Russian President Vladimir Putin must now decide his next steps in the five-month-long invasion he launched in February.
After Russian forces captured the strategic Ukrainian city of Lysychansk on Sunday, here are five different options put forward by security experts who spoke with AFP:
Russian forces appear on course to take full control of the Donbas region, which had been partially held by pro-Kremlin separatists before the February 24 invasion.
With Lysychansk and its sister city Severodonetsk taken in recent weeks, Putin’s forces can “hope to take Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and the surrounding regions,” said Pierre Grasser, a researcher at Sorbonne University in Paris.
Sloviansk, in particular, is home to “a relatively hospitable population — at least those who have stayed there” rather than fleeing the fighting, he added.
But there may be limits to how far the Russians can penetrate their neighboring country’s territory.
“Their steamroller works well close to their own borders, their own logistics centers and their air bases. The further they go, the more difficult it gets,” said Pierre Razoux, academic director of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES).
Master the Black Sea
The southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was one of the first to fall into the hands of Russian troops in the early days of the war.
But Russia’s hold on the Black Sea coast is not secure.
“Ukraine counter-attacks in the south…present a dilemma for Russian forces. Will they keep their eastern offensive or will they significantly strengthen the south?” said Mick Ryan, a former general in the Australian Army.
The question is all the more pressing because “the war in the south is a front of greater strategic importance” than the Donbas, he added.
By claiming territory along the coast, Moscow could create a land bridge to the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014, as both sides want to control Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is close to the northeastern border with Russia — and is in an area still controlled by Kiev, which could still be cut off by Russian forces.
“If the Ukrainians collapse and Kharkiv is completely isolated, the Russians could force them to choose between defending the city or reducing pressure south towards Kherson,” said Pierre Razoux.
It is up to President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian commanders “to deploy their units to prevent a major summer break” that could encircle Kharkiv, he added.
Home to 1.4 million people in peacetime, a siege of Kharkiv could be a bloody affair lasting up to a year, Razoux said.
Divide the West
While the West has thus far maintained a largely united front of sanctions and aid to Ukraine, continued Russian progress could drive the allies’ interests apart.
“The goal for Russia is to continue to bring down Ukrainian forces on the battlefield while we wait for the political will to support Ukraine to dissipate among Western countries,” said Colin Clarke, research director at the think tank Soufan Center in New York.
Deliveries of Western military aid have been too slow and too small to turn the battle decisively in Kiev’s favour.
Meanwhile, the inflationary impact of the war on commodities such as food and energy may gradually distract public opinion from strong initial support for Ukraine.
“The Americans could tell the Ukrainians you can’t go any further,” said Alexander Grinberg, an analyst at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.
Russia itself is suffering heavy costs from Western sanctions, casualties on the battlefield and losses of military equipment.
“Putin will be forced to negotiate at some point, he has bitten off more than he can chew,” said Colin Clarke.
At the end of June, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov already raised the possibility of talks – provided that “all the conditions set by Russia are applied”, which remain unacceptable to Kiev.
But his control over domestic information means the Russian leader has a free hand to tell the public that his objectives have been achieved and justify a pause in the fighting.
A bigger challenge could be the divisions on the Ukrainian side.
Hardliners and military leaders would “refuse any compromise with Russia” even if Zelensky was willing to negotiate a deal, Pierre Razoux said.
“They could tolerate a frozen conflict, but not defeat.”
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and was generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)