One scenarios is that the war becomes an interminable frozen conflict, with neither side being able to change the status quo.
Almost a year of war with no clear signs of how it could end. A war which no one really believed would take place; and when it did break out, expected to be done and dusted in a week, still rages on inconclusively. From the initial heady days of the invasion on 24 February 2022, to the determined resistance by the Ukrainians which halted each of the Russian thrust lines, to the slow occupation of the Donbas, and then the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the northeast and the south, which has recovered vast swathes of occupied territory, the war has seen many twists and turns. The offensive pushed Russia on the back foot, more so since it has claimed the provinces of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk as “Russian territory” after the “referendum” held there. The war entered another phase and where could it go from here?
After months of war, both armies are exhausted and depleted. The continual attrition has taken a toll on men and equipment, even though Ukraine has received aid and trained reservists to make up their losses and Russia’s partial military mobilization would make another 200,000 or so conscripts available to fill their tired and ragged lines. With winter setting in and then the melting snow and slushy ground of spring—the dreaded Rasputina—there would be a pause around November or so till around March. Both sides will make maximum gains and perhaps even bring the war to a conclusion before that. But it seems difficult. It will be a long war, akin to the titanic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union from 1941 to 1945, that moved from one extreme to the other. It is difficult to predict the timelines or even the manner in which the war could end. But let us explore some of the likely scenarios.
Russians launch a renewed offensive to attain their military aims.
After months of sustained action, the Russians have taken over most of the Donbas and the southern regions—including most of Luhansk and Donetsk and virtually the entire coastline along the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian counter-attacks have pushed them back from some of the occupied territories, but they still hold 15% of Ukrainian soil, which they consider as their own. The Russian war machine is weakened but still a formidable force. The Russians could consolidate and launch a fresh offensive with fresh troops or the infusion of around 200,000 recently mobilized conscripts (which will be available later). They could try to regain the lost areas of the Donbas, perhaps go back again towards Kharkiv in the northeast. They could even push ahead in the south towards Odesa, the one vital port on the Black Sea which the Ukrainians still hold. The capture of this port would block all Ukrainian access to the sea and also give the Russians the launchpad to develop operations further west towards Moldova. Here they could take over the Russian speaking areas of Transnistria in much the same way they took over the Donbas. Should they achieve this, they would attain their original aim of gaining control of a swath of land over 200 kilometers deep from Kharkiv to Odessa, block Ukraine completely from the sea, and make it land-locked and dependent on Russia for all future trade.
The Russians could also launch a fresh thrust towards Kyiv from Belarus, along the same axis that they had used in the initial days of the war and strike the nerve center of Ukrainian resistance and political leadership. After all Belarus is still a staunch Russian ally, and troops are still positioned on its soil. A thrust towards Kyiv, even if not fully successful, will divert Ukrainians from their own offensive in the east and south, and enable Russia to hold on to their gains there, consolidate the hold on the occupied areas, and push the Ukrainians back on the defensive.
LIKELIHOOD: This is the end state Putin would have desired when he set out on the war. The gains they made in the east and in the south have come over months and at huge cost. While Russia has had reverses in both the northeast and the south, they can hold on. The generals are under pressure to show some results, and perhaps with the infusion of additional troops—maybe additional divisions on the Siberian border (which were used by the Soviet Union in December 1941 to drive the Germans back from Moscow) they do have the capability to launch a fresh offensive. Perhaps even Kyiv could be a likely target, and the recent pounding of the city shows a renewed focus there. The likelihood of a renewed Russian offensive is high, though one cannot predict the gains it could make, or in what time frame
A successful Ukrainian counter offensive pushes the Russians back into their own territory.
The Ukrainian offensive has made sizeable gains both in the east and in the south. Buoyed by their success, and replenished with western arms and freshly trained reservists, the Ukrainians could continue their offensive to recapture the lost cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia and the crown jewel, Mariupol, in the south. This would push the Russians back into the Crimea, but evicting them from there would be virtually impossible. Concurrently, they could continue operations to retake the lost areas of the Donbas, by launching a pincer movement from the south from Mariupol and in the north from Kharkiv. Like the Russian advance to capture these areas, their movement of the Ukrainian forces to recapture these territories could be slow and tortuous, since the Russian positions there are held by frontline troops who are well supplied and equipped. However, they will be able to inflict continuous attrition on Russian positions and logistics by long range strikes, which they seem to have mastered.
Should the Ukrainians attain decisive gains in the south and east, they could even reach the Russian frontier. That would put them within reach to strike Russian bases at Smolensk and Belgorod, hampering resupply to all Russian troops inside Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian aim of getting the Russians back to the pre-2014 boundaries (less in Crimea) would thus be attained. It would of course, provoke a massive retaliation from Russia, in the form of air and missile attacks across Ukraine, but in spite of increased nuclear threats, hopefully more balanced minds within the Kremlin will ensure that it stops short of using nuclear weapons. This military defeat could increase the unrest within the population, especially as news from the front percolates through increased casualties. As more and more fingers point towards Putin and his handling of the war, he could be removed in a palace coup (though he could be still propped up as a face to show a united front, but with his powers severely curtailed). This could lead to a negotiated solution in which Russia moves all its troops back across the border, but is permitted to hold on to Crimea. Ukraine renounces its aim to join NATO, and defers its intention to join the European Union, thus providing a face-saving exit to Russia and a negotiated end to the war.
The flip side to that, of course, is that Russia will resort to nuclear weapons in case of severe military reverses. That would change the entire complexion of the war.
LIKELIHOOD: Although this is the most desirable end state, the ability of the Ukrainian forces to retake all the lost areas is a little “iffy”. In spite of the flow of weaponry which the West helpfully provides to keep the war going, they too have been severely weakened after months of war. The Russians have developed strong defensive lines and fortifications along the depth areas which they have occupied which will be very difficult to overcome. Also, there is a fear that the Ukrainian counter offensive could get over-extended and thus vulnerable to a counter stroke. A complete Ukrainian victory, in the near term, at least, could be difficult.
The war becomes an interminable frozen conflict, with neither side being able to change the status quo. Both sides dig in along the positions they hold which becomes the Line of Contact.
In spite of being pushed back by successful counter-offensives, the Russians have been able to hold on along the line of the Seversky Donets River in the east and the Dnipro and Dnieper rives in the south. They have good defensible positions which are well fortified, and can hold on indefinitely. On the western bank of the rivers, the Ukrainians too have done the same to prevent further Russian advances in the east or in the south. There could be a stalemate along the line held by Russian and Ukrainian troops along which low intensity fighting could continue interminably.
The same situation exists in the Donbas since 2014. Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces have occupied defensive positions opposite each other along a line which is called the Line of Contact. Low level fighting, artillery duels and raids have continued for over eight years, but the line remained largely static. A similar Line of Contact could come up along the line of the territories that Russia has annexed, and now calls its own. Since Ukraine will never accept it, the fighting would continue but with neither side really able to change the status quo. This LOC would become the dividing line not only between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and the rest of Europe as well.
LIKELIHOOD: This seems to be the most likely scenario. Both sides already seem to be preparing for it by occupying defences along geographical lines in both the south and east. Although Putin will not fully attain his war aims, the occupation of Donbas and the south will give him a measure of military victory. Ukraine will never accept it, but would be unable to change the overall picture. It would be akin to the LOC in Kashmir between India and Pakistan which came up in 1948, and after a while, gradually became the status quo.
A NATO-Russia war.
The NATO is actually the caucus belli of this war. It was Ukraine’s desire to join it, and the fact that this would have brought the alliance right at Russia’s doorstep, that led to the war. Even as the war continues it seems unlikely that Ukraine would be able to join the alliance in the near future. If Ukraine gets membership, NATO would be sucked directly into conflict under Article 5 of the NATO charter, that states that any attack on any member state is considered as an attack on all. NATO will continue to prop up Ukraine with infusions of arms and aid, which will keep the conflict going. After all, this state suits them where they can continue to weaken Russia “to the last Ukrainian” without being directly involved. Neither does Russia want a direct confrontation with NATO—one in which they would lose. But while neither side wants it, they could still slip into a NATO-Russia conflict that sets off a European, or even a global war.
The crossing of a “Red Line” could draw NATO into the conflict. It could be the use of a chemical, biological or a nuclear weapon, or maybe even a particularly devastating attack on a civilian target. Should NATO enter the war, Putin has warned that he would use his nuclear weapons. NATO too has warned that any use of nuclear weapons would not go unchallenged even if it brings the world to “Armageddon”. The use of any nuclear weapon, even a tactical low-yield one, would draw NATO into the war, and send it spiraling towards WW III.
Even an inadvertent strike by Russia into a NATO member’s territory could provide the trigger. Should a Russian missile strike on Lyiv—where western aid is stockpiled and is just 20 kilometers from the Poland border—fall into Poland’s territory, it would constitute an attack on a NATO member and draw in all members. With Sweden and Finland having joined NATO, an inadvertent air or naval confrontation around the Baltic Sea could again provide the trigger. In the turbo-charged environment of the day, a minor incident could rapidly go out of control.
But how would NATO respond? The crossing of a “Red Line” could lead to a limited NATO involvement initially—perhaps the imposition of a “no-fly-zone” or moving of additional forces close to Russian frontiers. But NATO’s entry would escalate the situation dangerously, perhaps to the point of no return. It would push Russia, and Putin personally, against the wall, and he could lash out indiscriminately, maybe even using the nuclear option, “against an existentialist threat to Russia”. Putin is aware of the power of his threat and this knowledge stays a direct NATO involvement, so far, at least.
LIKELIHOOD: It seems unlikely that NATO will get directly involved and thus escalate the situation. But should a situation spiral out of control and lead to NATO involvement, it would mean certain defeat of Russia against their combined might. That could also suck in Russian allies like Belarus, Iran and Syria, and even China, which can set the stage for World War III. A NATO involvement would trigger off the “Armageddon Response”—a nuclear exchange in a scenario so horrific that it will encompass the rest of the world. This worst-case scenario will be examined in detail in the subsequent issue.
Ajay Singh is the award-winning author of five books and over 200 articles. This has been excerpted from his forthcoming book “The War in Ukraine”.