18.11.22 War Analytics

Sixteen Scenarios and Five Triggers

What will determine the course of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict?

Following the successes of Ukraine's Armed Forces, on the one hand, and Russia's mobilisation on the other, analysts are increasingly interested in the question: what next? In recent weeks there have been a number of attempts to describe different scenarios for the continuation and end of the conflict. There is an agreement among analysts  that the outcome largely depends on whether the West supplies Ukraine with adequate weapons to offset the increased number of Russian troops; whether Russia can succeed in turning the mobilised corps into an organised and cohesive army; how much damage the Russian bombardment has done to Ukrainian infrastructure before the start of winter;e how effective the Kremlin's threats of escalation are; and how strong the Putin regime itself remains.
After the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson, a Ukrainian military victory  has begun to look more probable than it did at the beginning of the conflict, but the United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley was quick to temper any overenthusiasm, saying that Russia's military potential should not be underestimated and that an end to the war would most likely be achieved by diplomacy. Indeed, a further offensive by the Ukrainian army looks unlikely in the near future. The Kremlin has managed to mobilise significant forces, which it had been lacking in recent months, and Ukrainian critical infrastructure has been severely damaged before the start of the coming winter. The future course of the conflict is becoming increasingly unpredictable, and the discussion of its possible trajectories is becoming more and more intense. In recent weeks, financier and publicist Andrei Movchan, editor and military analyst at The Economist Shoshan Joshi, and Bloomberg journalist and analyst Leonid Bershidsky have offered their own sets of scenarios for the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Joshi outlines three main scenarios for the end of the military conflict; Leonid Bershidsky proposes five, and Andrei Movchan offers eight. However, they all follow the same logic and operate with similar twists and turns. In Joshi's first basic scenario, Russia has a clear advantage on the battlefield through effective mobilisation and powerful attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, as such it is able to capture the most important industrial cities and areas of Ukraine: Kryvyi Rih, northern Kherson, Sloviansk, and Kramatorsk. This scenario might become more realistic if Republican pressure on the US government to limit military supplies and aid to Ukraine increases. 

Andrei Movchan believes that this course of events would result in "peace in exchange for territories". Kyiv would have to accept the annexation of four Ukrainian regions in exchange for a cessation of the war and permission to join the EU and NATO, which would guarantee Ukraine an effective defence against future Russian aggression. An even more negative version of this scenario proposes that  Ukraine might be weakened on the battlefield and unable to resist coercion by its allies, and would also not receive security guarantees , which would in effect mean a Russian victory in the war. In this case, however, there would be no easing of sanctions, Movchan believes, and the further evolution of the Russian regime according to Iranian or North Korean models would be inevitable. The Kremlin would prepare for a new war and, after a while, woulddefinitely launch another offensive against Kyiv. However, the probability of this outcome is low — both Joshi and Movchan agree that Russia does not have enough resources to achieve a decisive victory.

Joshi's second basic scenario assumes that the Ukrainian army will maintain its advantage and continue its offensive, while the Russian army will fail to overcome the problems that have plagued it since the start of the war — inefficient management of troops, poor morale, and discipline. According to Movchan, this scenario is more plausible if the Ukrainian Armed Forces use the advantages they possess in the areas of equipment and supply systems to launch a sudden winter offensive along several fronts, and in particular,if they are able to cut off the land corridor to Crimea. This would lead to negotiations, where the primary issues would be a ceasefire and a long-term non-aggression agreement. Such a scenario might involve a return to the situation as it was on February 23, 2022, or even the complete liberation of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Russia, of course, would not be able to recognise these borders as amendments to the Russian Constitution have already been made, but it might be able to make some decisions that would allow it to put this issue on hold. This mirrors similar decisions that Ukraine is making regarding Crimea. 

The editor of The Economist is more wary of this possible trajectory: in his opinion, the success of the Ukrainian army will lead to Putin giving another nuclear ultimatum, and demanding a stop to the offensive. Movchan also considers this a possibility. Fearing a winter attack by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and under the yoke of an economic and social crisis, the Russian authorities might resort to a nuclear scenario, which would have dire consequences and push NATO to the brink of a retaliatory response. However, there is no certainty that NATO would use its military capabilities in this case: "No Western political leader, and above all Joe Biden, seems to be inclined to take the extreme risks necessary to put NATO troops into action," Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky writes. Russia, on the other hand, would find itself in a serious crisis if it were to use nuclear weapons and would cease its attacks for a while.

Bershidsky believes that a Ukrainian victory on the battlefield is not only unlikely but also incapable of leading to long-term peace. "Ukraine's success in regaining its territories is not a long-term solution... Even if Ukraine's victory is secured by some kind of peace agreement, Russia will not abide by it — just as neither side has abided by the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements," he writes.

All three agree that the third scenario, a military stalemate following the liberation of Kherson, is the most likely outcome. Neither side has the resources for a successful offensive at this time. The Russian regime is unable to increase the effectiveness of its army and does not have sufficient weapons, discontent is growing in society, and economic sanctions are beginning to be felt. Ukraine is receiving enough weapons from the West to counter the Russian army’s increased size, but not to break through its defences. The number of casualties in Ukraine is rising, economic problems are becoming overwhelming, and the West is growing generally tired of the conflict and may be running out of resources to actively support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The conflict is becoming frozen. "As the situation "freezes," the Kremlin will not need to " announce" anything to its domestic audience, no matter how many years the "cease-fire" lasts, it will be officially presented as a tactical pause," Movchan predicts.

If events were to develop in such a way, the parties would be forced to engage in non-public negotiations (Bershidsky calls this scenario the "Secret Deal"), where they would agree that the territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and Crimea would partially remain under Russian control, while Ukraine would receive the right to join NATO and the EU or at least to develop its army and arm itself with their help. The parties would have to make real commitments to prevent military provocations. If the war were to end in this way it would not be perceived as a victory by either the Ukrainian or Russian people, but it would allow Ukraine to recover and Russia to improve its relations with the West and to achieve partial relief from sanctions. 

The most unpredictable option, according to the experts, is the scenario in which Putin leaves his post due to his natural death, a popular uprising, a conspiracy by the Russian elites etc.  However, it is difficult to go into more detail regarding potential events within this framework because of the likelihood that as a result of such a scenario, power would pass to the "hawks". "A democratic revolution is less likely than a seizure of power by a group that would have the same aspirations as Putin, or might take an even more hawkish stance," Bershidsky writes. There is no group of Russians, whether they remained in the country or left, who has the will, determination, and broad support necessary to coordinate a successful uprising or coup d'etat. So even Putin's "demise" would not necessarily lead to rapid regime change, or the end of the conflict. 

In general, the details of each of these potential scenarios may not be as important as the conclusions we might be able to glean when comparing them. They all operate with a certain common set of triggers that allow for a switch from one scenario to another. The most significant of these is the Ukrainian army armaments trigger: which weapons will Ukraine receive from its Western partners and will these be enough to counter Russia's relatively successful mobilisation? The second trigger is the disorganisation of the Russian army: will the Russian command succeed in overcoming the problems that have haunted it since the beginning of the war — disorganisation, poor coordination, and discipline of the troops? The answers to these two questions will determine who gains a relative advantage on the battlefield. 

The third trigger is that of Ukrainian infrastructure: how critical will the destruction of Ukrainian facilities be in the coming winter? The fourth is that of nuclear escalation: how effective will the Kremlin's nuclear blackmail be, in other words, will it result in the limitation of arms supplies to Ukraine or stop a possible offensive by the Ukrainian army? Finally, the fifth trigger which might result in a change of scenarios is the stability of Putin's regime: how will the deteriorating economic situation, internal elite conflicts, and growing mass discontent affect the domestic situation? The answers to these five questions set the stage for all three sets of scenarios, which develop along essentially the same paths, but with varying degrees of detail.