After peace talks fell through several weeks ago, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been ramping up in the eastern part of the country. As the Kremlin says it seeks full control of the Donbas region and southern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials have discovered a mass grave outside the now Russian-occupied city of Mariupol that is believed to contain the bodies of up to 9,000 civilians, according to the Washington Post.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has recalibrated forces to focus on the eastern part of Ukraine after Ukrainian forces repelled his army outside of Kyiv. Experts and observers have suggested that the shift in strategy puts Russia on a timeline to declare victory in anticipation of May 9—an important Russian national holiday marking the surrender of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.
As a result, Russia this week declared it has entered a new phase of the war. How does this new timeline influence what’s happening on the ground—and is Russia now more likely to resort to tactical nuclear weapons to achieve its aims? News@Northeastern spoke with Mai’a Cross, Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern, to understand more. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
We’ve seen a lot of the devastation in Mariupol recently. Can you talk about the significance of this Ukrainian city for Russia ahead of this May 9 anniversary?
Mariupol is a strategic city for Putin—and it’s almost entirely under Russian control now. It’s also over 90% destroyed. This week we’re seeing this kind of last battle centered around a major steel factory. The Ukrainians had multiple options to surrender that Russia put forward—and obviously they did not surrender.
Strategically, Mariupol—once Russia has it—creates that land bridge between the Donbas and the Crimean region. This strategy shift that began on Tuesday essentially puts Russia in a position of having a 300-mile front in its battle, targeting in a more limited way hundreds of locations in the east that would allow it to really secure this land bridge in the eastern part of Ukraine. With this now more limited goal, it could use this tactic of surrounding various targets while being close enough to the Russian border to try to claim a victory of some sort. But it doesn’t necessarily mean he couldn’t go further.
There is also this May 9 date that Putin is psychologically and politically focusing on. Because it’s right around the corner, Putin will want to be able to say that he is somehow having a successful battle in Ukraine on that day.
As the war escalates, does it seem like Western or NATO intervention is almost an inevitability at this point?
It’s a good question, but I think the answer at this point is still that the West is going to do whatever it can to avoid direct involvement in the war, because that would mean a war between NATO and Russia, which would mean World War III.
But we are seeing, even in this latest round of military aid, that [President Joe] Biden and European leaders are ramping up their willingness to provide Ukraine with heavy weaponry. So with each round of military aid to Ukraine, the weapons are getting more and more high-tech and large-scale—everything short of sending a long-range missile that could threaten Russian territory. That’s something the western powers do not want Ukraine to appear to—or actually—do, because that would be an offensive escalation.
The West is holding the line, saying this is something we don’t want to see extend beyond Ukraine. The question is, will this still be the line if Putin engages in genocide, as Biden suggested he already has, or decides to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. So there are some junctures at which we will re-ask the question about military intervention, but right now, we’re not there.
If the Russians were to respond to a perceived escalation on the part of Western involvement that isn’t a direct attack on Russian forces, how would that play out? What are the scenarios there?
Putin will react in a way that is punishing, that is, he will exact revenge on the Ukrainian people. Like what happened when Ukrainians sank the warship [Moskva]. His strategy is to show resolve; that he is not going to back down; that he has more arsenal and is willing to use it.
A Russian response to perceived Western involvement could also be inflicted on the Ukrainian people in the form of more civilian deaths. It could also be a demonstration of force, such as the use of a tactical nuclear weapon out at sea, to show that they have these weapons and can use them if they choose. The catch phrase in Russian military strategy is “escalate to de-escalate,” which is to escalate to show resolve in order to get the West to back down.
What is the long-term outlook for a Russian victory?
U.S. commanders are projecting that the next two to four weeks are going to be pivotal. This battle in the Donbas and all of these efforts to score a more limited win on the part of Russia will either work decisively or not in that time frame. If it works, then we’re likely to see expansion beyond the eastern part of Ukraine. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll have a protracted battle in that region, which will become more and more dangerous for civilians in that region.
At the same time, the sanctions are starting to take a toll on the replenishment of military supplies. Russia simply cannot replenish in the high-tech area because it needs imports—and it isn’t getting large quantities of these imports. So I think there is a limit to how long something can drag on as long as the sanctions are there, because Russia can run out of vital supplies.
I still do think that, compared to the beginning, there’s a greater chance that Russia can lose this, that it will be defeated. And that the world will have to deal with Russia as this defeated rogue power. That is more likely than before because it has not done so well on the battlefield, clearly. It had an embarrassing loss: Having to go all the way up to the borders of Kyiv and then retrench is very embarrassing for the Russian military.
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