Russia’s war in Ukraine, which started over eight months ago on Feb. 24, continues moving along, with the world left wondering what’s next.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has attacked Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and at times hinted he is prepared to use nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Ukraine has continued making gains on the battlefield and so far maintained the support of the international community, including the U.S.
HuffPost spoke to experts on the region to explore the options available to both countries and how outside factors, including the outcome of Tuesday’s midterm elections in the U.S., could impact the trajectory of the war.
Is A Negotiated Settlement Still Possible?
However, those talks collapsed in mid-May, in part as a result of Russia’s insistence on keeping control of large parts of Ukraine. Ukraine felt more confident after managing to reclaim territory in the north and anticipating more weapons and financial support from the U.S. and other countries, according to The New York Times. Ukrainians were also motivated by a sense of outrage over Russia’s cruel actions, including the atrocities uncovered in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, where images of bodies burned and with their hands tied made headlines around the world.
Now, as we head into the winter months, the question persists: Is a negotiated settlement between the two countries still possible?
Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that’s “unlikely at this stage.”
Fix said Putin’s decision to annex four regions of Ukraine ― Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia — after holding “referenda” widely condemned by both Ukraine and the West has decreased the odds of a deal. Moscow’s desire to use the annexations as a precondition for any type of agreement will be a non-starter for Ukraine, especially given the successes it has had on the battlefield, Fix explained.
“There is also a major concern that Russia will use any talks as a pause to regroup and replenish its forces for a new offensive in the spring, as there is so far no indication that Russia has changed its maximalist war aims and would be satisfied with only limited territorial gains,” Fix said.
Zachary Witlin, a senior analyst for Eurasia Group, added that when peace talks started in March, Russia enjoyed battlefield momentum. That has since changed, meaning that “Ukraine has less reason to make concessions,” Witlin said.
“For us, this war could only end with restoring Ukraine as a sovereign state in sovereign borders, because any other result, for us, will be just some kind of prelude to the next Russian attempt of conquest.”
At the time, Ukraine appeared willing to accept neutrality as long as it received concrete security guarantees, according to reports about the terms under discussion. Meanwhile, Russia wanted to keep control of Ukrainian territory it had seized in 2014 ― and that was even before the latest annexations.
“We can only see something go forward if Russia changes its demand,” Witlin said. “But more broadly, it’s not clear to me that it’s acceptable for any Ukrainian leader, who would face elections in the future and have to explain it to to the general public, that they would essentially surrender territory to Russia.”
Witlin added that Ukrainians would want to receive reparations to reconstruct their country and see some post-war justice system established to punish those responsible for the war crimes committed by Moscow.
Witlin also addressed commentary within the U.S. that there’s not enough being done to encourage peace talks.
“It’s certainly possible that the U.S., Europe and those providing Ukraine weaponry could play a role in shaping that deal,” Witlin said. “But the deal can’t stick if there’s not some minimal level of acceptability to both Kyiv and Moscow.”
What Happens If The Two Countries Can’t Negotiate A Peace Plan?
Both sides could first agree to a cease-fire agreement, potentially leading to a peace plan later on.
This is something the two countries have tried before.
Witlin pointed to the two Minsk cease-fire agreements reached in 2014 and 2015, which were signed as a way to end a conflict in Eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists that started after Russia illegally annexed Crimea.
The 2015 agreement, Minsk II, was supported by France and Germany, as well as Russia and Ukraine, according to Reuters.
The deal mandated a cease-fire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. It was also “a major diplomatic coup for the Kremlin, obliging Ukraine to grant special status to the separatist regions, allowing them to create their own police force and have a say in appointing local prosecutors and judges,” according to The Associated Press. This, in turn, would help Moscow exert control over Ukrainian politics.
But while that agreement ended active-phase fighting, it was never fully implemented. Tensions remained, and Ukrainians never embraced it.
Putin’s decision to recognize the independence of two regions days before he invaded Ukraine further undermined Minsk II, which French President Emmanuel Macron had said was the “only path on which peace can be built.”
Under current circumstances, when Ukraine has shown it is capable of defending itself and fighting back against Russian forces, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be hesitant to accept something similar.
If the two sides never come to a negotiated settlement or cease-fire agreement, the war could develop into a so-called frozen conflict, where the active phase of the war would end, but with no agreement between the two parties.
“I’m not sure that that’s the most likely outcome in this case, because the costs for both Ukraine and Russia are just so enormously higher than at any point since 2014, when this conflict began,” Witlin said.
How Could The U.S. Midterm Elections Affect The War?
There have been signs that the bipartisan support Ukraine has enjoyed in the U.S. will cease to exist if Republicans win back the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-Calif.) recently said he won’t hand out “a blank check to Ukraine” if Republicans control the chamber, as the U.S. public will want to prioritize domestic issues, including persistent inflation and a looming recession.
Congress has played a major role in backing Ukraine. It approved $12.3 billion in emergency funding in September on top of the $54 billion the U.S. sent to the country in previous packages, according to The New York Times. If the U.S. were to completely stop backing Ukraine, the country “would likely be militarily defeated by Russia,” Fix said.
Most U.S. lawmakers are broadly supportive of Ukraine, so aid probably won’t come to a complete halt, Witlin said. He added that McCarthy’s statement likely reflected a concern shared by a minority within the two parties about where the conflict is headed next and whether U.S. support is ultimately tied to resolving it.
“After the midterm elections, I think that aid packages on balance probably are likely to start getting smaller or attempt to be more targeted,” Witlin said.
Javed Ali, an associate professor of practice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, said lawmakers would also have to weigh the optics of denying support to Ukraine.
“That’s not a winning political message,” Ali said, adding that candidates who have expressed skepticism of continuing to fund Ukraine on the campaign trail would face a different reality if they got elected.
How Is Putin Using Strikes On Ukraine’s Energy Infrastructure To Win The War?
One of the most unpredictable aspects of this war has been Putin himself, who has tried to use any leverage he has to gain the upper hand in the conflict.
Given Russia’s weaknesses on the battlefield, he has now resorted to striking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure.
Zelenskyy said in his Sunday address that over 4.5 million people were without power, calling Russia a “terrorist state.”
“No matter what the terrorists want, no matter what they try to achieve, we must endure this winter and be even stronger in the spring than we are now, be even more ready for the liberation of our entire territory than now,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy previously estimated Russia’s attacks destroyed over 30% of Ukraine’s energy power stations since Oct. 10, adding that these actions have left “no space” for negotiations with Putin.
Putin’s intention has been to put pressure on everyday Ukrainians in the hope they will eventually turn on their own leaders.
But Fix said Putin’s tactics are unlikely to break Ukrainians’ resolve, adding that the Russian leader “continues to repeat the same mistake.”
“He underestimates Ukrainians and the existential nature of this war for Ukraine,” Fix told HuffPost.
Ali warned these types of attacks could backfire on Russia, predicting the West will do as much as possible to help Ukrainians.
“It just reinforces the perception of who Putin is and how sort of diabolical this strategy of his is, and the list of potential war crimes keeps getting longer,” he said.
What Other Tactics Is Moscow Using To Pressure Ukraine Into Defeat?
Russia has also struck a close relationship with Iran in recent months. The Russians have reportedly been using Iran-made drones to conduct strikes in Ukraine, and Iranian military officers are on the ground in Crimea, according to John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications at the White House.
Zelenskyy on Sunday said Iranian drones have been crucial to Russia’s efforts of attacking energy infrastructure and called for Iran to be punished for lending its support to Moscow.
“The whole world will know that the Iranian regime helps Russia prolong this war, and therefore prolong the effect of those threats to the world provoked precisely by the Russian war,” Zelenskyy said. “If it was not for the Iranian supply of weapons to the aggressor, we would be closer to peace now.”
The White House has raised concerns that Russia is advising Iran on how to deal with the country’s anti-government protests.
Witlin said Russia’s coziness to Iran is intended to send “a broader message to Western governments about inroads that they could have to apply other sources of pressure against Western supporters around the world.”
Meanwhile, Moscow has tried to pressure Ukraine financially, using the U.N-brokered grain export agreement meant to address a global food crisis. Moscow said it would exit the deal indefinitely after an attack on its Black Sea fleet, which it blamed on Ukraine. Russia later recommitted to the deal after saying it received sufficient guarantees.
“Holding this threat of increasing economic damage to Ukraine is a form of retaliation that Russia has available,” Witlin said.
Would Putin Use Nuclear Weapons To Win The War?
U.S. officials reportedly have been briefed on intelligence suggesting Russian officials openly discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Putin has said he is prepared to use “all available means” to defend Russia, which was interpreted as a threat.
Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, told The New York Times he doesn’t believe Russia is prepared to use nuclear weapons, adding the rhetoric is part of the Kremlin’s strategy.
“They are trying to put pressure on Ukraine to negotiate and cave in to the Kremlin’s demands,” Hodges told the newspaper.
Last week, Russia appeared to scale back that language. Its foreign ministry issued a statement saying that “Russia is strictly and consistently guided by the tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Ali said it wouldn’t be in Putin’s interest to use nuclear weapons because of the consequences he would face.
“If Russia isn’t already a pariah country, it would absolutely become one in the blink of an eye, if that were to happen,” Ali said.
Using nuclear capabilities “would be of grave concern even [for] Russia’s closest partners, such as China,” Fix added.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and German chancellor Olaf Scholz reportedly agreed during a meeting Friday that Russia would cross a line if it employed nuclear weapons, according to NPR.
The Group of Seven on Friday called Russia’s nuclear rhetoric “unacceptable,” adding that Moscow’s claim that Ukraine was prepared to launch a “dirty bomb” has been proven “baseless” by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Why Hasn’t Russia Fully Used Its Cyber Capabilities To Defeat Ukraine?
Another area of intrigue around the war is why Russia hasn’t been more aggressive in using its cyber capabilities since the invasion.
“I think there’s some really interesting questions as to why hasn’t Russia been more successful on the cyber front when they were successful at a smaller level in Ukraine” previously, Ali said.
Witlin added Russia could use cyber warfare as a form of retaliation not only against Ukraine but also against the West, which it hasn’t done thus far.
“That could be crossed further in the future. And that’s one that I’ve been concerned about,” Witlin said.
So How Does It End?
No one knows for sure. But a way out of this conflict might not be neat and tidy.
While Americans seem to like a sense of finality, “that’s not a requirement for Russia,” Witlin said.
Victor Tregubov, captain of Ukraine’s armed forces, said the war is existential for Ukrainians and they are not prepared to give up.
“For us, this war could only end with restoring Ukraine as a sovereign state in sovereign borders, because any other result, for us, will be just some kind of prelude to the next Russian attempt of conquest,” Tregubov told HuffPost.