TLDRUpFront: If Scenario #1 is most likely forecast through summer and fall – what contingencies could shift that forecast and another scenario? What is on the horizon in the long term for Russia and Ukraine?
Scenario 1, the most likely forecast for summer and fall, as long as contingencies don’t change.
Click here for InfoMullet forecasts of Summer/Fall scenarios for Russian-Ukrainian war.
Click here to scan InfoMullet coverage of 2022-Current Russian-Ukrainian War.
Click here for a single background post reviewing Ukrainian politics 2004-2019.
Click here for Historical Mullet coverage as it happened 2014-2015 during Euromaidan/Dignity Revolution and start of Russian-Ukraine conflict.
In the post listed above, I gave a forecast to the Russian-Ukraine War for Summer and Fall, which pretty much stays the same as the forecast I gave in March. Scenario #1, where Russia can hold about what it has now but cannot advance much further other than to round out holdings in Luhansk and Donbas and advance north the Zhapizro and N-15. However, they do not get much farther, nor can Ukraine significantly take away from that.
This post is about the contingencies that may change the Scenario #1 map by the end of the year. The most realistic contingency of all these is one that does not change the map from Scenario #1 but will adjust the tempo of conflict. That is mutual, if unstated, agreement by Russia and Ukraine to take an operational pause during the fall or winter. This would not be the same as a cease-fire because combat would still happen. It might look more like the preceding eight years of Russo-Ukrainian frozen war over the Donbas and Luhansk line of control. Periodic artillery – snipers, but no major movements or efforts to capture new territory.
What are some scenarios that may shift things to be closer to Scenario # or #3 by the fall?
Contingencies that shift towards Scenario #2
Scenario #2 in the mid-March forecast was Russian rounding out Donbas and Luhansk in the east and extending the land bridge to connect west to Transnisdisteria by occupying Mykolaiv and Odesa and taking a Chornobyl-based pocket in the north. I can think of only two contingencies right now that may result in something that looks like this by the end of the year: the western/NATO countries stopping resupply and Belarus entering the war.
Scenario 2 if certain contingencies favoring Russia emerge.
NATO/WEST STOPS RESUPPLY OF UKRAINE
First, if the west stops supplying Ukraine with equipment, that would be catastrophic to the conventional strategy. Ukraine can afford to lose heavy equipment against the superior Russian numbers because they have new equipment coming in from the rear. As mentioned above – the type and nature of capabilities NATO is supplying is increasing rather than decreasing.
A loss of that resupply could mean an expansion of Russian territory into Scenario #2, taking Mykolaiv and Odesa. However, I do not see them breaking out into larger gains than that. Both because Russia has not shown a capability to advance rapidly and even as Ukraine’s Armed Forces lost conventional capability, the resistance could easily shift to asymmetric capabilities. When you have access to MANPADs, Javelins, and Howitzers, there is no need to browse YouTube and assemble your IED. However, the knowledge is out there, and obtaining that capability at scale would be trivial for Ukraine.
Furthermore, against the untrained and lightly armored forces, Russia’s fighting with insurgencies can prove very effective. An insurgent conflict would get ugly fast as Russian retaliation would probably fall on the civilian populations within which insurgents and guerillas operated. However, it would bog down Russian forces limiting any advance other than perhaps Scenario #2. However, I do not see much chance of this contingency altering before the end of the year. Although economic hardship and talk of recession are growing in the west, there does not seem to be a Congressional or Presidential appetite for removing support. Any changes will likely be due to the mid-term elections and who gets sat in Congress in January 2023.
BELARUS ENTERS THE WAR
Another major contingency leading to Scenario #2 would be Belarus entering the war by opening a front in the northwest, invading along M19 towards Kovel and Lutsk. There have been rumors of this for months, and even if Belarus troops are not the best in the world (far from it), they will create a new two-front situation for Ukraine to manage. (Imagine the Chernobyl redoubt depicted in Scenario #2 shifting west to Lutsk.) However, the rumors have just been that. Belarus has shown no appetite to get any more involved than allowing Russia to stage its invasion on Belarusian soil in what has turned into a fiasco.
CHINA RESUPPLIES RUSSIA
The least likely contingency that shifts us to Scenario #2 is China agreeing to resupply Russian military losses at scale. I view this as extremely unlikely for a variety of reasons. China seems content to remain an at-arms-length ally of Russia diplomatically, rebuking most sanctions measures but not going any further. Also, again. Distance matters. In the United States, we put on the back page of the news updates where TRANSCOM lifted and shifted an entire combat brigade into Europe. That would be an exceptional feat for any other world power. China’s strategic transportation capabilities are focused on its near sphere of hegemony. It has never, to my knowledge, moved a full battalion of gear the 6,000km distance between China and Ukraine. Let alone a brigade’s worth. I am not sure they have that strategic airlift capacity to attempt it. Logistics are easier by rail. Whether by air or rail, China must gain concessions from the intervening countries along the route, which is probable given its regional economic and diplomatic heft. Also probable is that some of those railcars would arrive at the front with an amount of sand equal to whatever weight originally loaded into them. I analyzed some of these routes for resupply and retrograde in Afghanistan, and they are not secure from shrinkage due to theft and corruption along the way.
Contingencies that shift towards Scenario #3
Scenario #3 is where Ukraine forces can push Russia back to its pre-war lines of control, holding Crimea and parts of Donbas and Luhansk. This requires retaking Kherson and rolling back all gains on the land bridge, including retaking Mariupol.
Scenario #3 results when contingencies emerge that favor Ukraine or harm Russia.
There is talk of a major Ukrainian counter-offensive against Russian-held Kherson in the next month or two. Kherson is an urban area laying on either side of a river. Both of which favor the defender. We all know how tough Mariupol was for Russia to take. The Battle of Siverskyi Donets was a slaughter of Russian troops during an attempted river crossing. They lost over 80 vehicles and ~550 soldiers – and as the picture shows below, this was not a large part of the river.
Bird’s eye view of a Russian defeat in an attempted river crossing in the Battle of Siverskyi Donets.
Ukraine has not demonstrated maneuver capability at scale, and maneuvering to cross a river at scale is a next-level difficulty. Russia captured Kherson after six days of heavy fighting during the strategic shock phase. They combined land maneuver, air assault crossing with helicopters, and extensive airpower bombardments of Ukrainian positions. They have now had months to fortify Kherson with defenses that did not exist at the start of the war. If Ukraine attempts to take Kherson, it will be a grinding affair and could take months, despite being on home turf. However – if Russia has depleted its western forces for the fight in the east, or Ukraine can flank Kherson with a sustained and successful river crossing further east than Kherson, it may lead to a general collapse in this area that results in something looking closer to Scenario #2.
NATO AIRPOWER/NAVAL INTERVENTION
Very unlikely – but as pressure to open up ports for grain transport increases, or Russian attacks on civilian areas trip Rutt’s “atrocity threshold” [i], there are two NATO intervention options. The first would be establishing a no-fly zone over currently held Ukrainian areas or deploying NATO anti-ballistic capabilities in the west to “protect citizens from missile attacks.” More likely, as worldwide pressure to ease famine risks urges opening up Baltic ports – a Turkey-led and NATO-supported demining operation could force adjustment of Russian forces in the south. Both of these are very unlikely, given the strategic risks of moving up the ladder in escalation from Russia. Either could create conditions where Russia has to shift forces and priorities, allowing Ukraine to push to a Scenario #3 outcome.
Contingencies Outside the Theatre
Some of the contingencies I am watching now exist well outside the theatre of operations.
Farther north, there are worries of escalation, whether Lithuania blocking Russian train transports to the Kaliningrad exclave or Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Although a Russian military advance into the Baltics would be a “game-changer” on paper, it is difficult to pull off logistically. From Kharkiv, the closest Russian concentration of forces to Vilnius in Lithuania is ~1,200km, most of that through Belarus. That is assuming they had the troops.
In February, Putin wagered 70% of his overall ground forces in Ukraine, and he has lost that hand. Although Russia has reserved some air power from the meat grinder of Ukraine, its performance there does not bode well for taking on NATO airpower. Political and economic escalation is most likely, though whether that makes a noticeable difference against the background noise of existing tensions and sanctions is hard to say.
DIPLOMATIC PRESSURE OVER FOOD CRISIS
The final contingency at scale is diplomatic pressure from uninvolved countries suffering food crises. Both Ukraine and Russia are large producers and exporters of wheat. Whether the wheat is not getting out because of sanctions against Russia, or the ports of Ukraine are mined and guarded by the Russian navy – the wheat is not getting out. Worse, next season’s wheat is not even being harvested or planted in active combat areas, which is most of the breadbasket of Ukraine. The chain effect is that other bulk food exporters who worry about meeting their internal supply, like India, have also forbidden exports. As a result, famine is at high risk in many parts of the world. As this becomes apparent in summer and fall, there will be increasing diplomatic pressure to “do something” related to the war, allowing food shipments to resume. Wheat stores well – so opening up the ports of Odessa for UN-monitored grain shipments, or exempting Russian wheat from sanctions, would be two variations. I do not view this as likely because FarmAid only worked once – by and large, US, NATO, or even OECD populations generally care more about a handful of local deaths than tens of thousands in the distance. If diplomatic pressure on developing economies were able to create change at scale – we would have seen it by now. I fear that these countries’ suffering during famine will be another byline news article people scroll by while more focused on their local politics. However, on the off chance that some pressure does exert, it might be a contingency-changing scenario. It would take guarantees by most members of the UN Security Council, including China, to get to a deal, and that takes time.
Long Term Forecast for Russia and Ukraine
What happens after the winter? What does the world look like five years from now? That is a much more detailed discussion. Neither country is going to be doing well. It is hard to underline how different this conflict is versus anything we have seen in the last 20-30 years of largely asymmetric warfare. Two near-peer competitors throw half a million+ soldiers and their entire conventional kit at each other in a large and complex theatre of operations with plenty of modern built-up infrastructure, physical, economic, and communal, to wreck. The countries involved in that conflict will be wrecked for some time – even if they “win.” I sometimes struggle to find a good frame of reference for it without going back into the middle of the last century. Probably the Korean War is the closest I can think of off the top of my head. In the US, where we have preferred to fight our wars abroad, we would have to go back to the Civil War to understand the devastation that can inflict on a region.
If everything stopped today, it would still take decades for Ukraine to recover. Not just rebuilding of physical infrastructure torn apart during the war. There is also recovery and disposition of the missing and dead. Reconciliation of who did or did not do enough during the war and investigation of war crimes. Even something as basic as clearing minefields and unexploded ordinances could take decades of sustained efforts.
Russia is screwed. There is no evidence that Putin is at serious risk of removal, but he may be the leader who returned Russia to Asian hegemony after seven centuries. The combination of existing corruption, despotism, and accelerated forces unleashed by the war have Russia hurtling to become a client-state of China. Reliant on their good graces for access to economic markets, technology, and perhaps even military support. That implies a vast reordering of the balance of power along Russia’s enormous border, which a powerful Russian military has dominated for centuries. If Ukrainians armed with MANPADs and Javelin can thwart a full Russian invasion at its best – what will other countries on Russia’s border think they can chew off with what is left?
Putin has wrecked his military, strengthened the coalitions against him, and subjected his country to punishing economic sanctions – it is like he pulled a Versailles on himself. Furthermore, that may not be a great analogy because 20 years later, Germany came back to start World War II; 20 years from now is 2042, or six years after the Russian Constitution prohibits Putin from still being the leader.
Unless he changes that again as well.