War scenarios following Putin’s failed ‘blitzkrieg’
Over a month into the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine we have learned that the Kremlin’s plans and their implementation differs vastly. What are some of the scenarios the West should prepare for and what options are still available?
Two weeks after the start of the invasion, we noted the complete failure of the ‘blitzkrieg’ styled invasion and the transition to the second phase of the war, namely to the scorched earth strategy tested in Chechnya and Syria. This involves the practice of killing as many civilian people as possible and damaging as much civilian infrastructure as possible to force the beleaguered society and political leadership to surrender.
Ukrainians understood that surrender would not happen, but at that time the governments and societies of other countries did not fully grasp this. Two weeks ago, we were at a great fork, which had many scenarios for further developments, because it would be determined by the choices made by elites in several countries:
- Rebellion of the army, secret service, business and regional elites.
- Consolidation of elites around Putin.
- Pursuing a strategy of reconciliation, i.e. deciding on a course to preserve and recover Russia in accordance with the Serbian scenario (limiting sanctions imposed on the aggressor and turning a blind eye to loopholes, pressuring Ukraine to make concessions in order to reach an agreement),
- The strategy of increased pressure to squeeze Russia out of the world system following the Iranian scenario.
- Remain patient.
- Take up an active position with regards to the conflict.
(In any case, China’s long-term strategy is to preserve the equilibrium on the global stage, which you can read more about in this article).
Additionally, there would be different possible reactions of Ukrainian society and political leadership to the active manifestations of certain options chosen by these key players, as just two weeks ago the options were very different. Briefly speaking, all scenarios were spread along a wide range between escalation and de-escalation: from nuclear blackmail or even the actual use of tactical nuclear weapons, as well as expanding the geography of war to other countries — to the beginning of peace talks. It would be wrong to claim that there are no ongoing peace talks at the moment, however Putin is not ready and signals that he insists on his crazy demands of “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine, thus, current negotiations are just an element of the fog of war. A scenario of a long positional war was considered unlikely: Russian troops are not deployed along long fronts, there are no supply lines in place, no operational reserves, and long distances to cover.
In two weeks the situation was made clearer.
The Russian elites are unprepared for a quick change of position as both pro-Putin and anti-Putin forces seem confused and scattered.
Western elites have eventually consolidated around a strategy of increased pressure, although they retained the path of rapid withdrawal (in the form of the narrative “Putin is the guilty party, the common Russians are not”, which is the subject of a separate review). This does not mean that the West is ready to go to war or to close the sky over Ukraine (which would most likely also mean going to war). One way or another, the West will fight for its values with Ukrainian hands. But it does look like the West has clearly chosen between the Serbian and Iranian scenarios for Russia, which means that Russia will be cut off from world capital and technology markets, deprived of export earnings, with all its assets in reach of the West frozen.
Chinese elites have chosen a strategy of active neutrality: not to help Russia, but at the same time to restrain the West so that Russia does not collapse and fall apart completely.
Now as the key players have decided on their positions certainty has increased. In fact, each of the dozens of countries on different continents, whose position matters, has more or less determined a course, and this could change only as a result of any significant events.
We would like to emphasise that failure of both rapid war and total war means switching from “fast time” to “slow time”, when the frequency of significant events has dropped, and become quite monotonous. The news feeds of international news agencies have limited their coverage of Ukraine: if earlier, events had prominent place in media, they are now mostly contained within a summary once a day. The fast time is over. There will be no impressive news from the fronts, no important changes in the positions of key countries in the world, no shocking reports from the peace talks and so on (although some “wildcards” are possible). So the following scenarios depend primarily on domestic factors in Ukraine and Russia.
There are currently three options for Russia.
- Realising the situation, the elites rebel and implement the usual script for a Russian palace coup. Generals who fear punishment or seek to preserve the remnants of honour; oligarchs who are at risk of losing their assets made in the past and possibly in the future; bureaucrats whose wives and children are cut off from the usual goods which causes pressure within families; regional elites who seek opportunities to lead emerging independent countries and capture financial resources; a mosaic riot of the lower classes, which in itself does not matter, but creates a background for the rebellion of the elites… All this infernal stew is already brewed. But it will heat up very slowly: unlike the Ukrainians, the Russians have not lived in a fast time over the last month.
- Putin is ready to escalate through nuclear blackmail or even through the local use of tactical nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (time flies, and the rebellion of the elite is becoming more likely, which will make nuclear escalation less likely, and Putin seems to feel this is closing the window of opportunity).
- In what seems most likely at the moment, Putin will try to implement an unrealistic scenario of positional warfare, just as he previously pushed an unrealistic blitzkrieg scenario followed by the next unrealistic scenario of Ukraine’s surrender under the pressure of total war.
The third point should be considered, because, unlike others, it has not yet been described in detail in previous articles.
As was mentioned before, we considered positional warfare unlikely: operational reserves for rapid war are exhausted, logistics were not put in place, and the reserves for total war (air jets, pilots, bombs, and missiles) are vast, but not limitless. But there is one more option, which can be called a “patriotic war”, an option based on King Solomon’s principle “there is nothing new under the sun”, or, in modern language, track dependence, i.e. repetition of scenarios in history due to the path and narratives it generates.
Often in Russian history, under the influence of propaganda, the Russian masses feel threatened by another civilisation (because for them the whole outside world is alien, hostile and incomprehensible) and die en masse for the preservation of their social system (note that in Russia the narrative “we were attacked by the West” is spreading actively). This is called the “patriotic war” in Russian historiography. This means that the military enlistment office will be filled to the brim with tens and hundreds of thousands of young Russians eager to defend their country from the USA, fighting with America on Ukrainian territory. We will see huge hordes of untrained, poorly equipped, poorly armed, hungry young Russian men poisoned by propaganda and sent to die on Ukrainian soil. As we know, for Putin the price of his victory over the West is irrelevant, expressed either in money or in the number of Russian lives. He will sacrifice all Russian youth (including university students, untrained cadets of military schools, and even teenagers younger than the conscription age – members of military organisations styled on Hitler-Jugend). The lack of youth will not be his problem, but a problem for the next generation. Throwing bodies at the enemy already happened during World War II, a war Russia considers a “patriotic war”.
Note that the scenario of “patriotic war” may not work if the poisoning of Russian society through anti-western propaganda has not yet reached a critical point (or if the Ukrainian efforts to break the Russian information cocoon of lies and denials would be successful). In this case we shall see the rise of anti-war movement and protests against conscription, soldiers’ mothers’ movement, etc. At the moment, Putin is testing the reaction, refraining from announcing an open mobilisation effort, but conducting it in several regions in secrecy.
And what about the hunger riots? The bulk of the Russian population is ready to endure hardships for a long time. For them the loss of modern e-services, global brands and travel is not critical, because they have not benefited from it anyway. Only 15 per cent of Russians have been abroad, and for most of them the dollar exchange rate does not directly affect living standards. As a stand-up comedian once said, “If you never lived well, you shouldn’t start to live well.” Only certain minorities can rebel.
The Russian army is stuck. That is why there will be more criminal attacks on civilians or suicide attempts to storm Ukrainian cities. But now the main strategy of Putin will be to try to dig in and bite off as much of Ukraine as possible, using the only advantage he has — the numbers. Within the framework of this strategy, there will be attempts to legitimise new “people’s republics” in occupied cities. If he cannot find quislings locally, he will bring in “locals” from Russia.
The biggest threat to Ukraine is depletion. Despite the deadly sanctions imposed on the Russian economy, they will actually come with a delayed effect of two to six months, and the main effect will be felt only in 2023. Instead, the Ukrainian economy is already suffering significant losses, not only due to destruction, but also due to the breakdown of supply and sales chains. Many businesses have relocated abroad or ceased to work completely. This is due a shortage of cadres (some people were conscripted, some are volunteering, while others are internally displaced or refugees abroad).
According to folk wisdom, “while the fat dries, the thin dies.” This is what Putin is counting on. “Death from a Thousand Cuts” is a classic strategy.
Ukrainian stocks are not limitless. We need weapons and ammunition, especially air-defence systems, war planes, anti-tank systems and armoured vehicles to continue the resistance. Ukrainians are ready for “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” as Churchill said. But we need weapons to fight.
Ukraine will defeat Putin, but it would be faster if you help. If the war lasts for too long, the costs of recovery would be enormous, primarily for Europe.
Putin’s regime will fall, maybe tonight, maybe in a few weeks, a few months or maybe in a year. The decline of autocratic regimes is a very slow process, until they suddenly fall apart. We do not know when this will take place. We have to prepare for the long road, but at the same time do everything possible to make it happen quickly. In any case, we still have to recover and modernise Ukraine (through a new Marshall Plan and Recovery Fund) and to ensure European and global security by internal transformations in Russia so that history will never repeat itself again.
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.
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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