Where Does Putin’s War Go From Here?

Foreign Policy, 29.03.2022
Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch y Robbie Gramer, corresponsales y columnistas

Shortly before dawn on Feb. 24, in an address to the nation peppered with falsehoods and grievances, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to invade neighboring Ukraine for the second time. Moments later, Russian missiles began raining down on Ukrainian cities, marking the opening to the largest land war in Europe since World War II.

Four weeks later, 10 millions Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes—including half of the country’s children—and Europe has been forever changed.

Already the war has taken a number of unexpected turns. Having banked on a lightning assault to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Russian forces have been bogged down by a lack of basic supplies and poor morale, with NATO officials estimating that as many as 40,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, wounded, or captured in a month of fighting. Seven Russian generals have been killed on the battlefield, Ukrainian officials say.

Despite being significantly outgunned, the Ukrainian armed forces have fought harder and smarter than many had anticipated, successfully stalling Russia’s advance on Kyiv. With a clear win becoming ever more elusive for either side, analysts and Western officials fear that the worst may be still yet to come as Putin shows little signs of backing down and Russia’s indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities and civilian targets ramps up.

There’s a broad fear setting in that it will get worse before it gets better,” said one Western European defense official, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

Foreign Policy spoke to more than a dozen U.S. and European officials, as well as leading military analysts and regional experts, about their assessments of how the conflict could evolve—or end. Many were quick to point out that war is inherently unpredictable. While there is little unanimity as to what the future may hold for Ukraine, five broad scenarios emerged as to what may be in store as the war marches on into its second month, with the eventual outcome likely to involve a combination of those outlined below.


A Bloody Stalemate

Despite sending nearly 200,000 troops into Ukraine, Russia has been hamstrung by its own inefficiencies and fierce Ukrainian resistance. A month into the conflict, Russian forces have seized fringes of territory along Ukraine’s eastern borders and have only succeeded in capturing one major Ukrainian city—Kherson on the southern coast—although the U.S. Department of Defense said on Friday that Russian forces had lost control of parts of the city. Moscow’s advance on Kyiv has stalled for weeks, and last week Ukrainian forces began a counteroffensive around the capital, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Wednesday. On Thursday, Ukrainian officials said their forces had successfully destroyed a Russian landing ship and two other vessels in the occupied port city of Berdyansk, in a move that is likely to further kneecap Russia’s supply lines to its troops.

Russia is unlikely to be able to salvage its military operation, but a senior U.S. defense official said last week that Moscow is discussing how to resupply and bring in reinforcements, which could make Ukraine’s counteroffensive more challenging. One of the more likely scenarios is a stalemate, where neither side is able to make dramatic territorial gains but seeks to wear the other down in a war of attrition.

I’d suspect there is a higher outcome of a stalemate, given the poor performance of the Russian army and the superb morale and western weapons of the Ukrainians,” James Stavridis, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and the former top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told Foreign Policy in an email. “Russian air and long range fires are keeping them in the game, but their infantry have been in the field a long time and suffer from excerable logistic support—a bad combination. They will probably essentially fall back into the Donbas and claim that was their objective all along,” he said.

There’s the likelihood of a scenario where Putin can’t win, but he also refuses to lose,” said William Taylor, a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace think tank and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “It could just grind into a bloody stalemate.”

Many analysts fear the war may become more brutal and attacks on civilian areas more indiscriminate as Russia seeks to chip away at Ukraine’s morale and force it to make concessions in negotiations.

I keep thinking of the Balkan wars and how during the Balkan wars we just felt that the fighting was never going to end,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. “Until there was a stalemate, they weren’t going to go anywhere when each felt like they had the upper hand, when each felt that they needed to maneuver a little more to get more leverage.”

How would a war of attrition play out? “The honest answer is that it depends,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with the think tank CNA. “I’ve heard folks say it favors Russia because they have more manpower and materiel. I’ve heard people say it favors Ukraine because Ukraine has stronger resolve and Russia doesn’t have the manpower to occupy the country. Those are all factors.”


Partition of Ukraine

In a speech on Friday, Sergei Rudskoi, the head of the Russian General Staff’s Operational Directorate, said that the “main objectives of the first stage of the operation have generally been accomplished” and that the primary goal of Russia’s military operation was shifting to the “liberation of the Donbass.” The announcement signals a shift by Moscow to consolidate its efforts in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have been able to gain more ground. In a briefing on Friday, a senior U.S. defense official echoed this sentiment. “They are putting their priorities and their efforts in the east of Ukraine,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide a battlefield update.

“That’s where still there remains a lot of heavy fighting and we think they are trying to not only secure some sort of more substantial gains there as a potential negotiating tactic at the table, but also to cut off Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country.”

On Sunday, Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian defense intelligence, warned that Moscow may seek to split Ukraine into occupied and unoccupied territories and “create North and South Korea in Ukraine.”

Speaking before Rudskoi’s announcement, a second European official said that they feared the besieged city of Mariupol in Ukraine’s southeast could fall within a week, giving Russian forces a strong foothold from which to push north linking up with forces coming south from Kharkiv. “My guess is that once they will get Donbass and Donetsk territories, they’re going to start to negotiate, because they have already lost a lot of soldiers,” they said, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Such a move could also leave Ukrainian troops operating in the so-called Joint Forces Operation (JFO) area in eastern Ukraine surrounded.

I think the area to look at in the near future is the battle of Mariupol, but the much more significant battle is in the Donbass as Russia attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces in the JFO,” Kofman said. “If they’re successful in doing that, Ukraine will lose a substantial amount of its combat power. That’s the only front where Russian forces have made progress.” The second European official estimated that some 40 percent of Ukraine’s forces were currently stationed in the area.

That would prevent surrounded Ukrainian troops from reinforcing cities further west, such as Kyiv, and allow for Russia to push for greater autonomy beyond the so-called people’s republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, the defense of which Putin used as his justification for war. Seizing further territory in the region would also give Putin a narrative to sell to the Russian public.

But Ukraine is more likely to wage a fierce insurgency than to give in to Russian occupiers, officials and experts told Foreign Policy, especially after the end of an intense war that could see Russian troops completely exhausted. And the Ukrainian public, which now sees victory as a possible outcome, is unlikely to consent to an early peace deal that gives away chunks of territory to Russia.

The territorial defense is already developed so much that you cannot convince the population saying, ‘Hey, let’s give something away immediately,” one senior European security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic negotiations, told Foreign Policy. “That’s not going to happen.”

Yet some experts think something along the lines of European partitions from history, as in Finland in 1939 and the Balkans in the 1990s, seems like an increasingly real possibility.

“Everyone will hate that outcome,” Stavridis told Foreign Policy in an email.

“Putin, because he will have failed miserably to take the whole country; the Ukrainians because they lose a slice of their country, and the West because we’ll have to lift some sanctions to get the deal done. But that’s diplomacy, and with a nuclear armed opponent, absolute victory is exceedingly difficult.”


Decisive Victory

A month of military blunders has sapped Russia’s momentum and laid bare inadequacies in the quality of its troops, supplies, equipment, and logistics, leading many defense and security experts in the West to conclude that a full-scale Russian victory—that is, the complete occupation of Ukraine and fall of Ukraine’s pro-Western government—is highly unlikely.

That doesn’t mean, though, that a full Ukrainian victory is likely, either. Ukraine’s military has impressed experts with its resolve and superior tactics, but it is still outmanned and outgunned. And Putin has given no indication the heavy toll on Russia’s military—let alone the humanitarian catastrophe his invasion has caused—would push Moscow into a full withdrawal.

We could imagine them stalling or not getting farther, but it’s not like they’re going to be militarily defeated,” said Samuel Charap, an expert on Russian security issues with the Rand Corp.

Not everyone is as pessimistic about the prospects of a Ukrainian victory, however. “It’s too soon to tell, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” Taylor said. “There’s a big possibility that the Russian military just can’t fix its major problems,” he added. “I can’t give a percentage, but there’s a nonzero probability that the Russian military could just crumble.”

An indicator of just how frustrated some of Moscow’s troops have become: Politico reported, citing Western officials, that a Russian brigade commander was killed by his own troops, frustrated at the high number of losses suffered by the unit.


Peace Agreement

With all-out military victory looking elusive for both sides, the most likely way the war will be brought to a close is through some kind of peace deal. “This is most likely to end in a negotiated settlement, the question is when and under what terms,” Charap said.

A further round of negotiations is set to get underway in Turkey on Tuesday, but expectations remain low. Moscow has demanded that Kyiv declare neutrality and demilitarize, accept Crimea’s annexation by Russia, and recognize the independence of separatist territories in the Donbass. In a video message on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated a willingness to discuss his country’s neutrality, in exchange for ironclad security guarantees and respect for its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

I think that the battlefield is going to be the pacing event,” Townsend said. “They’ve [Russia and Ukraine] got to be ready, they’ve got to be exhausted enough to sit down and begin to have talks which have some traction to them.”

Even as Russia tries to mass reserves to continue its assault, with a senior U.S. defense official telling reporters on Friday that the Kremlin had approved the deployment of forces based in breakaway regions of nearby Georgia, the exhaustion of both sides on the battlefield could lead to sporadic cease-fires, experts told Foreign Policy. But there have been cease-fires before in the war that began in 2014—and they didn’t hold, either.

We may get some cease-fires here and there,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, a cybersecurity expert at the Silverado Policy Accelerator. “We may see a tactical cease-fire happening. But it won’t last.”

Zelensky’s government may also face increased pressure from big European countries to seek out a peace deal as the war continues to wreak global economic havoc, particularly at the gas pump.

We are worried that there might be pressure from some of the big European states,” the senior European security official told Foreign Policy. The official said that European nations are starting to see what the outlines of a Russian settlement could look like in the contested city of Kherson. Russian troops captured the city early in the war and are trying to squash popular resistance with brutal tactics.

We have the experience that peace on Russian conditions means that you have more casualties than during the war,” the official said. “That’s what’s starting to happen in Kherson.”


Black Swan Event

By definition, the most difficult scenario to predict—but one that could have a profound impact on the course of the war—is a so-called black swan event such as the use of chemical or nuclear weapons, or regime change in Moscow.

Putin’s own thinking remains a wild card, leading many to question the lengths he is willing to go to salvage Russia’s position in the war. Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and founder of the analysis firm R.Politik, said she could think of no previous instance when Putin had been truly backed into a corner as a result of one of his gambits. “We don’t have any experience to say how Putin will behave in such a situation,” she said.

Last Wednesday, Biden told reporters that there was a “real threat” that Russia might use chemical weapons in Ukraine. A newly announced U.S. military aid package to Ukraine includes equipment to protect Ukrainian troops from chemical weapons attacks. European officials echo those fears. As grim as the possibility is, some analysts say that may not alter the overall course of the war, only worsen the catastrophic humanitarian toll of it.

Former top military officials told Foreign Policy that Russia could use chemical weapons on the battlefield as an act of desperation, because of the military’s willingness to target civilians. Russia has been known to use chemical weapons against dissidents, such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and against defectors abroad.

If they get to the point of being that desperate and their numbers continue to attrit … they might just be stupid enough to use chemical weapons,” said James Foggo, a retired admiral who commanded the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet, responsible for Europe and Africa, and who now leads the Center for Maritime Strategy think tank at the Navy League of the United States. “That’s going to require a much stronger response on the part of Western nations. And I don’t have a good feel for what that response would be.”

Another possibility that U.S. and European officials are fearful of is a scenario in which Russia uses a low-yield nuclear weapon in Ukraine. The officials who spoke to Foreign Policy stressed that they believed such a scenario is still very unlikely, but they said Western defense planners still have to plan for all possible contingencies. Any nuclear attack could alter the course of the war and drastically change the West’s response, potentially putting NATO on a war footing with Russia.

We were always in the past operating under the assumption that Putin was a rational actor. If he’s still a rational actor, it’s a way different rationality from the rationality we have,” the Western European defense official said.

The final shock event that could radically change the course of the war is if Putin were to be ousted from power—although most experts agree that this is unlikely at this stage. Putin has long been paranoid about regime change and for years sought to surround himself with a coterie of loyal bureaucrats and oligarchs who would not challenge his power. A mass popular uprising seems similarly unlikely, the officials and experts said. Russian security services violently quelled demonstrations following the first days of the war, detaining an estimated 5,000 anti-war protesters, according to the monitoring site OVD-Info. If anything, the Russian leader may face more acute pressure from those who support the war. “He is not afraid of anti-war protests, he is afraid of pro-war rallies,” Stanovaya said.

While there have been some high-level defections from Russia’s elite, such as Anatoly Chubais, a veteran reformer from the 1990s who served as Putin’s climate envoy, the prospects of an elite coup seem distant.

I don’t believe that someone in Putin’s environment can really go against him. All these people who are very close to him now, who are in contact with him, they think the same way as Putin,” Stanovaya said.

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