The massive Russian bombing of cities across Ukraine that followed a blast at the Kerch Strait bridge linking the Russian mainland to the Crimean Peninsula suggests that the Ukraine war is in a dangerous escalatory spiral with no way out in sight. Saturday’s attack on the Russian-built bridge was cheered by many in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak calling it “just the beginning”. But Russia retaliated the next day with its broadest missile strike on Ukraine since the war began on February 24, targeting military and civilian infrastructure. The missile attack has demonstrated not just Russia’s firepower eight months into the war but also its little regard for civilian lives and infrastructure. It also points to the desperation of Russia whose forces have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks. But besides this show of strength punishing Ukraine’s population, the attack has little strategic value. It has not improved Russia’s battlefield positions. And it has not weakened the resolve of Ukraine and its allies to continue to resist the Russian invasion either. On the contrary, the Group of Seven industrialised countries have vowed undeterred support for Ukraine “as long as it takes”.
Typically, conflicts come to an end either with an outright victory by one side or through a negotiated settlement. Both possibilities look distant at this point in the Ukraine war. Russia wants to seize at least Ukraine’s eastern and southern provinces. It has made some territorial gains but its advances have been stalled by the Ukrainian troops with backing from NATO. Ukraine wants to oust the Russian troops from all captured territories, including Crimea, which appears to be impractical. And Russian President Putin’s unilateral decision to annex four Ukrainian provinces, in flagrant violation of international laws and norms, has made the prospects for peace extremely difficult. But the alternative to talks is continuation of the conflict — Europe’s most dangerous land war since the Second World War, with its human and economic costs and growing fears of a nuclear attack. That is the last thing the world wants now. Even in 1962, when Soviet nuclear missiles were in Cuba and U.S. warships had quarantined the Caribbean Sea, Kennedy and Khrushchev had talked to each other, exchanged letters and found a solution to the missile crisis that had pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear war. Mr. Putin should back off from his maximalist threats and offer some concrete proposals for talks. His rivals in the West should also work towards creating conditions for negotiations that could bring this conflict, which has already wreaked havoc, to an end.
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