signs of slowing down, as President Vladimir Putin’s forces assume a more defensive posture outside of the besieged capital Kyiv, says Mai’a Cross, Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern. 

At the same time, missile strikes are continuing in cities such as Mariupol, where residents are struggling to live without access to food, water, and shelter after heavy Russian shelling that’s left residential neighborhoods completely destroyed. Other cities, such as Kherson, have been under Russian occupation for days. Residents there remain defiant of Kremlin rule and have staged protests and pushed back against their military occupiers.

The situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly, even as Western leaders held back-to-back emergency meetings on Thursday—first NATO, then the G7 and the European Union—while Russia’s invasion entered its second month. And though it appears Ukrainians have launched a counteroffensive and are gaining ground in some parts of the war-torn country, the present situation is on the cusp of an even deadlier escalation, Cross says. 

Mai’a Cross, Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The Russian military is now in a position where it might feel it has to resort to using unconventional weapons, even eventually tactical nuclear weapons,” Cross says. “I hesitate to say that this could be the calm before the storm, with Mariupol being bombarded, but we could be in that situation soon.”

Observers have also pointed to the possibility that Putin would deploy chemical weapons in Ukraine as well. Russia has used chemical weapons before in assassinations or attempted assassinations, and is believed to have a significant stockpile of such agents in violation of the international Chemical Weapons Convention. 

To help prepare Ukraine for a chemical attack, NATO is distributing protective equipment—on top of the military supplies and the financial and humanitarian aid—in the case of an escalation. Cross says it’s the first time NATO has provided such supplies—an indication that things could get a lot worse from what is now being described, perhaps inaccurately, as a stalemate.  

“Some people have used the term stalemate to describe the current situation,” she says. “While there are elements of stalemate—the Russians not being able to gain any more territory, for example—it is, at the same time, not a stalemate because there still is no resolution.”

Equally worrisome to experts, Cross says, is the breakdown of communication between the U.S. and Russian military leaders. According to the Washington Post, U.S. defense and military leaders have been trying to reach their Russian counterparts for weeks, but Moscow has “declined to engage,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week. 

The communication channel—called a “deconfliction” channel—between the two superpowers was set up to mitigate the “risk of miscalculation” amid the conflict, as Russian and Ukrainian aircraft contest the skies above Ukraine. Cross says the risk of Russian misfire into NATO territory or at Western aircraft is still a concern, as it could trigger a broader war.

In his speech during the NATO summit, President Joe Biden said the U.S. would respond to the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine, but didn’t suggest it is deviating from its overall strategy of de-escalation. But Cross stresses that as the war drags on with no end in sight, the U.S. and its Western allies are quickly “running out of options, given how much they have done already to try to stop Russia’s invasion.”

“The pathway to a larger war that could be easily thought of as World War III is still present every passing day,” Cross says.

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