InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a panel discussion with its experts and researchers entitled, "The Outlook in Ukraine: How Will the War End?" The panel focused on the stances of different actors regarding the war in Ukraine, as well as military developments, various short-term scenarios for how the war might progress, and what the aftermath of the war could look like. The key points from the panel include the following:
The stances of international powers involved in the war in Ukraine can be summarized as follows:
1. Putin draws upon Soviet legacy: According to panel participants, Russian President Vladimir Putin has dealt with the domestic front during the war through evoking various humiliations inflicted by the West. Putin’s narrative of the war utilizes the legacy of Soviet nationalism to ensure that he can garner sufficient domestic support for the conflict. Despite indications of growing discontent within Russia, especially after Putin announced a "partial mobilization" of reservists in September 2022, the regime continues to maintain control on the home front.
The Russian regime could still resolve its economic issues. Estimates indicate that inflation has markedly decreased during the last three months and that Moscow is trying to mitigate the effects of Western isolation and sanctions through making deals with other countries to require payment in rubles instead of the dollar. This was the case with the agreement reached on 6 September 2022 regarding payments for Russian gas exported to China. It is worth noting that Putin has ties with the ruling class in Russia that are unlikely to recede in the near future. Putin also relies on neighboring countries as allies in the conflict. The war has produced new hawks in the Russian regime, such as Dmitry Medvedev, who is currently serving as deputy chairman of the Security Council of Russia.
2. Russian regime adopts flexible approach towards the war: Putin relies on two main political strategies at the moment. The first involves intensifying foreign diplomatic activity and participating in regional forums in order to counter Western attempts to isolate Russia and cement its position on the ground. The second strategy involves trying to dismantle Western alliances and undermine US-European cooperation.
3. Ukraine focuses on maintaining Western support: Ukrainian President Zelenskyy depends upon continued Western support to arm Ukraine’s continued war effort, spurred on by the military gains that Ukrainian forces have achieved in recent months. This includes the recent victory on 1 October 2022 in Lyman, a strategically important city located in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine and home to a key railroad junction. Kiev is trying to expedite the process of joining NATO as a tool for repelling Russian attacks and wants to exert foreign pressure on Moscow’s allies. It has called for imposing sanctions on Iran for supplying Moscow with drones.
4. Zelenskyy as a security agent for the West: The Ukrainian president has tried to present himself as someone who can defend the West’s security. During a speech at the recent meeting of European leaders in Prague in October 2022, Zelenskyy called for security assurances and strong decision-making in support of Ukraine. He said that it was crucial that Ukraine win the war so that Russia would not attack any other countries.
5. Western countries view Ukrainian war as major threat: For the West, and for Europe in particular, the war in Ukraine poses a significant threat to its security. Western countries have endeavored in recent months to support Kiev through imposing a series of sanctions on Russia. Most recently, sanctions were imposed by the European nations that met in Prague in October. Western military support to Ukraine is a key tool in its fight against Moscow and the US is at the forefront in defending Ukraine. According to some estimates, total US military aid for Ukraine since President Joe Biden took office is around 18.3 billion USD.
6. Many countries remain neutral: According to panel participants, one of the main reasons some countries have chosen to remain neutral on the war is to give Moscow more space to maneuver on the international stage. The war has made clear that Washington has less clout in bringing allies to its side in joining Western sanctions on Moscow. Some neutral powers have also sought to use the war to serve their own interests, whether to weaken the US’s international standing—as is the case with China—or to further their economic objectives. The most important countries in the latter group are Turkey and Pakistan, which hopes to revive the Pakistan Stream gas pipeline.
Developments on the Ground
The most recent Russian and Ukrainian military developments on the ground can be summarized as follows:
1. Marginally reduced Russian control of Ukrainian territory: According to panel participants, Russia’s first military strike at the beginning of war allowed Russia to advance into about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory (totaling around 119,000 square kilometers). Almost seven months later, according to some estimates, Russia controls an area approximately 3,000 square kilometers smaller than the territory it controlled during the first five days of the war. The military dynamics of the conflict indicate that certain changes are now taking place. Moscow’s control over certain regions of Ukraine has receded in recent months. This is the case on the front in Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces took control of certain key areas in September, as well as in the cities of Balakliya and Izyum.
This shift occurred after Moscow announced it would withdraw its forces from those two cities and move towards the Donetsk region in order to prevent the Ukrainian army from advancing on that front. The Ukrainian Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories stated on 13 October 2022 that the Ukrainian armed forces had succeeded in liberating more than 600 settlements from Russian control in the last month. This included 75 settlements in the strategic Kherson region and 502 in northeastern Kharkiv.
2. Moscow carries out missile strikes against key targets: Moscow has adopted a military strategy of responding to the recent Ukrainian military advances with missile strikes on key targets and infrastructure. For example, there were attacks on Kiev and other major cities on 10 October that targeted energy, communications, and defense infrastructure. Russian attacks have focused in particular on energy infrastructure: the Ukrainian president stated on 18 October that since 10 October, Russia had destroyed around 30 percent of Ukrainian power plants.
3. Russia uses Iranian drones in the war: Moscow is also using drones that it received from Tehran to carry out attacks on Ukrainian targets. For example, there were attacks on Kiev on 17 October using Iranian-made kamikaze drones, which targeted key infrastructure in various areas. According to panel participants, Iranian involvement has introduced new complexities into the war, since Iran has supplied Russia with short-range ballistic missiles and drones. This could prompt Israel to intervene and provide arms to Ukraine.
4. Challenges for Kiev in responding to missile strikes: Although the Ukrainian military has advanced in some areas, Kiev’s ability to deal with missile strikes has encountered various obstacles. Moscow depends primarily on long-range cruise missiles such as the Kalibr and Kh-101, which can be launched at lower altitudes to evade radar. It also uses the larger and faster Iskander ballistic missiles. According to panel participants, some of the Western defense systems such as the German IRIS-T air defense system, which Berlin announced it would provide to Ukraine in October 2022, will help against Russian missiles like Kalibr but will have difficulties with larger missiles such as Iskander. Kiev is therefore pressuring Washington to provide it with the Patriot missile defense system, although there are many hurdles to doing so, including the huge costs of this system. Operating a single battery in the system would require around 70 trained soldiers.
The panel discussion considered two sets of possible scenarios regarding how the war in Ukraine might end. These scenarios can be summarized as follows:
1. Post-winter scenarios: The following scenarios outline potential developments in the conflict during the next five months, i.e., during the coming winter. Moscow seems to be planning to utilize winter challenges regarding limited gas supplies in Ukraine and Europe to strengthen its military position in Ukraine.
i. A military loss for Russia: This scenario supposes that the Ukrainian forces continue to make advances in areas currently under Moscow’s control, including areas that Russia had annexed. At the same time, Western countries would continue to provide military support for Kiev and to supply Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons. This scenario could also involve "black swan" events such as something befalling Russian President Putin, or Russian leadership losing control of forces stationed in Ukraine. However, this scenario would be difficult to achieve under current circumstances.
ii. Russian military victory over Ukraine: Despite the challenges involved in Russia achieving this scenario, it still remains more likely that the previous scenario. This supposes that the military strategy adopted by the new commander of Russian operations in Ukraine, Sergey Surovikin, becomes more effective, especially as Russia expands its missile and drone attacks on key areas and installations. It would also require Moscow to successfully build its land forces so that they are able to invade new areas of Ukraine. There could also be increased divisions among Western powers (i.e., between the US and Europe) and heightened domestic pressure in those countries to stop sending arms to Ukraine.
iii. Russia and Ukraine decide to negotiate: In this scenario, which is perhaps the most likely of the three, the conflict would end through a political compromise that serves the interests of both sides. This scenario could be put on the table if Putin’s winter strategy fails. It supposes that the two sides reach a point of equilibrium in the conflict and are not able to make further military advances. President Putin would take this path if he became convinced that continuing the war would have major domestic repercussions that were beyond his capacity to handle, such as major rifts among ruling elites. It is likely that Western countries experiencing growing domestic crises would pressure Kiev to agree to negotiate with Moscow. This scenario could include a joint mechanism to administer the Ukrainian regions that Russia annexed and maintaining Ukraine’s status as a neutral country (i.e., ensuring that it would not join NATO). Ukraine might be allowed to join the EU under the condition that it join only on an economic basis and not participate in joint military and security arrangements.
2. Short- and medium-term scenarios: The parameters of any agreement to end the Ukrainian war will center around various factors related to "strategic competition," that is, the extent to which the various interests and perspectives of different actors align. The nature of the agreement will depend primarily on the interests of countries directly engaged in the war, as well as those of third parties that stand to benefit from the continuation of the war. Military breakthroughs could also tip the scales one way or the other. Various pressing global issues could also have repercussions for the conflict, as well as social and economic variables. There are various possible scenarios that could ensue, including the following:
i. Sacrificing to compromise: This scenario would see the two sides of the conflict make certain concessions regarding their objectives. This would depend upon the capacity of both sides to not pursue gains that could be a turning point in the war. It also depends upon the presence of strong mediators that could flexibly negotiate between the two sides to end the war in exchange for achieving some objectives while accepting some compromises.
ii. The two Koreas: In this scenario, Russia would take full control over some regions of Ukraine, creating a status quo resembling that of North and South Korea. In other words, Ukraine would be divided into areas under the control of the Ukrainian government, which would be hostile to Russia, and other areas under Russia control, which would be hostile to Ukraine. Such an outcome is not out of question, especially since the Russian regime announced that it would not negotiate on the four regions of Ukraine that it had previously annexed.
iii. A different tack than in Afghanistan: It would be difficult for Russia to do in Ukraine what it did after intervening in Afghanistan, when the Soviets fully withdrew from Afghan territory after their military defeat. Current Russian interests are entirely different than they were during the war in Afghanistan. It is unlikely that Moscow will try to fully withdraw from the territory it controls in Ukraine.
iv. Falkland Islands scenario: The scenario depends on Russia’s ability to deliver a resounding defeat in Ukraine and for the Russian regime to achieve all its objectives in the war. This could include taking control of certain territories or even installing a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine. This scenario is unlikely because Ukraine has been able to make tangible progress in some regions and because it will be difficult for Russia to achieve a total victory at the moment given ongoing Western military and financial support for Ukraine.
After the War
The panel discussion examined shifts that could occur after the war in Ukraine, which can be summarized as follows:
1. Significant shifts on the Russian domestic front: It is likely that Russia’s domestic dynamics will change significantly after the war. This could include shifts in Putin’s image, his ability to control the domestic sphere, restructuring of the Russian army, and modifying the Russian military strategy.
2. Reshaping global arms supply: According to panelists, the war could also affect Russian military industries and its international reputation since the war has revealed various weaknesses in Russian arms supply systems. This could lead many countries to reduce their dependence on Russian arms and to turn instead to Western defense industries.
3. Changes to Ukrainian borders and national identity: The panel discussion also suggested that Ukraine could experience changes to the parameters of Ukrainian territory, a stronger Ukrainian national identity and a corresponding increase in discrimination and racism.
4. Growing divisions within Western alliances: Western countries could also face many challenges. The US is likely to experience many changes after the war in Ukraine, which has dealt a blow to its international image. On the domestic front, people are getting tired of US involvement in Russia’s war. The war has also highlighted major problems within Western alliances and growing disputes between Europe and the US, while raising questions about the future of NATO and its role in international security. Will NATO continue in the same form— or will it restructure itself again?
Finally, panel participants indicated that the UAE could play an important role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, due to its good standing with both parties to the conflict and other international actors, regardless of their stance on the war. Its efforts could therefore be more effective in coordinating between various regional and international powers to begin multilateral mediation. This would help prevent further civilian casualties in Ukraine and other negative repercussions for international security and the global economy.