Ukraine: three scenarios for the continuation (and the end?) of the conflict


Almost a year after the launch of the Russian military operation against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, what are the possible developments in the conflict in the months to come? The difficulty of forecasting is particularly marked for this conflict because the military, diplomatic and strategic “surprises” were numerous.

On the one hand, the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian forces, the soutien of the EU and the United States in Kyiv, the difficulties logistics et tactics Russian armed forces took Moscow by surprise. On the other hand, the resistance of the Russian economy to sanctions, the extent of Ukrainian migration to Europe, the blocking of UN authorities as well as the measured support of China, India and several African countries for Russia surprised Western chancelleries.

Three major scenarios are currently possible.

Scenario 1: a marked Russian setback

On the military level, the armed forces of Moscow would launch a new offensive on kyiv, as in February 2022, as well as the Don Basin (the Donbass, a large part of which is still under Ukrainian control today) and the province of Kherson in an attempt to achieve resounding success in the eyes of the Russian population .

But these attacks would fail. Russia would lose many men and a large part of the four Ukrainian provinces illegally attached to the Russian Federation in September 2022. She would find that her original strategic goal (regime change in Kyiv) had ended in failure. Ukraine would recapture Russian strongholds in the Don Basin and move towards Crimea.

Several factors could consecrate this Russian defeat. Domestically, the mobilization and training of reservists would come up against several limits: new flight of those mobilized out of Russian territory ; inability of the Russian command to effectively train new recruits ; depletion of the Russian Defense Technological and Industrial Base (BITD); rise in power of effects of western sanctions on the budget of the Federation; crisis in Russian ruling circles, particularly at the level of the Ministry of Defence.

In Ukraine, the realization of this scenario is subject to several conditions: the resistance of the Ukrainian presidency to the wear and tear of war, its ability to win the legislative elections of autumn 2023, the continuation of American military aid and European Union at a level compatible with the inevitable consumption of war materials on the battlefields, and the capacity to hold several fronts at the same time. Ukrainian Chief of Staff Valeri Zaluzhny expressed number of wishes in december : 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles, 500 howitzers for victory.

Finally, on the international level, this scenario assumes that Russia loses the position of strength conferred on it in 2022 by the rise in the price of energy products. This would require its customers to develop alternative sources of supply, which they have already started doing.

The horizon of this favorable scenario for Ukraine would be the opening of ceasefire and then peace negotiations.

However, if the Russian defeat is serious, internal political disorder could paralyze the leadership Russia and create chaos in Moscow depriving the country of the ability to really engage in negotiations. For such negotiations to be crowned with success, it would therefore be necessary both for Russia to consider the war as lastingly lost, and for it to maintain an effective chain of command. Two terribly hard points to deal with would be the fate of the Crimea and the future of the Ukraine's candidacy for NATO. In sum, this scenario would be the extrapolation of successful Ukrainian counter-offensives from August to October 2022.

Scenario 2: tangible success for Russia

The opposite scenario would consist of a series of military successes for Russia starting at the end of winter. For example, Russia would succeed in recapturing most of the province of Kherson, would directly threaten kyiv by penetrating its suburbs from the Belarus and would resume a marked south-westerly advance towards Odessa. The realization of this scenario would result from several hypotheses, the main one being the human and material exhaustion of the Ukrainian armed forces.

On the Russian side, this would suppose the success of several unsuccessful actions for the moment. In particular, the mobilization carried out in the fall of 2022 would be effective in terms of training and correctly used tactically. And Russian logistics chains would resist supply difficulties on three major fronts (North to kyiv, East in the Donbass and South towards Kherson). The Russian army has already had logistics centers more than 80 km from the front line, a distance beyond the reach of the HIMARS, drawing lessons from the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

These successes would lead to a clear victory for Russia in Ukraine: the illegal annexations in the east would be consolidated, the government in kyiv (weakened and possibly overthrown due to the Russian offensive) would emerge from peace negotiations and take a more or less openly pro-Russian, the west of the country would claim a strong autonomy with the support of Poland, etc. Russia's strategic objective would thus be achieved: to have a buffer zone with NATO.

On the Ukrainian side, this worst-case scenario could gain credibility if several developments are observed: wear and tear on the armed forces, insufficient number of new recruits, too great a diversity of international arms deliveries, causing difficulties in coordinating the various systems; weakening of the Zelensky presidency in the run-up to the autumn 2023 legislative elections under pressure from a “peace party” or, on the contrary, from nationalists demanding stronger power; inability to retain and increase Western support, for example due to strategic maximalism aimed at the complete defeat of Russia, the discovery of embezzlement or quite simply because of the “fatigue” of Western opinions and their desire to refocus on internal political issues.

On the international level, this scenario assumes that prices and exports of Russian energy products to Asia (China and India primarily); a pricing strategy on the part of the gas powers; a mobilization of Russian diplomatic networks to show that the country is only isolated in the West; strong support from China in the face of American influence; a loss of influence in the EU of the governments most favorable to Ukraine, particularly in Northern Europe (Finnish legislative elections in February) and in Poland (general elections in autumn 2023). Such a scenario would be favored by a crisis in Taiwan or the Middle East which would absorb the attention of the United States, already strongly polarized in its domestic politics.

Scenario 3: a conflict that gets bogged down

A third type of development for this conflict could be characterized by the inability of the two protagonists to gain the upper hand over the other over a period of several years.

It would manifest itself by a stabilization (violent and murderous) of the main front lines on the current positions but regular battles for localities of secondary importance, road nodes, river locks or bridges. For example, the Russian armed forces could be tempted to resume the offensive from the north towards kyiv with limited success and to concentrate their efforts on consolidating the parts of Donbass controlled or controllable by them.

For its part, Ukraine could try to push your advantage from Kherson to the south in order to threaten the Crimean bastion on the horizon of August 2023. This scenario does not exclude – far from it – intensive fighting, changes in areas of control and limited success on either side. But the general balance of the conflict would not be changed, with Russia continuing to control 15% to 20% of Ukrainian territory in key areas (Crimea, Donbass, Kharkiv region) and Ukraine demonstrating its ability to resist over the long term. term.

Several factors could combine to bring about this situation. A "plateau" could be reached in Western military aid to Ukraine due to the state of stocks and the nature of the armaments sent to the front. The Ukrainian combativeness could remain without producing the spectacular effects of the end of summer 2022 due to a "learning curve" on the Russian side, in particular in the articulation between the different armies and the other forces (militias Wagner, Kadyrovtsy).

On the Russian side, this status quo violence could occur due to the structural limits of the military tool manifested in 2022: tactical rigidity, deficient logistics, stretching of fronts and supply chains, limits of human resources, culture of lies in public administrations, etc.

Exogenous factors could lead to military and diplomatic decay. Neither of the two protagonists is in a position to convince its own population and its own network of alliances to enter into negotiations on the basis of the current military balance of power. For Russia, no indisputable success has been achieved; for kyiv, territorial integrity remains to be restored. Entering into negotiations would be an admission of failure for Vladimir Putin and would put him at risk. Accepting to discuss would be for Volodymyr Zelensky a renunciation which would cause him to lose the very broad support which he enjoys today inside and outside: another leadership should be put in place, and would probably be less concerned with compromise in because of the sunk costs of this war.

In this option, Ukraine would become in 2023 a new unresolved conflict of the post-Soviet space, but large. This would not prevent a hardening of hostilities, in particular against civilian populations or prisoners, quite the contrary.

Cyrille Bret, Geopolitician, Sciences Po et Florent Parmentier, Secretary General of CEVIPOF. Lecturer at Sciences Po. Associate researcher at the HEC Paris Center for Geopolitics, Sciences Po

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: Shutterstock/ SARYMSAKOV ANDREY

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