The front line has actually stabilized over the past two weeks. This does not mean that the hostilities have stopped — artillery fire continues, and the sides are trying to advance. However, neither Ukraine nor Russia have recently made serious breakthroughs that would significantly affect the front line. The last successful one for the Ukrainian military was at the beginning of October. Then they wedged into the Russian defense for more than 25 kilometers along the right bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region. This forced the Russians to retreat to a new line of defense and actually leave a quarter of their bridgehead on the right bank of the Dnipro.
But since then, neither side has made significant progress. The Russians are trying to advance around Bakhmut to encircle the city, as well as on the western outskirts of Donetsk to push Ukrainian troops away from the occupied city. The Ukrainian army, most likely, is preparing for a larger offensive, and at the moment it is trying to improve its tactical position and occupy advantageous lines, or try to use reconnaissance to identify weak points in the Russian defense.
Gradually, the war enters a rather difficult period — first the rains will begin, which will wash away the soil and make it extremely difficult for the ground troops to move. Bad weather also severely limits aviation and drone operations. And then frosts and winter will begin, which make it uncomfortable for soldiers to stay in trenches and dugouts.
Winter, of course, does not mean a complete cessation of hostilities or the absolute impossibility of an offensive. The Russians captured Debaltseve in Donetsk region in 2015 in winter. However, this was a rather limited and compact operation compared to the large-scale war of 2022. Therefore, if offensive operations will take place in winter, they will cover small areas.
Most likely, both Ukraine and Russia will use the winter period to prepare their capacities for 2023. The Russians will train the mobilized for a new large-scale offensive, and Ukraine — for driving out the occupiers.
Opportunities for the warring parties
The war has already turned into a struggle of attrition. Therefore, the ability of Ukraine and Russia to keep the economy from falling to catastrophic levels, as well as to mobilize its (or its partnerʼs) defense-industrial complex, comes to the fore.
Due to sanctions, it is difficult for the Russian economy to develop. Western observers and decision-makers admit: the restrictions that were introduced immediately after the beginning of the invasion did not have the expected effect. They were directed mostly at the financial sector, but the Russian central bank coped with the first shock, stabilized the currency market and the work of banks. Another part of the sanctions is economic. Its potential unfolds over time and has an impact in the medium and long term. This is also recognized in Russia, where restrictions began to affect the real sector of the economy since the summer. Foreign equipment and spare parts are not delivered, and foreign companies are leaving Russia en masse, so it is starting to have serious problems in various industries. Factories are closing, people are being laid off, there is nothing to repair damaged equipment with, etc. The situation is similar in the service sector: civil aviation cannot service its planes, cinemas are closed due to the lack of Western films, and attendance at shopping malls has decreased by 30%. Whether the Russian Federation will find an opportunity to replace Western spare parts, cars, electronics and much more is an open question.
But the main branch of the Russian economy — oil and gas — is still not under sanctions. About half of the revenues of the Russian budget come from the export of energy resources. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, their prices only increased, so the Russian Federation earned even more. For example, Western countries introduced restrictions on the maintenance and supply of various equipment, but they continue to buy Russian oil and gas. Only on December 5, the oil embargo will come into action in the European Union, and the G7 countries want to introduce restrictions on the price of Russian oil around the world. There is no mention of restrictions on gas supplies at all, although Russia itself is reducing supplies to Europe. In general, everything leads to the fact that Russia will gradually lose income from oil and gas exports. They have already fallen to the level of February 2022, many countries of the world are afraid to do business with the Russian Federation due to fear of secondary sanctions, and Europe, which was the largest buyer of Russian energy resources, is actively looking for an alternative.
Due to problems at the front, the Kremlin resorted to the unpopular step of mobilization at the end of September. This process is not easy and not cheap. The mobilized must be clothed, accommodated, fed, given weapons, ammunition, means of protection and equipment. In addition, they still need to be taught to fight. All this requires time and large funds, as well as the active engagement of the defense-industrial complex. In the conditions of sanctions, Russia cannot cope with this, and therefore tries to pull weapons from other countries. In particular, military equipment and ammunition are actively leaving Belarus, Iran is supplying the Russian Federation with drones, body armor, and helmets, and in the near future, it may start selling ballistic missiles.
All this shows that the situation in Russia with the economy and military supplies is getting worse every day. Obviously, the sanctions will increase, and it is not known which industries they may hit. Allies of the Russians who supply them with weapons may also come under very serious restrictions. If the United States recognizes Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, all countries that cooperate with it will fall under secondary American sanctions. The Russian Central Bank also admits that mobilization is pulling young men out of the economy, and this is exacerbating the decline.
The situation in the Ukrainian economy is much worse than the Russian one. The area of the occupied territories has increased many times since February 2022, many enterprises that provided Ukraine with considerable income are either out of business or destroyed during hostilities. Exports across the seas, which accounted for a significant part of Ukrainian profits, are also very limited — only the “grain corridor” works. Despite the statement of the Russians to suspend their participation in this initiative, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN independently decided to continue the movement of ships through the humanitarian corridors. But Russia no longer guarantees their safety, so whether the owners of ships and companies will continue to buy grain and other agricultural products from Ukraine and export them from Ukrainian ports is an open question. All these factors slow down Ukraineʼs international trade.
Despite this, Ukraine has preserved the functionality of the state: departments work, pensions and salaries are paid, the military men receive combat pay, and the authorities even launch financial support programs for immigrants and businesses.
During the full-scale invasion, Ukraine has already spent the entire state budget for 2022. Monthly expenses significantly exceed income. The support of the West helps to cover this deficit — and this is the key thing that currently keeps the Ukrainian economy in a stable state. Ukraineʼs endurance in the war of attrition depends on financial aid: the larger and more stable it is, the longer the country will be able to defend itself against Russia. The latest statements by the European Union and the United States, as well as international financial organizations, about the readiness to continue to give money to Ukraine allow for moderate optimism regarding funding for 2023. Although it is possible that, due to conflicts between the countries of the West, funding will be delayed or reduced.
The situation is similar with the defense-industrial complex. Due to the attacks of the Russians or their threat, the Ukrainian defense industry cannot work at full capacity, and the Ukrainian army has nothing to attack Russian enterprises with. Therefore, the West comes to the rescue again. The combat capability of the Ukrainian army also depends almost entirely on the supply of military aid from other countries. This process will continue, and as a result of the war, the Ukrainian Armed Forces will almost completely get rid of Soviet weapons and switch to Western equipment. Thus, the Ukrainian army will become integrated and mutually compatible with the NATO army.
In addition, Western defense enterprises are under the protection of NATO. To strike at the factories, the Russians would have to strike at a member country of the Alliance, which would mean an attack on all allies at once. The Kremlin cannot do that, at least not yet. However, the Western defense industry is not a panacea either, since Europe has been disarming for a long time and investing money in the economy, not in the army. Due to the very high intensity of hostilities in Ukraine, the West sometimes simply does not have the weapons and equipment to compensate for Ukrainian losses. They must be made from scratch, and for this it is necessary to increase the capacity of Western defense plants. This is what they are currently doing there, in particular in the USA. The entire West is gradually shifting to military supplies to Ukraine and increasing capacity.
However, some weapon positions still remain blocked. Their transfer is considered by Western politicians an escalation of the conflict and for the time being they are refraining from deliveries. This is primarily about Western tanks, aviation, and missiles with a long range (from 200 kilometers). Of course, because of this, the offensive of the Ukrainian army does not stop. But weapons could make it much easier, faster, and more effective.
Also, the Russians actively began to attack the objects of the energy infrastructure of Ukraine. This leads to power shortages and outages. The strikes do not affect hostilities, but energy instability poses risks to the economy: businesses lose money during blackouts. And in the event of an energy shorage, Ukraine will have to buy it from the West, which will also lead to additional costs.
Despite the severe destruction and fighting, Ukraine has more potential to win a war of attrition. However, it rests entirely on the shoulders of the West and relies on continued stable military and financial assistance from abroad. The further de-occupation of the territories will also contribute to the recovery of the Ukrainian economy. But if the aid stops, the chances of victory will decrease dramatically.
Under what scenarios will the war develop by the end of the year
We analyzed the situation at the front, in the economy of Ukraine and Russia, as well as in the information and social environment, and identified six main scenarios for the development of events by the end of the year — three more likely and three less likely. The first are based exclusively on those trends that are at the front as of now. The latter take into account possible force majeure situations that will significantly affect the war and can take it to a completely different level — from the collapse of Russia to the Third World War.
Scenario 1, very optimistic
In addition to the two offensive directions — in the Luhansk and Kherson regions — the Ukrainian army will be able to launch a large-scale attack on the third — in the Zaporizhia region. The main goal is to cut the Russian group in the south in two in the shortest possible way. For this purpose, the Ukrainian Defense Forces will advance along the road between the cities of Orikhiv, Tokmak, and Melitopol.
If the attack succeeds and the defense lines are breached, the Russian troops will have to withdraw almost completely from the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, and the Ukrainian army will be able to reach the Crimean isthmus and block the possibility for the Russians to get from the peninsula to the mainland. Therefore, the front in the south will pass along the line of Polohy — Berdyansk or in general along the administrative border of Donetsk region.
Ukrainian troops will also be able to succeed in the counteroffensive in Luhansk region. They will break through the Russian defenses along the Svatove-Kreminna line, liberate both settlements and approach Starobilsk. This will create a serious flanking threat for the cities of Rubizhne, Sievierodonetsk, and Lysychansk — they will be surrounded on three sides. Therefore, the Russian Federation will be forced to leave these cities or the northern Luhansk region in general, relying on the line of fortifications along the Siversky Donets River, which is currently being built by mercenaries from Wagner.
Withdrawal from the Sievierodonetsk-Lysychansk agglomeration will create another flanking threat, now for the “Wagnerians” advancing on Bakhmut. They, too, will either have to face the threat of encirclement, or move away from Bakhmut to other positions, most likely to the area of Popasna and Hirske.
The Ukrainian military will be able to liberate almost all the territories occupied after February 24, and the Russians will have only the completely destroyed Mariupol among their greatest achievements.
Scenario 2, realistic
The Ukrainian army will not open another direction of attack, but will continue the pressure on the current two — Kherson and Luhansk — and will achieve some success there.
In the Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military will be able to break through the Russian defense line, cut the road between the cities of Svatove and Kreminna, and probably penetrate deep into the northern Luhansk region. This will create a threat to the encirclement of the cities, so the Russians will withdraw from at least one of them, maybe even both. Ukrainian troops will go to the next line of defense of the occupiers, for example along the Starobilsk-Rubizhne road, stop, set up positions and prepare for winter.
In the Kherson region, the Ukrainian army will press the Russians on the right bank of the Dnipro. Their logistics are extremely difficult due to strikes on river crossings. The occupiers will either have to leave the right bank, including Kherson, or retreat to the city itself and take up defense in it. However, Kherson will remain cut off by the river, and Ukrainian artillery will be able to work both on the crossings and on the left bank of the Dnieper. The Kherson garrison of the Russians will quickly find themselves in a blockade, and will have to either surrender or move to the other shore.
The situation near Bakhmut will remain extremely difficult. The Russians will try to advance and will probably be able to create a semi-encirclement of the city from the east and south, as well as start urban battles at least in the part of the city that is located on the right bank of the Bakhmutivka River.
Scenario 3, pessimistic
By the end of the year, Ukrainian troops, despite the offensive in two directions, will not be able to achieve any results or will have only tactical successes. Thanks to the massive influx of mobilized troops, the occupiers will be able to close the “holes” at the front, saturate the defense line and prevent Ukrainian mobile groups from raiding their rear. Large-scale fortifications and defensive positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line will also work: the Ukrainian army will not be able to break through them, and the front in this direction will not change.
Due to the shelling of the bridges, the situation in the Kherson region will remain extremely difficult for the Russians. However, the occupiers will continue to shorten the front line, will gradually retreat from non-critical areas, and by the end of the year will still hold a part of the bridgehead on the right bank of the Kherson region thanks to the mobilized and large-scale fortifications around Kherson and its surroundings. Sooner or later, the Russians will have to completely withdraw from the right bank of the Dnieper, but with more people, they can probably hold out longer, until 2023.
In Donetsk region, the Russians will be able to achieve success in those areas where they are currently making the most efforts. They will manage to create a threat of a serious encirclement of Bakhmut, which will force the Ukrainian troops to withdraw from the city. The occupation of Bakhmut will create a flanking threat for the city of Siversk, and therefore the Defense Forces will probably have to level the front line and withdraw all the way to Siversk.
The Russians can achieve certain tactical successes in the western suburbs of Donetsk, when they continue to slowly push Ukrainian troops out of their defense lines. Perhaps the invaders will be able to capture several villages or create a semi-encirclement threat for Avdiyivka.
Scenario 4, nuclear Armageddon
Due to failures on the front, Russia will dare to use nuclear weapons. The Westʼs response will depend on the power and consequences of the attack. Most likely, if Russia uses tactical nuclear weapons in an uninhabited place on Ukrainian territory, then any supplies of Western weapons will be unblocked for Ukraine, from tanks and planes to missiles. Also, sanctions against Russia will be significantly strengthened, to the point that the USA recognizes it as a terrorist country. This will mean the complete isolation of Russia from world trade, and all countries will be afraid of falling under American sanctions due to any relations with the Russian Federation.
If the Russian Federation uses strategic or tactical nuclear weapons against military or civilians, most likely, in addition to the reactions listed above, a physical response should also be expected. It is almost 100% likely that it will be given with a conventional weapon. Countries of NATO can close the sky over Ukraine or strike with missiles at the main Russian positions in the occupied territories, in particular in Crimea.
In addition, such actions by Russia will destroy the international security architecture that has been in place since the Second World War and will break the unspoken taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. All nuclear-armed countries will have to show the strongest possible response to such a strike. India and China, which are still trying to maintain neutrality, will stop supporting Putinʼs regime and will not oppose Russiaʼs possible exclusion from international organizations, including the UN. Also, it is likely that after the end of the war, the nuclear countries will raise the issue of depriving Russia of the right to possess nuclear weapons.
If the Russians decide to respond to Western strikes on the occupied Ukrainian territories, this could lead to a full-scale war between Russia and NATO with both conventional and non-conventional weapons. Then the world will gradually descend to the Third World War, because frozen conflicts in many other parts of the planet will flare up.
Scenario 5, dangerous
Despite the unpreparedness of the mobilized, the Russians will decide to use them for a large-scale offensive. It can be any direction — to Mykolaiv from Kherson, to Zaporizhzhia, in the Donetsk region, or from the territory of Belarus to Kyiv, or to cut logistical routes from the west of Ukraine to the front. For the last offensive, the Russians can fully involve the troops of Belarus, which will make it another participant in the war.
But any of these plans is almost completely doomed to failure. The Russians could not achieve similar successes with the most trained military, the most modern equipment, and when Ukraine had much less military. Now the level of training is much higher, the positions are prepared, the paths are mined, and the motivation and training of the mobilized Russians will be much worse than that of the contract workers. In addition, since February 24, Ukraine has received new types of weapons, which will allow it to significantly more effectively stop the Russian offensive or even strike pre-emptively if the Russians begin to line up to attack.
All this will lead to an increase in the scale of destruction and the number of losses, but the Russians will have almost no chance of success. They will probably try to build up so-called harassing fire across the border. In particular, Russian troops will launch missile and artillery fire along the Belarusian-Ukrainian border in order to force Ukraine to transfer more forces there.
Scenario 6, unexpected
Tensions will continue to rise in Russian society due to mobilization and the economic downturn. Official Russian sociological agencies cannot be trusted, but even they are already showing tendencies towards a drop in Putinʼs rating and support for the war because of mobilization. Among Russians aged 18-24, opinions about supporting the war are generally split 50/50. This decline can only increase due to further failures at the front, as well as mass deaths of the mobilized when death notes will begin to arrive in Russian settlements.
Gradually, disputes will intensify within Putinʼs entourage between those who want to fight until the end and those who want to end the war. Conflicts between various groups fighting in Ukraine will become even more open, and especially between the Wagner and its leader Prigozhyn and the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation headed by Sergei Shoigu. The first bells of this are already there: the Russian general Alexey Lapin, who led the Center group and was responsible for the defense of the Lyman, was removed from his post. This happened after devastating criticism from the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who also controls paramilitary groups fighting in Ukraine. The system will gradually begin to falter and fail, just like the propaganda machine. All this will lead to the fact that the dissatisfaction of the population will grow, and the work of the system will become weaker.
As it usually happens in history, some ordinary event suddenly becomes a catalyst for large-scale change. The Arab Spring in 2011, which led to the fall of regimes in many Arab countries, civil wars and reforms, began with the self-immolation of an ordinary market trader in Tunisia. Something similar will happen in Russia, large-scale protests will begin, which may even involve army units. 1917 will return to Russia with coups dʼétat, civil war, powerful regional separatism, struggle for resources and minerals, etc. The Russian Federation will disintegrate, and new state entities will appear on its territory.
War is completely unpredictable. Its course can change due to various unexpected tactics, strategies, or decisions. Steps that the enemy cannot calculate are the key to winning the war. Whatever the further course of hostilities was, Russia had already lost it — when it failed to capture Kyiv. The only victory of the Russian Federation in this war, which would be proportional to the invested money and forces, can be considered the capitulation of Ukraine, the creation of a puppet government, the refusal to move to the West, and the restoration of allied relations with Russia. All this failed at the end of February 2022, and the Russian Federation wonʼt have a second chance.
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.
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