I have compared the current standoff in Donbass to a poker game. By amassing troops around Ukraine, Putin let it be known that a Ukrainian attack on Donbass would be – well, if not assuredly catastrophic, then at least extremely risky for its continued statehood.
Ukraine could raise by going ahead with it anyway. It has spent the past couple of months mobilizing its troops, and not going ahead now will frustrate its aggressive nationalists.
At that point, Russia could call – defend the Donbass and throw back the Ukrainians. But then NS2 will be flushed and there will be a bunch of further sanctions (though their impact now will be modest).
It could raise again with a full on attack through Kharkov and Crimea to encircle the Ukrainian formations in the Donbass, from Crimea to Odessa, and even from Bryansk and Belarus on Sumy and Kiev.
Or it could fold and allow the Ukrainians to conquer Donbass. That would shatter Russia’s credibility, with focus subsequently turning to Crimea and provoking internal nationalist opposition to Putin. This would be the best scenario for Ukraine and the West. But, unlikely to happen – and the Ukrainians probably realize that.
Ideal scenario for Russia would be to retain NS2, which would have the side benefit of depriving Ukraine of $3B per year (its military budget is $5B per year and its GDP is $150B). At that point, Zelensky would have to make a choice between guns and butter, since speculations about a post-Maidan economic boom in Ukraine have turned out to be svidomy hopium, as a look at the statistics will immediately tell.
The US did use the opportunity to further wreck Russia’s image in the West and to strain relations with some ECE countries to near breaking point (looks like conjuring up Russian plots has become a hobby amongst ECE limitrophes from Montenegro and Bulgaria to Czechia). Then again, Russia doesn’t particularly need good relations with them. They are uninteresting from a trade or technology transfer viewpoint. That some moneyed Russians, many of them liberals opposed to Putin, buy up property in Prague doesn’t make Czechia important to Russia (Czech delusions aside).
Zelensky doesn’t really have any good options now.
He can still attack the Donbass, and indeed the incidence of Ukrainian shelling of Donetsk has increased today after the announcement of the end of the Russian “exercises.”
He can withdraw. But then he’d be inviting challenges from nationalist hardliners. And, come the NS2-related budget crunch, some hard choices between guns and butter. Elections are coming up in 2023.
Unless it can generate East Asian-tiger style economic growth, Ukrainian military power relative to Russian will probably peak in the early 2020s. Cheap assembly work for German firms (that even the Poles shun) and NEET ITshniki are not going to generate that kind of economic growth. Russia has internal economies of scale and technological clusters that Ukraine is not in a position to replicate. By the time Ukraine gets its masses of DIY Bayraktars, Russia will have Okhotnik drones that can sweep them from the skies. No less importantly, by that time China will have increased its relative power to the US further and the Taiwan issue will be creeping to a resolution. The US has steadfastly positioned itself as an enemy of Russia ever since the end of the Cold War. There will be no end of pressure on any Russian regime to settle scores with the US when it runs into difficulties in the Pacific.