What Happens Next
Speculations on the next phase of the Ukraine war
As of April 9, 2022, it’s not hard to guess where things are going.
The Institute for the Study of War assesses that Russian forces are redeploying to the east, but they’re so effectively attrited by the war to date that they aren’t expected to make much difference. Russia is burning the candle at both ends to make their army run, and the damage is going to be felt for years - not only the depletion of the officer class, but also lasting patterns of defeat and near-mutinous states of low morale.
In the South, Russians around Kherson are still “digging in” and building up defensive positions against Ukrainian counter-attacks, while continuing “filtration” exercises inside the city. I’d assess with moderate confidence that there’s war crimes - targeted killing and very likely summary executions - happening in Kherson, right now.
As of the ISW assessment of two days ago, Mariupol has effectively fallen. Cutting the city into two different pockets is an important stepping-stone for Russian forces; their forces can now move north of the city and, once the grinding and expensive mop-up is complete, Russia can begin to resupply their troops from the sea for a push north.
This mixed state of affairs constrains the range of possible outcomes to this conflict.
As Philip Wasielewski argues at fpri.org yesterday, April 8, 2022, there are a relatively limited set of potential outcomes to the Ukraine war at this point. Quoting:
1. Russia defeats Ukraine. Victory would be defined by Ukraine accepting Russia’s maximalist demands, including recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics; possible surrender of other territory near Crimea; agreement never to join NATO or the EU; and limitations on the size of its military. For this to happen, the Ukrainian military would have to be decisively defeated on the battlefield, and Ukrainian national will would have to collapse. For that to happen, Russian military effectiveness would have to improve dramatically, and the war would need to continue until Russia could grind Ukraine’s military into defeat. This assumes Russia’s domestic situation remains calm, and its economy can support an extended war despite sanctions. Russian victory is possible, but numerous factors would have to line up in Russia’s favor and Ukraine’s disfavor.
What makes this scenario unlikely is Ukraine’s national will to resist. Breaking it would require a drastic change of circumstances on the battlefield. This is why some speculate that Putin may consider using a nuclear weapon, the “escalate to de-escalate” option. Putin may convince himself that the only path to victory is via an overwhelming psychological blow to Ukraine’s national will. Putin’s justification for such extreme action could be the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to force Japan to sue for peace and prevent horrific casualties from an invasion of its home islands. However horrible, this is an option if the Russian military is willing to carry out a nuclear strike command.
2. Russia declares victory and partly withdraws. If Russia cannot coerce Ukraine into meeting its maximalist demands but does not wish to negotiate and compromise, then it could declare that it had achieved the goals of the “special military operation” and withdraw troops back into Belarus, Russia, and those areas of Ukraine that it wishes to annex. These areas are most likely to be in southern Ukraine to connect Russia with Crimea (should Mariupol fall) or at least secure for Crimea’s access to fresh water from the Dnepr River. Since Ukraine would never agree to this annexation, a Russian declaration of victory and withdrawal to a fortified defense line would present Ukraine with a dilemma: accept a ceasefire under unfavorable conditions or continue the war. Putin could claim that Ukraine had been “punished” to put a positive spin on a disastrous campaign and serve as a warning to other states on Russia’s periphery of the damage that they will sustain if they ever violate Russia’s perceived security interests. This move might also prevent the destruction of the Russian army and avert domestic unrest that could threaten Putin’s hold on power.
3. Ukraine defeats Russia. A Ukrainian victory would be defined by a return to the status quo before February 24, without conditions that violated its sovereignty. This would require either a collapse of the Russian army in the field or a political agreement with Russia, most likely due to a change of government in Moscow, which then would withdraw its army to end international sanctions. In other words, this scenario requires a close repeat of Russian history in 1917. However, even in victory, Ukraine would face years of rebuilding and resettling its refugees and internally displaced persons, the costs for which seized Russian assets would hopefully help defray.
4. A Negotiated Settlement. Russia’s devastation of Ukraine’s cities, coupled with Ukraine’s devastation of Russia’s army and the effects of international sanctions, could lead both sides to a negotiated settlement. Zelensky no longer believes NATO membership is possible and has signaled that Ukraine is willing to compromise on this key Russian demand. The Kremlin recognizes that regime change is impossible and that it needs Zelensky’s credibility to get Ukrainians to agree to any compromises that give Russia a face-saving way out of this war. Both sides could continue to agree to disagree about the status of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, which would then put negotiating positions close to the status quo ante bellum. From Moscow’s perspective, it could declare victory and announce to domestic audiences that Ukraine had “learned a lesson” and would never again threaten Donetsk and Luhansk. From Kyiv’s perspective, a negotiated settlement would allow Ukraine to rebuild and await favorable circumstances to regain territories lost in 2014.
5. A War of Attrition. As horrible as it is, this war does not have to end soon if both countries have the will to continue to fight, if not to victory, then to avoid defeat. The front could stabilize with Russia’s military unable to advance and Ukraine unable to dislodge it. As the war continues, both the Russian and Ukrainian economies would suffer, and millions of refugees could remain in Europe. Like South Korea and South Vietnam before it, Ukraine would become the hot focus of a new Cold War.
Wasielewski’s analysis does not expressly include the effect of separatists, which may be worth mentioning; there were an estimated 42,500 separatist fighters as of 2015, and that number has likely increased.
With the map of the war as it stands on April 9th, factoring in the (anticipated) fall of Mariupol, and the latest assessments of the war in the east in BBC we can begin to apply and build off of some assumptions.
The fall of Mariupol will allow Russian forces to push north along the political boundaries of the Donbas region. This will isolate a pocket of Ukrainian troops who will either be obliged to fall back before they are completely encircled, surrender, or fight to the death.
Military aid will continue to flow into Ukraine in increasing amounts - the announcement of additional armored vehicles and other aid from the U.K. today from Boris Johnson’s visit, for instance, will likely be just another part of that flow.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the international sanctions regime remains difficult, in part because it is constantly developing and escalating, but it is a relative given at this point that various forms of permanent damage to Russia’s economy are accruing.
America is engaged in a shift, in terms of sanctions policy towards Russia, towards wholesale economic damage; and although Russia’s economy is recalibrating and adjusting, so are sanctions. There is at least enough ground, as the New York Times headlined it yesterday, to “question effectiveness” of the sanctions regime; but the question, effectiveness at what? needs to be asked, and I don’t think that question is clear.
Let me try to disambiguate that.
From the viewpoint of American interests relative to the Ukraine war, the question is really, how do our interests relative to Russia stand? And how do they stand to be improved, or worsened, by various outcomes of this war?
Based on the relatively indecisive amount of additional force that reinforcements to Donbas are likely to bring, and the overall state of the Russian army at this point in the war, I assess that the two most likely outcomes, from Wasielewski’s summary, are 2 (Russia declares victory and partly withdraws) and 4 (A Negotiated Settlement). Both of these somewhat overlap; they both come down to, essentially, control of the Mariupol/Sloviansk/Kharkiv line. A weaker negotiating position compels Russia to choose option 2; a stronger one, option 4.
In both of these conditions, the status of our economic war against Russia, and the near-total marginalization of the Russian petrochemical economy, are relatively independent concerns; there is nothing Russia can do, short of politically unfeasible concessions like giving back Crimea and the separatist territories, that would result in complete cessation of all sanctions.
In both of these outcomes, America not only comes out on top as the leader of a reinvigorated regional security regime opposed to Russia… we effectively attain retaliation for Russia’s election interference in 2016, by punishing Russia so massively for the Ukraine war that punishing it for 2016 becomes irrelevant.
The world starts to look much more bipolar after that, between a liberal international order led by America, and, essentially, just China.
And somewhere on the sidelines, with its shattered economy and pariah-state status, Russia and its grand designs of being a global superpower will be moldering into historical obscurity.