Nobody knows what’s coming! The only predictability of the Ukrainian war is that it is a ‘Lose-Lose’ situation for everyone involved. The rest is predictably unpredictable!

By Lieutenant General P. R. Shankar (Retd)

After three weeks of fighting, Russia has indicated that there is near agreement on certain parts of a possible peace agreement with Ukraine. Ukraine has also made cautiously positive statements that it is willing to negotiate to end the war but will not surrender or accept Russian ultimatums. While the negotiations are clearly not easy, there is still a glimmer of hope for a compromise. That said, Mr. Zelensky has argued for guns before the US Congress and reiterated his advocacy for a no-fly zone. Putin continues to describe the war in Ukraine as part of an existential clash with the United States and refuses to step off the accelerator. Meanwhile, Russia is intensifying its offensives to encircle cities and Ukraine has mounted counter-offensives in Kiev and Kherson. The battle continues unabated. It seems that Russia is also trying to bolster the Ukrainian theater with troops from the East. Nobody knows what’s coming! The only predictability of the Ukrainian war is that it is a ‘Lose-Lose’ situation for everyone involved. The rest is predictably unpredictable!

The current situation (see map) indicates that Russia has occupied significant areas and that a large number of areas are fighting. Russian troops have surrounded many cities or are tightening their hold on many cities. However, they have been unable to capture any major cities, including the capital Kiev. Ukrainians are waging a motivated defensive battle to buy time for a political settlement. The number of civilian casualties is increasing and the number of refugees has passed three million.

Where is this war going?

The key lies in Russia’s four demands: 1. Ukraine not to be part of NATO; 2. Donetsk and Luhansk are recognized as independent states; 3. Crimea is recognized as part of Russia; and 4. demilitarization of Ukraine. The first three requirements are almost approved by Ukraine. It is the fourth that is problematic. The level of demilitarization demanded by Russia seems unacceptable to Ukraine, as it will seem like surrender. Until this problem is solved, Russia’s air strikes in western Ukraine and the tightening of the loops around cities will continue. Ultimately, Russia and Ukraine will have to negotiate the levels of force the latter can maintain, along with guarantees that they will not be breached. I don’t see Russia holding onto any part of Ukraine once the deal is done. If they do, they will bleed from a Ukrainian uprising. They are well aware of that. If the ceasefire is reached, Russia will withdraw from Ukraine. However, there are also good chances of NATO being sucked in. All it takes is a failed missile landing on NATO territory during a Russian airstrike in western Ukraine or if the Russians accidentally shoot down a NATO plane/device. Furthermore, if the deal is delayed and the fighting continues, there is a good chance Russia will resort to tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield out of frustration. That will take this conflict to another level. There are also concerns about Russia extending the conflict to Moldova or Georgia as they are not part of NATO. The unpredictable still lies ahead. However, the long-term trends are clear. Everyone will declare a victory despite the fact that they all would have lost. Therefore, it is necessary to examine their alleged victories and the losses of this war for every participant and interested parties.

Russia will claim victory on many counts. Keeping Ukraine neutral will be sold as a victory over US-led NATO. In addition, the legitimacy of the forced annexation of Crimea and the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk are being renounced. However, the total costs are enormous. The economy will continue to be battered and hampered by the unprecedented sanctions imposed on it. The after effects will last for a long time. Russia also faces prolonged diplomatic isolation from the West, which is its natural trading partner. The financial reserves have been confiscated by the US. It will have to export its goods at a discount. It will also be at the mercy of China for many things. Furthermore, the shine of a strong, well-trained Russian army has disappeared. The domestic political costs of the ‘victory’ and the loss of life of its soldiers have not yet been played out. Rebuilding the military will take some time and effort. Most importantly, Russia may have subjugated Ukraine, but will have a hostile neighbor that is still supported by the West and will bring the country into trouble. The western story of painting Russia as the villain of war will stand. There is a huge cultural angle to it. Seen in equilibrium, Russia will lose more than it gains.

The US and NATO will claim victory for not letting Ukraine fall and dulling the vast Russian war machine. It will also claim victory because it will contain the conflict against Ukraine and not let it spread to Europe. The US will already be happy to have been able to reunite Europe and revive NATO. However, it has lost Ukraine. The carefully crafted plan from 2013 to date to assimilate Ukraine into NATO and the EU has failed. Ukraine will most likely go into the Russian fold. This war has ensured that Europe will remain destabilized for a long time. Ukraine will rank the US as yet another chapter in the long litany of US losses – Vietnam, Iran, Iraq, the South China Sea and Afghanistan. During this time, the US has had to turn to Venezuela and Iran to stabilize global oil supplies and lift sanctions against them. This is pure double talk. It has angered Saudi Arabia since easing sanctions against Iran, its main competitor in the Gulf. Reflexively, it has started talking with China about oil trade in Yuan terms. In addition, sanctions against Russia will also strengthen Sino-Russian trade in Yuan terms. This runs the risk of shaking the USD from its status as the world’s reserve currency. If that happens, it could lead to the collapse of the petrodollar regime to herald the end of an era. It will be a huge loss in American history. High stakes indeed.

Ukraine loses a lot of time no matter how you look at it. It is left to fight alone after the moon was promised. It is very likely that it will lose much of its territory. It has lost much of its infrastructure. The Russians have decimated their profitable arms and defense industries. Far from being in NATO or EU, it goes back to the Russian bear hug. The people are displaced. Their houses have been destroyed. When the three million refugees will return is an open question. Where Ukraine will find funds to rebuild is also uncertain. This is a country under systematic destruction and division. It is the biggest loser of this war.

EU leaders will pat each other on the back that their unit has prevented Russian attacks on its territory. In any case, from what has emerged so far, it does not appear that Russia ever intended to enter EU or NATO territory. That would be a hollow declaration of victory anyway. The big loss for the EU is that the divisions within itself are coming out into the open. Their ineffectiveness in conflict prevention in Europe or in deterring Russia is also quite obvious. They are forced to militarize. Defense budgets have already been increased in all EU countries. Their energy dependence on Russia will continue. They stare at inflation. They also have to bear the brunt of hosting three million refugees. Combine this influx with the Syrian refugees earlier. The EU’s aging demographics are under pressure and forcing change. It has long-term consequences.

There is a common belief that it will be China that will benefit from this war. While the arguments are attractive to believe, there are drawbacks as well. It is very clear that China is siding with Russia in this war. The US will redouble its efforts to undermine China at any stage after this. China will also face headwinds in Europe, its lucrative and profitable market and source of technology. All of this will put further strain on the slowing economy. The biggest loss to China, however, is that its military option to forcibly reunite Taiwan is evaporating. Taiwan is already adopting the Ukrainian model. It has doubled the training period for its reservists so that they can fight for their country as the Ukrainians have done. Another factor is that Japan and South Korea are now considering deploying US nuclear assets on their territory after seeing the Russians playing the nuclear card. That will complicate the Chinese nuclear environment. Most importantly, Ukraine now sees China on the other side. This has implications for Chinese food security, as Ukrainian wheat imports are at risk. China is also sourcing aircraft and warship parts from Ukraine that will no longer be available. Furthermore, the BRI is affected, as Ukraine was the gateway to Europe. Overall, China is losing.

Where does it leave India?

As it stands, India is diplomatically walking a tightrope because it abstained from voting against Russia in the UN. However, this can be managed over a period of time. The real concern is that India’s reliance on Russia and Ukraine for its weapons and spare parts has shown a gap in its pursuit of strategic autonomy. India will have to invest more in its Atmanirbharta programs. India’s energy security is also at stake. However, India has the capacity to address this issue. Apart from that, as far as India is concerned, this war is a European matter and we should let them sort it out. If there is an opportunity to mediate, India should not hesitate to take the initiative.

Seen in the general context, this predictably unpredictable war benefits no one. View all equations from any direction. The only end result for all protagonists is a Lose-Lose situation. As the war continues, the amount of loss will only increase.

(The author is a former Director General of Artillery. Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Any unauthorized reproduction of this content is prohibited).

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