Ukraine's losses on the battlefield could make the war more dangerous for Russia

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  • Russia's advantage on the battlefield could prompt Ukraine's backers to give it more of what it wants, and needs, to win the war.
  • Defense analysts call this irony of conflict the "escalation paradox."
  • French President Emmanuel Macron's controversial comments on the possibility of NATO ground troops in Ukraine demonstrated this paradox.

Early on in the war with Russia, Ukraine's successes on the battlefield prompted warnings from defense analysts that Moscow — with its back against the wall militarily — could lash out, using a nuclear weapon on Ukrainian soil.

Defense analysts noted that the more successes Ukraine saw, the more dangerous and unpredictable its opponent Russia could become as it sought to regain the initiative.

Two years on, the tables have turned.

Ukrainian forces appear vulnerable with their new military commander Oleksandr Syrskyi reporting a "tense" and "difficult" situation along the front line this week. This comes amid wider concerns over weapons shortages and an uncertain outlook over future Western military aid.

Russia, meanwhile, is counting gains, with the capture of the industrial city of Avdiivka in Donetsk a fortnight ago and several other surrounding settlements since then.

Ironically, however, Russia's advances could also prove dangerous for Moscow as Ukraine's increasingly precarious situation could lead its military backers — eager to ensure a Russian defeat — to give Ukraine everything it needs to beat the invading forces.

Ukrainian soldiers look at the sky in search for a nearby Russian drone at the Bakhmut frontline, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on January 13, 2024.
Ignacio Marin | Anadolu | Getty Images
Ukrainian soldiers look at the sky in search for a nearby Russian drone at the Bakhmut frontline, in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on January 13, 2024.

The 'escalation paradox'

With Ukraine now on the back foot, analysts say it's Russia that now faces the possibility of a desperate West, Ukraine's backer, compensating for Ukraine's vulnerability by giving it more advanced weapons systems, longer-range missiles, air defense systems and fighter jets, more quickly. That, in turn, would make the war much harder and more dangerous for Russia.

Analysts describe this situation as the "escalation paradox."

"Fierce daily combat and very high casualty rates are consistent with low escalation risk provided the front remains broadly stable — as in 2023," Christopher Granville, managing director of Global Political Research at TS Lombard, said in a note this week.

"Conversely, when one or other side gains the upper hand, the risk rises of compensatory escalation from the side which is on the back foot," he noted.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters
Service members of pro-Russian troops in uniforms without insignia drive an armoured vehicle with the letters "Z" painted on it in a residential area of the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the Donetsk region, Ukraine March 11, 2022. 

"Ukrainian gains in the second half of 2022 prompted fears of Russia 'going nuclear'. With Ukrainian forces now losing ground — notably with this month's fall of Avdiivka and subsequent retreat — the escalation impulse comes from Ukraine's western backers," he said.

The "escalation paradox" was neatly evidenced by France's President Emmanuel Macron this week when he suggested that NATO countries had discussed the possibility of deploying ground troops in Ukraine.

While Macron was clear that there was "no consensus" about the idea among European leaders and Western officials from the U.S., U.K. and Canada, who had met in Paris on Monday, that was drowned out by the noise surrounding his comments that the possibility could not be "ruled out."

The comments prompted hasty denials from NATO countries and a furious response from Moscow, with the Kremlin warning that NATO boots on the ground in Ukraine would make a NATO-Russia conflict "inevitable."

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual state of the nation address, on February 29, 2024, in Moscow, Russia.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual state of the nation address, on February 29, 2024, in Moscow, Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made the threat more explicit in his State of the Nation address in Moscow Thursday, warning of the danger of a nuclear conflict with the West if NATO sent troops to Ukraine.

″[The West] must realize that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don't they get that?!" Putin told Russian lawmakers and officials.

Did Macron help, or hinder Ukraine?

Some analysts said Macron had played into Russia's hands and Moscow certainly appeared to relish the public NATO disunity over the matter — as well as Macron's isolation and apparent misreading of the alliance's mood music.

Nonetheless, analysts point out that there was logic to Macron's position, and he had helped focus minds on Ukraine's plight.

"To contain the present Russian offensives across the whole front, Ukraine needs more weapons and men ... It follows that Western governments determined to ensure a Russian defeat might logically consider introducing their own army group into the theatre," TS Lombard's Granville said.  

He noted that the "escalation mechanism springs from the core underlying reality: the stakes in this war for all concerned are too high for anyone to consider cutting their losses and seeking some compromise deal."  

Analysts at risk advisory Teneo agreed that "behind the noise" surrounding Macron's comments this week, progress toward further support for Ukraine had likely been made as the stakes were now higher.

"Macron’s statement regarding a hypothetical presence of Western troops in Ukraine has triggered controversy, and the ensuing raft of rebuttals by European leaders has heightened perceptions of EU disunity. At the same time, member states are gradually advancing towards further support for Ukraine and a longer-term build-out of European defense capabilities," Antonio Barroso and Carsten Nickel said in a note Wednesday.

"Against this background, the decision to convene a conference on Ukraine in Paris this week aimed to provide leadership on the different support initiatives under discussion, sending a message to Moscow," they noted, adding that "Macron's statement was likely aimed at signaling resolve to Russia."

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