February 26, 2024

Avril Haines, the director of US National Intelligence, recently identified three plausible scenarios in Ukraine.

Initially, continued Russian advances in eastern Ukraine would break the Ukrainians’ will to fight and allow the Russian military to control more of the country. This outcome is the new target for Vladimir Putin after his defeat in his initial attempt to overthrow the government of Ukraine.

In the second scenario – which is the most likely scenario (during a public appearance in Washington last week) – Russia will dominate the East but will not be able to go much further, Haines said. The two countries would fall into a stalemate that Haines described as a “crunching conflict”.

In the third scenario, Ukraine will halt Russia’s advance in the east and also succeed in launching counterattacks. Ukraine has already regained some territory, especially in the southern part of the country, and some military experts expect a broader offensive soon.

Today’s newsletter provides an update on the war by examining some of the questions that will help determine which of these three scenarios becomes likely.

Has the tide turned permanently, or are Ukrainian forces on the verge of greater success?

The last stage of the war went well for Russia. In the eastern part of Ukraine, known as the Donbas region, there are two provinces – Luhansk and Donetsk. Russia now effectively controls all of Luhansk and about 60 percent of Donetsk, according to Thomas Bullock, an analyst at Jane’s who specializes in intelligence issues.

Yesterday, Russian forces increased their bombardment near the city of Bakhmut in Donetsk which is an important center of Ukrainian supply. Russia used a similar tactic in Luhansk to purge Ukrainian forces and civilians before capturing the cities.

“The Kremlin is sending a message that their overall plans have not changed and that everything is going according to plan,” said Anton Troyanovsky, head of the Moscow bureau of The Times. In a sign of confidence in the Kremlin, Anton added, Russian media recently published plans to hold referendums in the officially captured and annexed territories.

But Ukraine continues to benefit from an influx of advanced weapons from the West. And there is reason to wonder whether Ukrainian forces will soon be able to use these weapons better than they have so far.

In the first phase of the war, the United States, the European Union, and other Ukrainian allies were sending out relatively simple weapons, such as shoulder-mounted missile systems known as Javelins. These weapons helped Ukraine defend its territory from small groups of Russian troops. More recently, the West has sent in more powerful artillery — such as the HIMARS, a truck-based missile system — aimed at helping Ukraine withstand the massive build-up of Russian forces in the east.

My colleague Julian Barnes points out that training someone to use a spear can only take a few hours. It can take days or weeks to train troops to use HIMARS – as does taking them to the battlefield. In the coming weeks, Julian said he will be watching to see if Ukraine will be able to use its increased supply of HIMARS to further damage Russian forces.

(Here’s more on the early impact of HIMARS from Eric Schmidt and John Ismay of The Times.)

Is Russia running out of forces?

Two recent developments provide reason to question. First, Russia had to turn to outside forces—such as those of the Wagner Group, a private company—to replenish its units, as my colleague Thomas Gibbons-Neff explained in his recent analysis of the war. Secondly, Putin ordered some of the troops participating in the recent victories in the Donbass region to rest, indicating the exhaustion of those units.

“US officials and outside analysts alike agree, if Russia wants to bypass Donbass, they should take a step they weren’t prepared to take: mass mobilization,” Julian said. Russia will need to conduct military conscription, recall previously served soldiers and take painful political steps to rebuild their power. So far, Putin has been unwilling to do that.”

Russia has much more resources than Ukraine, including soldiers and weapons. But Russia’s resources have limits, especially if Putin is unwilling to spend political capital on mass mobilization.

These constraints increase the likelihood that Ukraine will be able to retain Russia’s gains in the east and slowly deplete Russian forces with counterattacks and internal resistance—as well as Western economic sanctions. This situation, in turn, may lead Putin to accept a final ceasefire that leaves most of Ukraine intact.

“This wouldn’t be a complete victory, but it could be realistic,” Julian said.

But are Ukrainian forces running out faster?

Both sides seem to suffer a similarly high rate of casualties – hundreds a day. As a result, Ukraine had to rely increasingly on troops with little training.

Surviving soldiers are also at risk of psychological damage. My colleague Thomas points out that the style of fighting in the East – a ceaseless exchange of artillery – is similar to the trench warfare of the First World War, which gave rise to the term “shell shock”.

“During the artillery bombardment, all you can do is lie in the shelter and wait for the bombardment to end,” a Ukrainian commander told The Times. Some people suffer psychological damage from this bombing. He found that they were psychologically unprepared for whatever they encountered.”

Although the future may be uncertain in Ukraine, the present is clearly dire, Haines acknowledged when outlining the three scenarios last week. “In short, the picture remains very bleak,” she said.

Related comment: “The best way to prevent the next war is to defeat him in this war,” writes for The EconomistReferring to Putin.

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