Though they "tick" at different rates, several notional clocks symbolizing intertwined military, diplomatic, and information warfare "lines of operation" run simultaneously in Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine. Real-world actions and effects (destruction, death, perhaps rational mediation) speed or slow the clocks. At least one of these clocks may offer a route to a ceasefire and perhaps a grim peace.
Russian Devastation is a hideous clock. Documented on cellphone video, hour by hour Russian air and artillery attacks hammer Ukrainian cities. Having failed to win quickly, Vladimir Putin's Kremlin now seeks a victory of the graveyard by reducing Ukrainian homes to rubble. Putin sends this message: Submit or I'll decimate Ukraine brick by brick. As long as this clock ticks, Ukraine bleeds.
Putin's devastation gambit is his brutal response to a clock he didn't expect: Ukraine's Operational Victory clock, a short-lived clock. Ukrainian tactical military successes produced an operational-level victory in Kyiv and northern Ukraine, forcing an embarrassing, conflict-shaping Russian withdrawal.
Putin expected his war to last at most three weeks. Ukraine, however, defeated initial special operations forces assaults on Kyiv -- tactical wins ruining Russia's timetable. Very likely the raiders had orders to kill or capture President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Bottom line: on the first day of the invasion elite Russian troops failed to surprise or defeat the Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, Russian tank and armored infantry columns invaded Ukraine on multiple axes (multiple directions), with Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, and Mariupol key targets for the Kremlin's battle groups.
Using sophisticated anti-tank weapons, portable air defense missiles, and tactics honed fighting Russian proxies in the Donbas, Ukrainian forces isolated road-bound Russian vehicles. Then they coolly cut to pieces entire Russian battalions -- a remarkable "defeat in detail." The tactics also inflicted heavy casualties on Russian forces elsewhere in Ukraine, particularly in the north.
The Kyiv victory has diplomatic significance -- for the moment.
The Narrative Warfare Clock: Vlad thought he owned the propaganda war. For 20 years he groomed and goaded the Russian people to prepare to fight a major war to rebuild the Russian Empire. His pitch included these gems: NATO threatened Russia. Nazis run Ukraine.
However, imagery of fleeing Ukrainian mothers and children and photos of destroyed homes globally challenge Putin's threat propaganda. Captured Russian soldiers say they were told they were going on maneuvers in Belarus, not attacking Ukraine.
Hard evidence documents war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians, the Bucha executions being a hideous example.
The Sanctions Clock: it doesn't tick, it tolls. Russia can physically devastate Ukraine, but NATO, the EU, and pro-Ukraine nations worldwide can economically savage Russia. Russia already feels the bite of initial sanctions. The Sanctions Clock attacks Putin's war chest, counters his devastation gambit. Will his economy die before he turns Ukraine to dust?
Sanctions twist the spring of the Russian Domestic Political Clock. Cellphone imagery reaches Russian audiences. Russian families know the casualty count is mounting. Putin promised Russia prosperity. Russian prosperity dies in Ukraine. In prolonged war, this clock tolls for Putin.
Is there a peace clock?
Potentially. Credit Zelenskyy for suggesting a reality-based diplomatic process aimed at securing a military ceasefire between Ukraine and Putin's invading forces.
Zelenskyy's public statements have included sketches of provisional territorial accommodations. He told one group peace talks could begin when Russia withdrew "to their borders that existed prior to the 24th of February at least..."
Many European and American observers interpreted that statement as a signal to the Kremlin. If Russia accepts a ceasefire Ukraine will discuss compromises in the eastern Donbas region and Crimea. Following his defeat in Kyiv, Putin declared that "liberating" the Donbas had been the invasion's primary goal. It wasn't -- Putin wanted all of Ukraine. But it's a face-saving lie for the dictator.
Zelenskyy knows he enjoys a moment of strength created by Ukrainian battlefield success, his nation's unbending will to resist Russian aggression, Russian incompetence, and documented Russian war crimes. If he can get an embarrassed Moscow to agree to a ceasefire the devastation will stop.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine Armament Modernization clock will whirr. A half-dozen NATO nations are sending Ukraine several hundred tanks, most Cold War Russian relics but serviceable. New air defense systems will arrive, perhaps MiG-29s? End result: Ukraine will have an offensive capacity.