- Author, Florent Parmentier and Cyrille Bret*
- Roll, The Conversation
1 hour ago
Credit, YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images
A Ukrainian soldier walks near Bakhmut on February 7, 2023 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine
The frontline confrontation may have ended, but the war in Ukraine continues. Hundreds of soldiers are killed and wounded every day in Bakhmut, a city Moscow sees as key to gaining control of the entire eastern Donbass region, according to US analysts.
This is the reality in Ukraine, almost a year after Russia invaded the country on February 24, 2022 to halt EU and NATO expansion in their sphere of influence in a display of “heavy metal diplomacy”.
Given the failure to predict war, is there any chance of foreseeing its development?
So far, the conflict has caused many military, diplomatic and strategic “surprises”. On the one hand, Moscow was surprised by the combat readiness of the Ukrainian armed forces and the EU and US support for Kiev.
On the other hand, Western foreign ministries also had to deal with blocked diplomatic channels at the United Nations and cautious support for Russia from China, India and several African countries.
Despite the series of Western sanctions aimed at turning Russia into an international pariah, Moscow continues to act with sovereignty. And the huge wave of Ukrainian migration to Europe has taken many Western capitals by surprise.
We assume that the conflict could be settled in three ways.
Scenario 1: Russia suffers a major setback
In the first calculated scenario, Russia launches a new offensive in Kiev as well as in Donbass and in the province of Kherson.
However, these attacks fail. Russia loses many men and much of the four illegally annexed provinces in September 2022. Moscow notes that it has not achieved its original strategic goal of regime change in Kiev. Ukraine recaptures Russian strongholds and advances into Crimea.
Several factors contribute to this Russian defeat. Domestically, mobilizing men is becoming more difficult as eligible citizens flee the country in droves. Command is struggling to train new recruits and the Defense Technical and Industrial Base (DTIB) is showing signs of exhaustion. Western sanctions remain tough as a crisis rages between leaders and the government.
In Ukraine, the success of this scenario depends on several factors. On the one hand, the country has weathered the ravages of war and is enjoying political stability ahead of parliamentary elections in the fall of 2023. European and American military aid is constantly arriving, and the Ukrainian army manages to maintain multiple fronts at once.
In December 2022, Chief of General Staff Valeri Zaloujny translated this success into numbers: 300 tanks, 600700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers.
At the international level, this hypothesis assumes that Russia will lose the position of strength bestowed on it by the rise in energy prices in 2022. This would require its buyers to find alternative sources of supply.
Credit, GENIA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images
Local residents receive food aid in the village of PosadPokrovske in the Kherson region on January 29, 2023 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine
In the longer term, this scenario would pave the way for a ceasefire and eventually genuine peace negotiations (which would not equate to a Russian victory). For Ukraine, there are no “negotiations” with victory; the country will return to its original borders, Russians will be charged with war crimes and will also pay damages.
However, if the Russian defeat is severe, domestic unrest could cripple the leadership and wreak havoc in Moscow, robbing the country of its ability to truly participate in negotiations. Russia would have to keep the war lost forever by maintaining an effective chain of command. Two difficult issues would be the fate of Crimea and NATO membership. In short, this scenario would be based on successful Ukrainian counteroffensives from August to November 2022.
Scenario 2: Russia achieves tangible successes
The opposite scenario envisages a series of military victories for Russia from the end of winter. The country recaptures most of the Kherson province, threatens Kiev directly from Belarus and advances towards Odessa. This result depends on several conditions the main one is the human and material exhaustion of Ukrainians.
On the Russian side, the Kremlin is succeeding in several areas where it failed until recently. Troops deployed in the fall of 2022 will be effectively trained and deployed tactically. Supply chains are supported on the three main fronts (North, East and South). Learning from the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russian army moved its logistics centers out of range of the USmade HIMARS missile.
Such achievements would result in a clear Russian victory in Ukraine, with consolidated illegal annexations in the east of the country and a proRussian government. Ukraine would lack the unity needed to rebuild the country.
For Ukraine, this worstcase scenario could materialize if several developments happen. First, the armed forces are severely strained and have problems with weapon supplies. We would also see a weaker Zelenskyy presidency, possibly under the pressure of an embezzlement scandal, a “peace party” or, conversely, nationalists demanding stronger power. The government may fail to maintain Western support or grow weary of Western interference.
Internationally, this scenario assumes a continuation of Russian energy exports to Asia and a pricing strategy by the gas powers. Moscow would make full use of its diplomatic networks and enjoy strong Chinese support given American influence.
Meanwhile, the influence of proUkrainian governments in Poland and northern European countries in the European Union would wane. For the storm to be perfect, an international development like a crisis in Taiwan would draw US attention.
Credit, ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images
Russian soldiers in Red Square in central Moscow in late September 2022
Scenario 3: Protracted war
A third outcome of this conflict may be the inability of either protagonist to gain an advantage over the other over a period of years.
This scenario could occur as the main front lines stabilize, as fighting continues to break out at locations of minor importance (road crossings, river locks, bridges). For example, Moscow could resume the offensive against Kiev with limited success and focus its efforts on consolidating Donbass.
On the other hand, Ukraine could try to extend its advantage south from Kherson to threaten Crimea. This scenario does not exclude intense battles and limited successes on both sides. This would not change the overall balance of the conflict.
Several factors can conspire to cause this situation. Western military aid may hit a “plateau” due to the state of stockpiles and the nature of weapons. Ukrainian combat readiness was able to be maintained without producing the spectacular effects of the end of summer 2022 due to a “learning curve” on the Russian side, especially in the articulation between the different armies.
On the Russian side, this may be due to the structural limitations of its military tool: tactical rigidity, poor logistics, overstretched fronts and supply chains, limited human resources, a culture of lies in public administration, etc.
Exogenous factors can also lead to military and diplomatic decay. Neither side is able to persuade its own people and allies to accept negotiations based on the current military balance of power. For Russia there was no clear success; For Kiev, territorial integrity has not yet been restored.
For Vladimir Putin, starting negotiations would be an admission of failure and would endanger him. For Volodymyr Zelenskyy, agreeing to the talks would mean resigning and losing the broad support he currently enjoys at home and abroad.
In this scenario, in 2023 Ukraine would become the scene of a new unresolved conflict in the postSoviet space.
*Florent Parmentier is Secretary General of the Center de Recherches Politiques de Sciences Po (CEVIPOF) and Professor at Sciences Po. Cyrille Bret is a geopolitics expert, also from Sciences Po.
This text was originally published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/articles/c9rddvlrw56o