It is now nearly two months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and there is no sign of an early end to the war. After a pause in the conflict, earlier this week Russia began an anticipated offensive in the eastern Donbas region, which sits along the Black Sea coast.

The Battle for Donbas opens a new phase and gives rise to heightened risks from the conflict. 

There are two general scenarios for the Ukraine conflict – a long war and a short war, and both pose serious risks.

That is one reason that there will be a distinct possibility that war will recur even if the conflict is frozen. Russia and the West could easily play this one to annoy each other and settle scores in disputes elsewhere. And the Ukrainians are clearly prepared to pay a high price.

Ukraine, the West, and Russia are now heavily invested in this conflict, and none can give up easily. That means there is a danger that it might be very difficult to reach a peace settlement. And that could mean a long war, which in itself raises further dangers.

One extreme danger is that with Russia and China in a “no-limits” alliance, the war in Ukraine could heighten tensions and through a disastrous chain of events raise the chance of a US-China conflict.

The new phase presents dangers that the war could still turn nuclear and even spread. The CIA has warned that Russia might use tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons in Ukraine if Moscow becomes desperate to reverse its losses.

Even if the Russians establish control over the Donbas they could face a costly insurgency. A prolonged conflict will undermine the Russian economy, and pose risks to the continued rule of its President, Vladimir Putin. Losing the Battle for Donbas would be an existential threat to Putin’s rule. It is at this point that the Russians could let go of restraints. And it is doubtful that even if Putin goes, there would be an easy settlement.

Use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine would amount to a substantial escalation and may force the West to play an even larger role in the conflict. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) has been restrained in its support for Ukraine, not wanting to overplay its hand and really upset Russia.

But Russian use of ballistic missiles against targets in Europe or the US remains a very distant possibility. Putin must be well aware that he and his generals would not survive a nuclear retaliation. As in the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction continues to mean that there are restraints.

As the war goes on, in spite of terrible civilian casualties and the massive destruction of cities, the Ukrainians may be reluctant to enter into a settlement that would be highly compromising. Living under Russian control or influence is intolerable for the Ukrainians and would raise questions about what they had fought for. It is not a case of the Ukrainians being caught between two superpowers. The Ukrainians do not want to have to be forced to be neutral toward Russia – they want to lean to the West.

Having invested so heavily in supporting Ukraine, the West cannot be seen to push for an early or unfavourable settlement. After the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan which handed the country over to the Taliban, the West has a strong reason to show resolve and drive up the cost for Russia.

There are still enormous gaps in the sanctions regime. Germany cannot suddenly cut its Russian gas imports, as it would risk recession and a very cold winter. The Russian invasion has changed the German defence posture, but there still has to be a sign of strong political will that it is willing to seek out alternative energy sources, including coal and nuclear. Once Russian gas imports are cut, they will not be restored on a settlement. It is just too risky, and one reason why Russia might not see easy rewards in a settlement.

The Russian pattern of operations also indicates that this might be a conflict that can only be frozen rather than settled. With the large destruction of urban areas by the Russians, one goal has been clear. It is about punishment and a show of force to make Ukraine a pliant country.

The initial Russian claim that its aim was to “de-Nazify” with the “special military operation” was for propaganda purposes. The attempt to seize Kyiv was about trying to topple the government and installing a pliant regime. It did not work and now the Russian aim is to consolidate and extend its position in Donbas, in the East along the Black Sea, where it already controls two “People’s Republics”. Extending and consolidating the area it controls here will give Russia a greater buffer and control over the Sea of Azov. Russia wants to join these and link up with the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014.

At this stage we do not really know how far Russian ambitions in the East extend. It might want to seize the entire Ukrainian coastline beyond the Crimean peninsula and take territory well beyond Donbas. Increasingly, the Russian objectives are looking like a desire to heavily and endlessly punish Ukraine.

In the East, Ukraine might be at a disadvantage in having to get its newly acquired artillery and armour from the US across the country to face the Russians. The Ukrainians will have had little time to train on the new equipment and might not be up to conducting effective operations. Moreover, the more open country in the East could favour Russian tanks. But the Russians bungled their attempt to seize Kyiv and it is unlikely that they will have learned the lessons in a short period of time.

If it is to be a short war the Russians will have to exit with a degree of pride intact. Thus if they control the Donbas and the link to Crimea they might then declare victory and the West might then persuade Ukraine to accept a settlement. This would result in a frozen conflict which could see another war ignited on the flimsiest of reasons. This “off ramp” for Putin will help calm world tensions for the moment, but could pave the way to a future war.

But the West might just be persuaded that it should persuade Ukraine to settle at an early point by the rising chorus of voices, who point to China as the bigger threat. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a China expert, has argued that the Ukraine conflict is a “rolling strategic diversion” from the need to compete with China. 

But all that might well change. China’s effective support for Russia in the war, will be all the more reason for, certainly the US, to further disengage from the Chinese economy and create stronger alliances to counter Beijing in Asia.

The Ukraine war will go down as a point of a fundamental shift in the world order with long-running and many unforeseen consequences. It has certainly clarified the battle lines of the future.

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.