The war in Ukraine is at an inflection point, and the gap between the fiction that marks diplomatic statements and facts on the ground has never been wider. On Sunday, G7 countries increased sanctions against Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to address the nation on Victory Day on Monday.

Despite the fact that both sides have expressed a desire to terminate the fight, there are no signs that it is about to do so. That is because, at its core, the question for the fighting parties is not if the battle will end, but on what terms, and who will be best positioned afterward.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has reached a critical stage, with enormous implications for all parties involved — Ukraine, Europe, and the United States on the one hand (who share, but not necessarily similar objectives), and Russia on the other.

Both believe they can maximise their advantages and tip the power balance in their favour, giving them a stronger hand when genuine negotiations begin. As a result, the potential of escalation today may be substantially higher than at any other time during the war.

Conflicting goals

In April, Russia shifted its focus to the south and east after retreating from Kiev and its environs, which was definitely a setback, if not a failure, for Moscow.

While Moscow’s initial war goals were demilitarisation and de-Nazification, which were interpreted to mean that Moscow wanted the Ukrainian army to be completely defeated and a change of guard in Kiev, neither of which occurred, Russia’s goal now appears to be to consolidate control over Donetsk and Luhansk, separatist-controlled provinces over which Moscow has had de facto control since 2014.

It also intends to expand its territorial gains beyond the two provinces to the rest of the Donbas region; take over Mariupol, which it has mostly accomplished, albeit at great human cost; and maintain the eastern land corridor to Crimea.

Russia now appears to be playing for a split Ukraine, in which one half may further its integration with Europe while the more physically adjacent part integrates with Moscow.

However, Ukraine, emboldened by its successful retaliation, and the West, tempted by the opportunity to weaken Russia, believe that they can not only prevent Russia from succeeding in this latest phase of the war — but also, possibly, push Russia back from territorial gains already made, degrade its capacity, erode its ability to project power, and prevent it from launching a similar aggression in the future.