What next after two months of war?
The war in Ukraine is now entering a new phase. Whilst Russia has previously attempted to gain control over entire Ukraine and occupy the capital Kyiv, it is now focused on achieving a narrower “victory” in the Donbas. The outcome of fighting in this region will prove decisive as to the future of the war and to European security more broadly.
In our previous publication on April 4th, we considered various war scenarios following Putin’s failed “blitzkrieg”. The initial blitzkrieg scenario failed because Ukrainian resistance was much stronger than anyone (particularly Putin) predicted. Then, Russia turned to a total war (“scorched earth”) strategy similar to what was tried in Syria and Chechnya. This involved the indiscriminate bombing of urban areas, generating massive human suffering and displacement. Such a strategy aimed to force Ukraine’s quick surrender in the face of enormous civilian losses. However, it also failed. These events, as well as the horrors of Bucha and Mariupol, only strengthened Ukraine and the West’s resolve to repel Russia’s invasion. As predicted, Putin has now turned to a “positional war” scenario.
A few words need to be said about the failure of the total war strategy. Ultimately, it could not have been successful with just missiles and bombs. To succeed, Putin needed to field large numbers of motivated ground troops and mobilise the majority of Russians around the cause of “patriotic war”. Although Moscow has quietly attempted to recruit reserves and volunteers, as well as to launch a “patriotic war” propaganda campaign over the past two weeks, support for voluntary participation in the Kremlin’s war has proved problematic. The idea that all young people must go to Ukraine to defend their country from the US and NATO was met with passivity and scepticism by the Russian public. This is possibly because Ukrainians broke the information blockade regarding the casualty rates and information about what Moscow’s forces are actually doing (including their atrocities in Bucha, Mariupol and elsewhere) became known in Russia. It became impossible to hide the fact that something is not going according to plan in Ukraine after the sinking of the Moskva missile cruiser and the arrests of some top commanders and intelligence officers.
Over the past month, the Kremlin has gradually changed strategy. Russian forces still in Ukraine have continued their “scorched earth” tactics, unleashing a war of terror on multiple urban centres and in particular Mariupol and Kharkiv. They have also attacked Lviv and smaller towns, where indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets has continued without significant ground advances. Meanwhile, in cities in the occupied southern regions (e.g., Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk), Russian forces have given up any pretence of tolerance for pro-Ukraine demonstrations. This has been replaced with mass arrests, the kidnapping of activists, incidents of torture, mass murder and worse. All of these have only served to strengthen Ukrainian resolve.
Transition to “positional war”
The most likely course of events over the next few weeks in Ukraine involves a Russian attempt to switch to a strategy of positional war. However, this approach is built on just as much of a false premise as the previously attempted blitzkrieg and total war strategies. Whilst the previous two strategies failed because they were based on an unrealistic assumption that Ukrainians would quickly surrender under massive Russian pressure, the new approach proposes that the Kremlin can simply field more and more forces in the Donbas in order to establish a favourable position. This position is one that can be declared “victorious” and/or one that significantly weakens Ukraine at an economic, political, and diplomatic level.
In its official statements, the Kremlin has increasingly de-emphasised the “denazification” and “demilitarisation” of Ukraine as goals of the “special military operation”. Instead, Moscow is now emphasising its support for the “independence” of the fake Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics”. Furthermore, Russian propaganda has focused on justifying the effective annexation of southern Ukrainian territory. For example, it has discussed establishing a land-bridge to Crimea and Transnistria. The “battle for Donbas” is therefore not just about the Donbas, but also about territorial expansion.
This battle is now ongoing. Tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have been fielded to various fronts in Ukraine’s eastern regions in an effort to gain a positional advantage. Few breakthroughs have been successfully achieved so far. On the other hand, Ukrainian forces throughout the region are in a defensive posture, and no significant counterattacks have yet occurred. Both sides seem to be maintaining their positions without advance.
The scenario we are witnessing is a classic positional war, more similar to the battles of the Second World War than the rapid manoeuvres of the first weeks of Russia’s invasion. In positional war, attrition, logistics, weapon quality and morale are all important factors affecting success. The pace of advance is slow and cautious.
However, the lack of movement on the numerous fronts throughout Ukraine’s east and south cannot last forever. We see three possible scenarios unfolding in the immediate future:
1) Many believe (including the authors of this article) that the Soviet-era holiday marking the Red Army’s “victory” in the Second World War on May 9th is a sacred day for Putin. According to his plan, Russian troops should have advanced enough to control all of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts by this date. They should also control all of the besieged city of Mariupol and secure the proclamation of the “Kherson People’s Republic” through a fake referendum in the occupied city. If all of this can be achieved, Putin will then turn to peace negotiations to secure his new “achievements” and use the subsequent ceasefire to prepare the next stage of his invasion.
This scenario involves a quick Russian victory in the Donbas, followed by the freezing of the war for some time in preparation for the next phase of aggression. This will likely occur at some point next year. The question of victory in the long run will largely depend on each side’s ability to minimise economic decline. The Russian war machine, suffering from sanctions, will try to find ways to circumvent these restrictions. Ukraine will continue to ask the West for weapons to improve its defensive capabilities. However, the country is facing a number of economic problems. This includes the destruction of Ukrainian metallurgy, damaged infrastructure, intensifying social problems, the blockade of seaports as major channels to export agricultural products and steel, a cut in the IT industry and outsourcing, and the relocation of over ten per cent of enterprises abroad. All of these problems will lead to a significant economic downturn with strong negative effects on security in the region, and more specifically on world food security.
2) If the current Russian offensive in the Donbas fails by May 9th, Russian forces will take a step back and shorten the contact line in order to effectively manage their forces. In this case, some occupied cities will be freed and Putin will try to use negotiations to win time to rethink his strategy. He will also gather more resources as he did after the failure of the Kyiv offensive. This scenario is obviously the most appealing for Ukrainians. However, any pause in the war initiated by Russia will only be temporary. Official Russian military doctrine encourages commanders to “escalate to de-escalate”. It is therefore highly unlikely that Moscow will agree to any long-term cessation of hostilities as long as other options exist. Ukraine currently does not have sufficient weaponry to fully repel the invader from its internationally recognised territory (now a political requirement of Kyiv), so this scenario is not seen as likely.
3) The positional war in the Donbas and in Ukraine’s south could potentially continue for several weeks or months (throughout the summer) if neither side can achieve a significant victory. This situation could also occur if Putin chooses not to act decisively by the May 9th “deadline”. Moscow’s actions will largely depend on whether or not sufficient “patriotic” anti-Ukrainian and anti-NATO fervour can be generated within Russia to justify a longer campaign.
However, Russia does not have enough human resources and technical capability to maintain a true positional war with a deep defence and high-density troops for an extended period. Any front line stretching from Kharkiv to Kherson (more than 1000 kilometres) would be extremely difficult to maintain, particularly given the logistical problems already demonstrated by the Russian army during this war. The Ukrainian forces are primarily defensive and employ “raider” tactics. As a result, they will have an advantage in any such low-level positional war so long as weapons continue to arrive from the West. Moscow’s rocket attacks have recently prioritised Ukrainian logistical targets (railway junctions and petroleum refineries). However, they are often inaccurate and unlikely to affect Kyiv’s combat capabilities (as long as western military support is maintained).
In previous publications, we suggested that the next stage of the war could involve nuclear blackmail or even the use of a tactical nuclear weapon against a Ukrainian city or logistics hub. This is possible in all scenarios as a means of ending a positional war. Such a course of action needs to be considered since “Not Thinking the Unthinkable Doesn’t Make It Go Away”. However, we believe that the use of a nuclear weapon on a NATO country is unlikely since Putin needs to intimidate the West, rather than actually engage it militarily. Nevertheless, any (even limited) nuclear strike would require a coordinated or individual response from the world’s other nuclear powers (France, the UK and US). British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already announced that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia in the current conflict will necessitate an immediate response by the UK.
Although it is very difficult to accept due to the extreme fear of nuclear war that has been fostered across the world for generations, a robust western response to any Russian attempts to employ nuclear blackmail would (ironically) result in a drastic reduction of the total number of casualties in this war. As distasteful as such an option may be for readers not directly affected by the current war, a principled stance (i.e., a direct and equivalent response) will lead to a rapid and final dismantling of Putin’s authoritarian regime in Russia. This is because it will demonstrate its ineffectiveness. Both the West and Ukraine need to ensure global security, which will be irrevocably undermined if nuclear blackmail is tolerated. We described a possible “7D Plan” roadmap for rebuilding Russia in our previous article.
Whose side is time on?
It is uncertain which side in the war will gain most from dragging out its conclusion. In other words, who is more in a rush to win: Ukraine or Russia? Prolonging the war for Ukraine means more deaths, the depletion of already exhausted supplies, economic stagnation and growing fatigue. But day by day the West sends weapons that dramatically improve Ukraine’s defensive capabilities and chance for future counterattacks into occupied territory. Prolonging the war for Russia means more dead service members (although Putin seems to care more about resources than human losses), more destroyed weapons and military equipment, a lack of supplies, declining morale, increased pressure from sanctions, growing discontent, and the increasing possibility of an elite rebellion.
Putin launched the current offensive in the Donbas in haste. Not all the Russian troops that had previously been withdrawn from the north of Ukraine have had time to reach their new positions in the east of the country. Certainly, they were not given time to rest or integrate reinforcements. A mandatory conscription campaign has not been declared in Russia, while the voluntary conscription campaign (“patriotic war” scenario) has already failed. Moscow has gathered troops wherever possible, and Russia’s generals have launched the Donbas offensive without proper preparation.
Their haste seems justified for two reasons. Firstly, every day makes the Ukrainian army stronger. Heavy weapons supplies to Ukraine from the West are ongoing and intensifying, while the quantities of arms provided are unlikely to diminish any time soon. Secondly, like all Russian leaders, Putin has an irrational love for special dates and May 9th is particularly symbolic.
We therefore believe that the current positional battles in the Donbas will be decisive for the future outcome of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The result of these engagements will also likely be known by early May (i.e., within the next two weeks). Whereas during previous phases of the war the initiative and agency to defend rested with the Ukrainians, as the conflict progresses the role of the West will only increase. Kyiv’s allies will remain its main source of critical weaponry and primary deterrent against nuclear blackmail.
In the medium-term perspective, the position of the East (India and China) and the course of events inside Russia will only grow in importance. We will cover these issues in our next piece.
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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