‘Russia’s war goals haven’t changed: destroying Ukraine’
Seven experts predict possible scenarios as neither Moscow nor Kyiv appears ready to negotiate a peaceful end to the war.
In a year, thousands of Ukrainian civilians and troops on both sides have been killed in Russia’s war, and tensions between Moscow and the West have risen to an all-time high.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the invasion he ordered on February 24, 2022, as his United States counterpart Joe Biden was in Poland, rallying support for Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bemoaned a Russian attack in Kherson, carried out as Putin made his fiery state of the nation speech.
At least six people were killed. One victim, a young woman with long dark brown hair, was seen in photos of the aftermath, her lifeless body strewn awkwardly across a pavement.
Friday marks the first anniversary of the war the world had feared. Peace seems a distant prospect.
Which direction might the war take now?
We asked several experts to share their views:
‘Ukraine and Russia both don’t have enough arms’
Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian with Germany’s Bremen University:
“The basic scenario – neither Russia nor Ukraine can achieve their goals in this war. Russia will hardly be able to even occupy the entire [southeastern region of] Donbas, let alone destroy Ukraine as a nation.
“Ukraine won’t be able to get back to the borders of January 2014 [before the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s support to separatists in Donbas].
“The war may be over by late 2023 or in 2024 because both sides will have exhausted their resources. The main reasons being that Ukraine and Russia both don’t have enough arms, ammo and servicemen to achieve what they aim for.
“I see three concrete scenarios.
“The pessimistic one: Russia breaks Ukrainian defences in the north of the current frontline, a crescent that stretches about 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) and occupies [the city of] Lyman. It breaks them in the south [of the frontline] and lays siege to [the city of] Zaporizhzhia.
“It breaks them in the centre [of the frontline] and reaches [the towns of] Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, where it storms these towns. Perhaps, after they are taken, Ukraine is offered a stable truce.
“The most probable [scenario]: Despite a massive battle in the south [of the frontline], the front there remains stable, Russian forces reach Sloviansk and Kramatorsk but can’t take them. In the north, Russians take Lyman.
“The optimistic [scenario]: Ukrainian forces grind Russians on the southern front, conduct a successful operation of paratroopers across the Dnieper River, partially or fully liberate the south of Ukraine.
“In the north [of the front], they manage to take [the town of] Svatove and reach the rear of the Lysychansk-Severodonetsk agglomeration and after that, Russia withdraws its forces approximately to the line of confrontation of February 24, 2022 – minus, perhaps, the liberated areas in the south. That’s the point where the West is offered a deal – peace in exchange for reparations and keeping Crimea under [Russian] control.
“And that’s where an apocalyptic continuation is possible – Ukraine doesn’t agree with that and destroys the Crimean Bridge [across the Strait of Kerch that links the peninsula to Russia] with long-range missiles.
“In the absence of civil air flights and the complexity of maritime transportation under Ukrainian drone attacks [Russia’s] control over Crimea becomes very costly and complicated.
“And in response to that, Putin may order to use tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine or to convincingly show the West the possibility of doing it. And then the truce will be made under previous conditions – or under stricter ones on the part of Russia.”
‘Victory should be about weakening Russia as an aggressive imperialist state’
Lt Gen Ihor Romanenko, the former deputy chief of Ukraine’s general staff of armed forces:
“Russian forces began advancing in late January. It’s a very long front – from Kypyansk in the Kharkiv region and then in five directions – Kupiansk, Lyman, Bakhmut, Adviivka and Shakhtar all the way to Uhledar. That’s more than a thousand kilometres.
“The enemy has overtaken the initiative on the tactical level and uses the military reserves it has accumulated since late last year. [Russians] are readying their servicemen for operations that will engage the 300,000 people they have mobilised [since September].
“They also recruited inmates, by [the] Wagner [private military company], by [its head Yevgeny] Prigozhin, but they have mostly been killed and Wagner has been bled dry.
“[Moscow] is training 150-200,000 [mobilised men] on Russian and Belarusian shooting ranges for strategic use and is getting the military equipment ready for them.
“Ukraine’s forces are conducting defensive operations in the east, mostly in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and are readying their own strategic reserves with the help of [Western] allies, both in terms of equipment and personnel.
“The preparations mostly take place abroad because the equipment, for the most part, is foreign but not exclusively – because some equipment, APCs are Soviet-made, such as tanks, armoured vehicles that we can train to use much faster.
“The principal question for us was the aviation component, a new step in the military aid. So far it hasn’t been solved politically but it may be cleared. I think more aid will be given [after US President Joe] Biden visits Poland.
“In 2022, the Ukrainian army was not the army of 2014 and 2015 [when it suffered heavy losses in Donbas]. We underwent a long way of transformation, of development according to NATO standards and according to the experience we gained in the warfare between 2014 and 2015.
“If in the beginning of war, the potential of the enemy’s military grouping exceeded ours threefold, by now the difference is significantly less. But it’s still there.
“The war’s outcome and victory should be about weakening Russia as an aggressive imperialist state, so that it won’t be able to conduct wars such as this for some time.”
‘I am expecting the war to last long’
Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London:
“Putin’s position is still stable despite the military setbacks and failure to reach the objectives articulated at the beginning of the invasion.
“The different elite groupings seem to have consolidated behind Putin, with the military and other state security agencies increasing in influence and activity.
“While many elites are likely critical of the war, the perceived imperative of Russia’s victory along with fear of retribution for disloyalty guides their actions and their strategy of sticking to Putin.
“The lack of access to technology from sanctions undoubtedly cripples [Russian] military production capacity. While some components are sought out in non-Western countries, they cannot be replaced entirely.
“In terms of the economy, even if Russian businesses and government have shown high adaptive capacity, such adaptability is not universal and some industrial sectors such as auto-making industry, for example, have dwindled by 60 percent or more. Sanctions do strain Russia’s economy, especially by squeezing the profits from the energy trade.
“I am expecting the war to last long. However, I look forward to Ukraine’s counteroffensive and its results that might change Russia’s perceptions. Ukrainian forces have demonstrated earlier their capacity for recapturing their territories, so there is hope in that.”
‘Russia’s war goals haven’t changed: destroying Ukraine’
Pavel Luzin, a defence analyst with Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC:
“The main scenario is the same – an escalation. Russia made its first serious attempt at it in the fall and is making the second one now.
The aim is to force [Kyiv] into giving [Moscow] a break under acceptable conditions so [Russia] can lick its wounds and wait for a better moment in a political sense for a new attack. Russia’s war goals haven’t changed – [they are about] destroying Ukraine.”
‘One shouldn’t disregard Russia’s ability to recreate it all anew’
Marat Gabidullin, an ex-Wagner fighter who penned a book describing his experiences in Syria:
“Both sides lack the resources and capabilities to start a decisive offensive to break the situation in their favour.
“The [Russian] army is not ready for war. They made conclusions, corrected the situation, fixed some wrongs, but not significantly.
“Even before [the war], I assumed that the Ukrainian army is capable of opposing an armed aggression. The Ukrainian army is not the way it was in 2014. They gained strength, gained experience, modernised.
“They show resilience, their determination to keep on defending [Ukraine], to wage the war. They don’t succeed in everything, they have their drawbacks.
“There is a danger that the war will morph into positional warfare but a lot depends on to what extent the West will supply the Ukrainian army with equipment and arms, and how the Ukrainian army can learn to use these arms and integrate them.
“Modern weaponry takes a long time to master. If [the weapons] fit in the entire system of organising warfare, conducting it, then it is very likely that they can start a decisive counteroffensive and push Russian forces outside the [Ukrainian] state border.
“The advantages of Western weaponry are obvious – no one doubts them. Ukraine still has human resources, they are capable of conducting an additional mobilisation, replenish their losses, form the necessary number of [military] units, train them properly.
“But it’s hard to predict things because Russia is also not drawing its terminal breath. They also have certain reserves, resources, their military-industrial complex is working, all the potential is going towards supporting it, no other [branches of economy] are developing.
“They keep producing rather modern weapons, maybe not the most perfect ones, but modern enough – equipment, tanks, APCs, ammo. One shouldn’t disregard Russia’s ability to recreate it all anew.”
‘Based on what our sources say, a truce is impossible’
Farida Rustamova, Russian journalist:
“Putin’s position is as stable as it’s ever been. His security apparatus, which he uses to uphold his power in Russia, hasn’t changed a bit. He feeds them well, raises their wages and gives them all sorts of other perks. This can be seen with the record budget for security defence for the next few years. No serious opposition that could crack his hold on power can be seen at this moment in Russia.
“The war had a great impact on Russian society. As indicated by sociological surveys, we can notice some trends. It’s obvious society was shaken, first when the war began and second when mobilisation was announced. Those were the two biggest earthquakes of the past year. This has only led to frustration, which didn’t manifest itself to mass protests because the repressive apparatus is too strong and those opposed to what’s happening have no way to show themselves.
“I think that judging by how things are going, we’re definitely going to live through another year of war. The other day, [pro-Putin Chechen leader] Ramzan Kadyrov said the special operation will only end after a year or so. An interesting statement, I’m not sure what it’s founded on, but it’s curious.
“But for now it’s obvious, based on what our sources say, a truce is impossible. Russia is still trying to advance, Ukraine doesn’t want to surrender. It doesn’t look as though things will calm down or take a pause.”
‘There is no path to outright victory for either side’
Almut Rochowanski, an activist who has worked in conflict and post-conflict regions in the former Soviet Union:
“I expect that repressive measures and centralised propaganda will continue and probably be expanded more and more into all areas of public life, for example into the school system. I anticipate that all real and perceived ‘foreign influence’, especially on civil society, higher education, arts and culture, will be further curtailed. The economy will be put on a war footing, gradually, more than it has been to date. We may see new, more stringent policies on mobilisation and possibly preventing young men from travelling abroad.
“What space there was for new faces and ideas in policy-making and governance will shrink. This is a real loss, because contrary to widely-held stereotypes, Russia has had quite vibrant public debates about certain policy issues, creative experimentation with public services on the local and regional level, and no lack of talented policymakers.
“I don’t see any growing enthusiasm among Russians for this war, only more quiet dejection, frustration, despair. No one is promising them a brighter, happier future now.
“The hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who have fled the country, either because they were so appalled by the invasion of Ukraine or because they feared being mobilised to fight or both, are only a – somewhat privileged – tip of the iceberg. There are many more who feel similarly alienated and scared but are unable to leave.
“For a much greater part of Russians, however, relatively little about their everyday lives has changed. The economic situation is bleak, but not more so than it was during the first year of the pandemic. The mood in the country is grim.
“I realise that some circles harbour a fantasy of Putin being toppled through mass public protests, but we know that such revolts succeed only where there are significant alternative centre of power or well-organised movements, neither of which exist in Russia. And that’s assuming a critical mass of the populace would be up for public protests, which they are not – or that the well-oiled machinery of repression would not put a quick stop to it, which they are clearly able to do.
“I don’t see this conflict ending anytime soon. There is no path to outright victory for either side. Neither is there recognition on either side that they want a political process, nor a conviction in the West that such a process would now be in their or Ukraine’s best interest, nor a consistent indication that Russia is prepared for meaningful negotiations.
“Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that Ukraine and Russia are talking to each other, literally every day. There are Russian and Ukrainian military officers and diplomats coordinating the export of grain via the Black Sea, every day. There are ongoing, fairly high-level and routinely successful prisoner exchanges.
“This isn’t fantasy or ivory-tower theory. Virtually all peace processes start with informal conversations between warring parties, often about humanitarian or other shared interests. This is how the world works and always has, only for some reason, key global decision-makers as well as influential pundits are pretending that this isn’t so, or that it doesn’t apply to Ukraine.”