(Cover image: Antonis Karidis)
In these tragic hours, it would seem that Russia has abandoned any search for a "political/diplomatic" solution to the war. The discovery of tortured and murdered civilians in Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel makes it difficult to imagine that a cease-fire, let alone a political/diplomatic agreement, can now be agreed upon between Russia and Ukraine. Therefore, if the Russian goal is to establish a negotiating position on the ground, then such war crimes are not only terrible but counterproductive. Of course, Moscow denies any involvement in the murder of civilians, but satellite images along with video footage show what happened between March 9 and 11, when the city was under Russian control.
The military situation
The gap between the objectives of the Russian offensive campaign and the campaign's results continues to remain wide; meaning that the war may increasingly become a stalemate terribly costly in terms of human lives. Russian objectives have not been met for now, just as the organization of the logistics of much of the Russian forces in combat is failing. It is unlikely that expected reinforcements from other areas will make much difference and be able to replace the combat power lost this month, as Russian air formations suffered particularly heavy losses and Russian infantry proved to be far from well trained (particularly for operations in urban environments, which is why there were intense missile and artillery attacks). Russian forces clearly had not planned for such significant losses of armored vehicles and air assets, which caused them to move toward a defensive strategy.
The Ukrainians have, on the other hand, cleverly exploited the weaknesses of Russian infantry, their poor training and low morale. However, the Ukrainians have also suffered losses and urgently need to reinvigorate their forces and replenish their arsenals with advanced Western weaponry because, otherwise, they may be slowly worn down, even though they have so far performed the defensive "task" very well.
EU and the impact of sanctions
Before the discovery of the war crimes, the West seemed content to simply keep the Ukrainians in the fight so that they could negotiate a cease-fire at least from a position of strength. Now, it will be extremely difficult for Ukrainians to negotiate with Russians. In these hours, EU ambassadors will meet to discuss imposing tougher sanctions on Russia. These are likely to hit key figures and include greater restrictions on exports to Russia, along with a ban on Russian ships using EU ports. Interestingly, the EU now also seems willing to discuss sanctions on the import of Russian coal, oil, and gas. Berlin has even indicated that it may stop importing Russian oil and gas in response to the atrocities. In Italy, there are those who have asked Prime Minister Mario Draghi for a full embargo on oil and gas.
However, there are also signs of division within the EU and Russia is successfully circumventing many of the existing sanctions (with the help, primarily, of the People's Republic of China). Sanctions take time, and given that the standard of living of the Russian people has already fallen by about 30% since 2013 with no sign of regime collapse, sanctions alone are unlikely to force Moscow to change direction.
The No Fly Zone is excluded because if NATO, for example, attempted to enforce such a zone it would be forced to mount a major air campaign. A campaign that would inevitably lead to direct contact and conflict between NATO air forces and the Russian air force, with all the dangerous possibility of rapid escalation that such a confrontation would entail.
One thing that could be implemented would be for the Americans to further increase intelligence support to Ukrainians. Another option would be to impose a blockade of the Black Sea or close the Bosporus and Dardanelles (which is difficult knowing the volatile Turkish position). Bottling up naval forces in the Black Sea would have significant consequences for Russian naval operations elsewhere, not least in the Baltic Sea, the North Atlantic, the Arctic and the Pacific (beware, however: this measure could further complicate vital - especially for North Africa - grain exports). Other options could include increasing support to Kiev in cyber and electronic warfare with both offensive and counter-defensive activities.
What outcome can be expected
However the near future plays out, if NATO really wants to make a difference it will at least have to show the resolve to prevent Russia from claiming victory and, if possible, help Ukraine win. Objectively, barring a full NATO intervention, it is very unlikely that Russian forces will be forced out of their pre-February 24 positions, let alone back to their pre-2014 position. The closer Russian forces are to their own border, the more difficult it will be to get them to move from an area of the battle where they have had eight years of preparation and knowledge.
The most that can reasonably be expected is a return to pre-February 24 positions, blocking the construction of a secure land bridge between Russia, Crimea, and Transnistria, preventing the seizure of Mariupol, and denying the capture of Odessa. In addition, one might be able to retain most of the Ukrainian regular forces.
To be honest, it's hard to see this war ending with a peace agreement anytime soon. It will be a long diplomatic journey. Much more likely, some form of frozen conflict, similar to agreeing on an armistice, could take shape; after that, the preservation of Ukraine's combat power will be crucial.
Senior Fellow of the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Brigadier General (Aux.) of the Italian Army, member of the Directorate of the NATO Defense College Foundation. For years director of the Middle East Faculty within the NATO Defense College.