Scenarios of war as of March 1st
Five scenarios as to how Russia’s war in Ukraine might develop from here.
- “Blitzkrieg”. It seems that the bombing of Kyiv at 5 am on February 24th was no coincidence: it mimicked exactly the way Hitler started his offensive in 1941. A Blitzkrieg was promised to Putin by his generals. Under this scenario, Putin sought to use a sudden attack with all his might on all sides to quickly defeat the Ukrainian Armed Forces, seize the capital and key cities, sow panic and force the Ukrainian leadership to capitulate or replace it with its own puppet government. But it is obvious now that the planned Blitzkrieg de-facto became a Blitzfail. Currently, the probability of realising this scenario is decreasing with every passing day due to the large-scale and effective resistance of Ukraine that was unexpected to both Putin and the West. Introduction of reserves such as the Kadyrov elite troops or the Belarusian Army will not be able to radically change the situation.
- “Syria”. Failing with a rapid manoeuvre to succeed in establishing a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, Putin could change strategy and move to Russia’s traditional practice of scorched earth, as successfully tested in Chechnya and Syria. Russian troops will try to systematically advance step by step, ignoring their own losses and the loss of civilian lives. Iskander missiles, Buratino flamethrowers and other heavy weapons might be used. In this scenario, there would be endless hostilities, massive destruction of infrastructure, depletion of resources, significant outflow of citizens and a collapse of the economy. The probability of this scenario is high. Under sanctions, the Russian economy will not last long, but the Ukrainian economy will suffer significant losses, so this is a war of attrition, a contest to see which of the parties will die first. The West has to prevent this scenario by introducing disruptive sanctions with immediate effect on Russia.
- “World War III”. Unable to achieve his goal, Putin could escalate: bombing a nuclear power plant, setting off an explosion at the Chernobyl complex, launching a missile strike at a NATO or EU city, reviving the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), or launching a nuclear weapon against one or more Ukrainian cities. This scenario is the most threatening for the world, so to prevent it, NATO will have to intervene directly to destroy the Russian leadership. While we consider this scenario unlikely, its probability is increasing, and it is up to the international community to prevent this from happening. If it is implemented, we will all wake up in a completely different world with a completely different range of problems.
- “Diplomacy”. Under enormous pressure from the West, and with western (or eastern) mediation, Russia can be coaxed to the negotiating table with Ukraine. The obvious condition of the Ukrainian side will be complete withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian territory, including those occupied and annexed by Russia in 2014.
None of these scenarios provides a clear answer to the question of how to defeat Putin. Ukraine’s victory cannot be achieved by military means alone because even a complete cleansing of Ukraine from Russian troops will only mean that Russia will be given time to gather strength, analyse mistakes and prepare better for the next strike. Freezing the conflict with the prospect of resuming it later on suits neither Ukraine nor the West. Victory means not just full-fledged peace on terms acceptable to Ukraine, but the removal of the constant existential threat Russia poses to Ukraine. This can only happen when Russia itself is fundamentally reformed: the key to victory always lies in the same place as the key to the war’s start. Therefore, victory is directly dependent on fundamental political changes in Russia.
Numerous analyses conducted by various researchers show that political change in Russia by the means of a “Russian Maidan”, i.e. from the bottom-up, is absolutely impossible due to the absence of grassroot social movements and because of significant support for the invasion on the part of a large proportion of Russia’s population – the effect of many years of propaganda. Political changes in Russia are possible only from the top. They must involve powerful authorities. This is how we come to the fifth scenario.
- “Rebellion”. Sanctions may lead to a critical level of dissatisfaction with Putin, which could spawn a revolt from his own army and/or FSB generals, oligarchs, and/or regional leaders (including Kadyrov). This scenario is the most desirable and effective in terms of rapid change. In one version, the bankrupt dictator is removed (permanently or moved to The Hague), and his place is taken by a person more acceptable to the World. In another version, Russia begins to disintegrate: regional leaders negotiate with the security forces and oligarchs to dismantle the mosaic country (this will be a bit like the collapse of the USSR in 1991). The prospect of disintegration resulting directly from military defeat is real, but not desirable neither for the West nor for Ukraine: disintegration of Russia is unlikely to happen peacefully, crowds of refugees would flood Ukrainian cities, and nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of new unpredictable leaders. One way or another, the analysis of the prospects for the collapse of the Russian Federation is beyond the scope of this article.
For this reason we see no other alternative than to remove Putin if the international community seeks to restore peace in the long run. The likelihood of the ‘rebellion’ scenario is also influenced by grassroots social activity in Russia (anti-war protests, soldiers’ refusals to fight, protests in the ‘national’ republics of the federation, etc.), but they will not able to change anything single-handedly due to their limited scale and the low impact on Putin’s decision-making. Nevertheless, it is an important indicator for other political actors in Russia.
Restoring peace in Ukraine requires more than just the military defeat of Russia. It requires the removal of Putin from power.
Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.
Mychailo Wynnyckyj is an Associate Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Ukrainian Catholic University. He is also the author of “Ukraine’s Maidan. Russia’s War. A Chronicle and Analysis of the Revolution of Dignity” (Ibidem, 2019).
Andrii Dligach is the Head of Advanter Group, Doctor of Economics, strategist, futurologist and visionary; founder of the Board business community, co-founder of the Center for Economic Recovery, SingularityU Kyiv, FreeGen, Investudio. Investor and ideologist of ecosystems and technology startups.
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