What next after half a year of war?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has now entered its seventh month. Ultimately sapping both militaries of vital manpower and equipment, the conflict has effectively turned into a war of attrition. Several scenarios are now possible as the war looks set to continue into the autumn.
It has been a long time since we have offered analysis of the current realities of Russia’s war in Ukraine. For more than three months, hostilities have taken the form of positional warfare. As predicted, this phase of the war has been exhausting for both sides, but it has not brought Putin victory. Russia has failed again, just as it failed in rapid mobile war (blitzkrieg) and total war (scorched earth strategy). The Russian forces were not successful in achieving their set goals prior to the sacred date of May 9th (“Victory Day”) or the later deadline of June 12th (“Russia Day”). The Kremlin’s attacking capacity has been exhausted, and the war has turned into one of attrition. We offer several observations on the conflict at the moment:
1. As the war drags on, Russia’s military capability is gradually decreasing. Their commanders lack high-precision weapons, modern vehicles, and specially trained personnel like pilots and junior and middle officers. Instead, Russia tries to fight with “cannon fodder” (including convicts released to replenish the army) and old equipment taken from storage. Moscow’s military is now using plenty of old inaccurate missiles, artillery systems and shells that often do not explode. Particularly pressing issues for the Russian forces in Ukraine include logistics, command and control, fatigue and low morale among personnel. Soldiers are increasingly refusing to participate in operations and this is only causing further disunity in constantly shuffled units. Much publicised agreements with countries such as Iran aim to overcome issues regarding the supply of weapons and drones. However, they are limited in scope and are unlikely to significantly affect Russia’s military capabilities.
2. Ukraine’s military capability is improving, albeit slowly, as a result of western weapons supplies and training. The effectiveness of these weapons on the battlefield has shocked Russian forces. The motivation of the Ukrainian forces and of society as a whole to defend their territory remains very high.
3. The mass mobilisation of volunteers failed in Russia primarily due to the low level of civic activity among the Russian population and the unpopularity of the war. Despite enormous propaganda efforts, Putin failed to turn the war into a “patriotic war”, the threat of which we wrote about earlier. Economic and logistical problems have compounded the failure of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Mobilisation has been limited to the Russian regions. This in turn increases the future risk of rebellion among these national (and regional) battalions. Furthermore, Russia’s recruited mercenaries have shown themselves to be unprepared for high-tech warfare. The Kremlin seems unable to renew its troop complement of military technical specialists and of assault troops, who have suffered huge losses.
4. We contend that command and control at the middle level is becoming weaker not only in the army but also in local governance in Russia.
5. Russia needs an operational pause in order to build up its forces and prepare for the next stage of the war. In an effort to achieve such a pause, the Kremlin will continue to engage the West in blackmail, fostering nuclear, energy and food crises. Simultaneously, it will pursue efforts to secure a ceasefire that preserves Russian control over the occupied Ukrainian territories. Such a strategic pause could last several years.
The strategic goal of Russia at this current stage is to maintain the status quo with the maximum amount of captured territories. This will allow for an aforementioned strategic pause of several years (rearmament, search for allies, easing of sanctions, etc.) before the next stage of the war. For this goal, Russia wants to enter into negotiations with the strongest possible position.
Within this strategic framework the Kremlin has several options:
- Shifting the attention of world leaders to other theatres like the Far East, the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa, etc. by fostering instability there.
- Spreading fake information about the illegal export of weapons by Ukraine, manufacturing lies about Ukrainian war crimes, etc. The Kremlin will hope to undermine trust in Ukraine and as a consequence, disrupt or inhibit its weapons supplies.
- Formal annexation of the occupied territories in one way or another. This could possibly, but not necessarily, be “legitimised” by fake referenda in these regions.
- Continued nuclear, food and energy blackmail aimed primarily against the European Union. The Kremlin will hope that this will erode public support regarding Ukraine’s defence.
- Interfering in internal political processes in various countries and inspiring political crises (particularly tied to election cycles).
The strategic goal of Ukraine remains unchanged since February 24th, 2022. Kyiv hopes to free all its territories and people and ensure that Russia will never threaten both Ukraine and Europe again. Given the current battlefield situation, the pause that Russia seeks does not align with Ukrainian (or western) interests. On the contrary, Ukraine and the democratic world must achieve a military victory. This will enable deep changes in the Russian political system that will ultimately ensure global security and prevent future wars.
Within this strategic framework, Ukraine must reach the following operational goals:
- Strengthening relations with international partners regarding the supply of weapons, financial assistance, secure grain exports, and the start of recovery and modernisation programmes.
- Carrying out successful military operations in the south, which will make Putin’s defeat obvious to Russia’s elites. At the same time, the bulk of the Russian population is so dependent on propaganda that any defeat could be explained to them as something else. For example, the Russian retreat from Kyiv and the north of Ukraine was presented as “an act of goodwill”.
- Countering Russian fake information and presenting the truth to the Russian elites. This will encourage internal splits and sabotage.
The possible scenarios for the coming months are defined by three parameters:
1. The success or failure of Russian efforts to divert the West’s attention away from Ukraine; fuelling mistrust in relations between Ukraine and the West and the slowing of arms supplies.
2. The success or failure of Ukrainian and Russian military operations in the south of the country.
3. The stability and efficiency of the power system in Russia, which is now faced with pressure from an economic downturn, a stream of bad news, and various personal threat to the Russian elites including punishment of real or imagined perpetrators of failures.
Based on the above, we see the following possible scenarios for the coming autumn months.
Scenario 1: Slow down
As a result of western attentions turning to events in other theatres and/or a successful Russian information operation undermining the West’s trust in Ukraine, deliveries of military equipment are slowed down. Russia gets its much-desired operational pause to build up its forces and an opportunity to increase military, economic and political pressure. The Ukrainian economy does not receive enough resources for support and subsequently faces a recession and hyperinflation.
Scenario 2: Squeeze
Successful Ukrainian pressure on Russian defence lines in the south, well-aimed strikes on logistics targets and command centres, the disruption of supply lines and weak Russian management all lead to military failure and roll back.
Scenario 3: Counterattack
Russia gathers its forces and disrupts the Ukrainian offensive in the south. Ukrainian troops withdraw and there is a pause.
Scenario 4: Rebellion
As a result of numerous problems and defeats, the management system in Russia begins to face serious issues. The Russian leadership must switch attention to internal problems. Russian troops are subsequently withdrawn to positions that are easier to defend.
All of these scenarios eventually result in negotiations, the progress of which will depend on the real position of the front line and the level of western support for Ukraine. This includes the degree to which Kyiv’s allies are able to weather the consequences of energy and food blackmail, as well as the Kremlin’s attempts to encourage internal instability. Once again, the state of the management system in Russia will also play a key role here.
Russia’s goal in the negotiations will be to sign, with western pressure on Ukraine, an agreement that fixes the demarcation line and gives it a strategic pause for several years to strengthen its forces.
Ukrainian society is absolutely not ready to suspend military operations. This is not because of a desire to fight for territory in particular but instead an awareness of the unspeakable suffering of Ukrainian people living under Russian occupation. Murders, rapes, torture, kidnapping, hostage taking, looting and concentration camps have all been documented in these areas. Every day under Russian occupation brings suffering, and this fuels the Ukrainians’ desire to free their people as soon as possible. In addition, there are important economic reasons to free southern Ukraine, including the unblocking of seaports for grain export. This will ensure a trade balance and prevent a Russian-instigated food crisis. Nuclear security is also important in this region, as the largest nuclear power plant in Europe (Zaporizhzhia NPP) is now occupied and ready to be used for nuclear blackmail.
These factors outline all of the possible operations over the coming months. Russia will use all of its military, diplomatic, media, economic and intelligence power to blackmail the West and force a pause on convenient conditions. At the same time, Ukraine will do its best to push back the Russian forces and free its people.
As distasteful as it may sound, Russian attempts to negotiate a ceasefire must be resisted. Ukrainian forces must be armed sufficiently to “squeeze” (see scenario two) the Russian military out of the south of the country. A successful defeat of the Russian forces in Ukraine by the end of the year will surely undermine the Putin regime enough to facilitate its collapse. The subsequent transformation of Russia could ultimately ensure European and world security.
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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