The Russia-Ukraine conflict: what is next?
Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has now reached an important point. While Kyiv continues to make steady progress on the battlefield, Moscow is attempting to shore up its defences for over the winter. The coming months will likely prove crucial to the outcome of the conflict.
On February 24th, Russia sent approximately 150,000 troops into Ukraine, thereby escalating the eight-year-long conflict. So far, the Russian aggression in Ukraine has resulted in seven million Ukrainian refugees, and six million internally displaced people. The number of those displaced equals the entire population of a country like Rwanda. Heinous crimes committed by Russia continue unabated, including the mass deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and occupied territories. And as we speak, Kyiv is under constant bombardment, marking a new phase in the Russo-Ukrainian War. It has been eight months since the February escalation. What are the main trends? More importantly, what can we anticipate in the months ahead?
Over the last few months, the Kremlin has done a fair amount of nuclear sabre-rattling. Yet, some experts are arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not have a serious nuclear option in Ukraine, even with regards to tactical nuclear weapons. For context, the two nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War had an explosive yield that equalled 15 and 20 kilotons of dynamite respectively. Most of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons have yields the equivalent of at least 100 kilotons of dynamite. There are multiple reasons for refraining from using tactical nuclear weapons, but the political backlash combined with the large-scale damage, as well as the possible NATO response, should suffice.
Furthermore, negotiations for a sustainable peace seem highly unlikely under current conditions. In September, Putin boxed himself in by signing “accession treaties” to formalise the illegal occupation of four Ukrainian territories – Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. It is difficult for public officials, especially dictators, to walk back from such bold proclamations. Moreover, Ukrainians, including ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, encouraged by recent wins on the battleground, are resolute on reclaiming all the occupied territories. A recent poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 85 per cent of ethnic Russian-speaking Ukrainians oppose any form of territorial concessions to Moscow. This pours cold water on Putin’s claim that the “Special Military Operation” was set in motion to “liberate” Ukrainians, especially with regards to ethnic Russians and Russian speakers.
That said, in the absence of negotiations, arbitration, nuclear options, or even a coup in the Kremlin, for the time being, war will remain the main conflict resolution tool available to Russia and Ukraine.
Russia weak, Ukraine resilient
In late February, Russian officials still assumed that Ukraine would fall in a matter of a couple of weeks. Until then, many analysts believed that Russia possessed the second strongest military force in the world, while Ukraine’s military was perceived as weak and disorganised. But the February escalation has exposed Russia’s decaying system while shedding light on Ukraine’s growing resilience.
Following Ukraine’s counteroffensive, which started in September, Russia now holds 19 per cent of Ukrainian territory, down from 27 per cent at its peak. The key reasons for the current facts on the battlefield relate to three aspects: Russian failures, Ukrainian resilience and adaptability, and western responses to the conflict.
Putin made a number of fundamental mistakes following the February escalation. In the immediate period following the escalation, Russian troops were scattered across four axes around Ukraine, which meant that they were stretched thin. This weakness allowed Ukraine to cut Russian troops off from key supply lines.
Furthermore, as argued by Michael Kofman, Director of Russia Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, any external invasion and occupation attempt requires substantial “manpower” (a masculine word but appropriate in the context of Putin’s displays of masculinity). This is especially true for Ukraine, a country that is nearly 40 per cent larger than Iraq. “The choice to not have much infantry in the force and build a military around a short-term war with NATO put the Russian forces in the worst possible position,” states Kofman. Only a fraction of the initial invasion force was the regular military. As the war has dragged on, it has become clear that the Russian military has a shortage of manpower, particularly a shortage of infantry, and is increasingly dependent on non-regular troops.
As such, over the course of a few months, the image of a cohesive Russian military increasingly gave way to a force made up of mobilised personnel from occupied regions of Ukraine and volunteers from across Russian regions used to fill in as volunteer battalion replacements. By September, Russia’s manpower problem was on full display when footage of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the supposed head of the notorious Wagner Group, emerged of him helicoptering into Russian prisons to recruit soldiers to do Putin’s bidding. That same month, Putin announced the “partial mobilisation” of Russian reservists in the hopes of filling the manpower gap.
Over the past eight months, Ukraine has proven its resilience and adaptability. It has been able to rapidly absorb western weapons and incorporate them into its ranks to defend Ukrainian land from Russian aggression. According to Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London, it was the fact that the Ukrainian forces showed resilience and their ability to fight and push the Russians back from Kyiv that encouraged NATO member states to provide unprecedented support to Ukraine early on. “What has been impressive in the later stages of the war”, argues Freedman, “is the seeming ease with which the Ukrainians have been using and integrating the different types of systems”. Ukraine’s clear motivation, knowledge of the terrain, early mobilisation, and strategic use of artillery to target ammunition dumps and command-and-control posts have been vital for their success.
That being said, one cannot underestimate how much western support for Ukraine has fundamentally changed the dynamics on the battleground. Support came in two forms: sanctions and weapons supplies.
Firstly, sanctions against Russia helped to weaken the economy significantly. Initially, a rise in energy prices helped Russia to weather tough sanctions, especially as China and India were able to import energy from Russia to make up for income losses. Still, those imports were simply not enough to compensate for what the Russian economy lost from western cuts. The International Monetary Fund estimated that the Russian economy could shrink by as much as six per cent by the end of the year.
Over the long-run, economic sanctions will not only put pressure on Putin at home to withdraw from Ukraine, but they will also make the sustainability of the war more challenging, thereby forcing him to reconsider his actions. In July, Russia adopted an amendment law that effectively transformed the Russian economy into a war economy. Moreover, sanctions are making it harder for Russia to import certain technological components necessary to replace some of the equipment that has been lost and damaged in Ukraine.
Secondly, the most immediate impact of western support for Ukraine came in the form of weapons supplies. By mid-October, western governments and international financial institutions have pledged close to 100 billion US dollars to Ukraine, and a large slice of that support came in the form of military aid. Javelins and man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) played a crucial role in helping the Ukrainians defend themselves in the first few months following the February escalation. Those weapons were effective, especially given their user-friendliness. Later on, the introduction of high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) became instrumental in helping Ukraine reclaim territories that were occupied by Russia.
Looking into the crystal ball
According to Mariia Avdeeva, Research Director at the European Expert Association, the series of Russian attacks on Kyiv starting on October 10th marks a “new phase” of the war. She argues that the new strategy lies in “constant and deliberate” strikes at critical Ukrainian infrastructure. Russian missiles and kamikaze drones are targeting electricity stations and water supplies, with Ukrainian authorities reporting that one-third of all Ukrainian infrastructure has been damaged. The highly imprecise nature of the Russian missiles means that residential areas around the key infrastructure are affected. Avdeeva argues that the renewed attacks against Kyiv aim to influence Ukrainian morale. Without heat, electricity and water, large Ukrainian cities will struggle to survive the upcoming winter.
Going forward, the key determinants will continue to involve the strength of the Russian military versus that of Ukraine. At the same time, it will be important to monitor the unified approach employed by NATO and other allies to (1) maintain sanctions against Russia, and (2) supply Ukraine with weapons needed to reclaim territories occupied by Russia and defend itself from ongoing bombardment.
The type of weapons needed is particularly important. Avdeeva states that in order to win the war, Ukraine needs to regain all occupied territories. This cannot happen without the supply of Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), which uses longer-range missiles. HIMARS have played a pivotal role in Ukraine’s counteroffensive so far, but long-range missiles are needed to break Russian supply routes in the occupied territories. Avdeeva also stressed that these types of weapons are critical for protecting civilians. Past scenes from Kharkiv and now in Zaporizhzhia show that the closer Russian troops are to the civilian population, the more intensively they attack these territories. The ATACMS, which can be launched by HIMARS, would be crucial for pushing the Russian military out of the occupied territories, protecting critical infrastructure, and saving innocent lives.
So far, NATO has been unwilling to supply Ukraine with ATACMS for fear that, in US President Biden’s words, it would lead to “World War III”. However, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe, thinks that the US is overestimating Russia’s willingness to widen the conflict.
War is full of pitfalls, and one must be wary of predictions based on how the war has gone so far. That being said, according to Michael Kofman, there are a host of scenarios that could play out in the coming months.
The first likely scenario is that Ukraine continues to make gains. Kofman stipulates that in the short term, the war could enter an “attritional phase during early winter (…), with less offensive manoeuvre operations”, and resume ground offensives in the later winter months. In the long term, Ukraine will retain the advantage if external support is sustained. This is not a given, however. Kofman argues that the rate of US weapons supplies in recent months, which proved critical in the successful counteroffensive period, may not be sustainable given the defensive-industrial capacity.
The second scenario is that Russia’s mobilisation efforts could succeed, they stabilise the lines and improve the situation coming out of winter. According to Kofman however, the mobilisation is unlikely to yield much strategic change for the Russian military for “at least another three to four months”. Moreover, even if mobilisation improves Russian force availability, this may only mean an extension to the length of the war. It does not necessarily mean it changes Russian chances in the conflict, which is a matter of economic sustainability and military motivation.
The final scenario that may play out in the coming months is an internal conflict within the Russian military and regime. Kofman pointed out that the mobilisation is occurring ahead of the winter months to “stabilise lines and ostensibly hold trenches”. If the deployment occurs without the right amount of equipment and level of support, demoralisation is likely. Although it is difficult to know what is happening inside the Kremlin, there are reports that Putin is being criticised by his former allies, the ultra-nationalists and hardliners. Lawrence Freedman similarly underscores that there is anecdotal evidence circulating online about “units being almost at the point of mutiny”. Freedman highlights that if logistics fail and decent supplies do not get to the new recruits, Russian troops will not be able to survive the winter.
Key for the future months will be how well the Russian state copes with the challenge of sustaining frontline forces in a country where it is not popular and not welcome.
Dr. Leon Hartwell is the Senior Advisor for the Central and South-East Europe Programme (CSEEP) at LSE IDEAS and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. @LeonHartwell on Twitter.
Julia Ryng is Project and Research Associate at LSE IDEAS and a PhD candidate in the Arts and Humanities Faculty at University College London. @juliaryng on Twitter.
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