What war scenarios now and tomorrow in Ukraine

In the last few hours, in an attack that defies all logic, a Russian armored column crossed open countryside near the village of Tonenke, Donetsk region, and was repelled by drones and anti-tank weapons: about a dozen tanks and other vehicles armored vehicles were pulverized. Once again, Ukrainian units repelled a poorly planned assault and held their positions. But such attacks intensify and begin to saturate Ukrainian defenses, to the point that one or more fronts could soon give way.

The answer as to why the Russians sacrifice so many men and equipment, and how long Kiev's defenses will hold up, will come in the summer, when Russia will be ready to launch a vast offensive operation on multiple fronts: as soon as it has armed the new conscripts (140 thousand new and fresh units) and with the climate favorable to facilitating large-scale land operations, the assault will begin, perhaps decisive for the outcome of the conflict. In the meantime, for Moscow these massacres of men are functional to test the Ukrainian defenses to identify their weak points and then break through to one of these at the right moment.

The Kremlin's orders are in fact: to exhaust, to wear out, to give the enemy no respite. The numbers are all on Moscow's side, obviously. If mechanized ground attacks are repeated more and more frequently it is therefore because Russia «is already able to supply its front line forces with 30 thousand men per month. Its military industries work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to churn out everything from tanks to drones to guided bombs” observes worriedly the UK Ministry of Defence, on the front line together with Kiev in coordinating the resistance.

For US Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the situation is even worse: “The Russian Army has almost completely reconstituted itself militarily” and this will soon allow the Kremlin to “significantly increase” the incursions, although so far this strategy has not led to results appreciable. Democrat Chuck Schumer, majority leader of the United States Senate, has no doubts: “Kiev has two months left” before it collapses under the blows of Russian forces.

Whether this timing is reliable or not, Ukraine in any case – even the stones know it by now – will not be able to resist for long in any of the scenarios that arise between now and the end of the year. Although a new mobilization law for recruits has already lowered the eligible age range from 27 to 25, even by beefing up the army the balance of forces remains overwhelmingly in favor of Moscow: 10 to 1 according to Polish estimates, and 5 to 1 in ability to launch drones and artillery shells at enemy lines.

It is true that so far the Russian generals have done everything they could do wrong, and that – according to the Ukrainians – morale is low even among their ranks. According to Andriy Yusov, representative of Ukrainian defense intelligence, Moscow's soldiers «are ready to pay bribes, which is happening on a large scale, to get injured or simply run away to avoid the front line, since the chances of survival and the number of losses remains very high for the Russians.”

Nonetheless, Moscow benefits from inexhaustible resources and continuous additions: among these, contract soldiers (Wagner no less than other mercenary militias), amnestied prisoners and international troops (from the Chechens to the Central Africans). Which makes the likelihood of a major summer offensive more than real and its impact crucial to breaking the stalemate.

Four possible scenarios

Experts at the Chatham House think tank have identified four possible scenarios for the end of the war and their likely consequences.

Scenario 1, «Russia wins»: this will undoubtedly happen if American support is reduced as it is now or is even stopped at the beginning of 2025, i.e. after the US presidency and Congress have been renewed. In the event of Donald Trump's victory, in particular, one can be sure that the White House will focus more on supporting Jerusalem and will not provide any further aid to Kiev, forcing its surrender. At that point Ukraine, which is already struggling to defend itself (let alone repel the Russians), will have to cede significant portions of its territory, retreating tactically to defend everything west of the Dnipro river, and then retreating to the last defensible positions, settling probably around Odessa and the capital Kiev. Russia will then be able to claim its victory, while Zelensky and his government will fall because they are defeated.

Scenario 2, «Ukraine wins», is currently the least likely. For this hypothesis to occur, Kiev will have to have repelled Russia from all its internationally recognized territories, thanks to the use of artillery, fighter planes and long-range missiles that NATO will have provided them, together with logistical support and coordination of military operations. But for the moment, despite the favorable opinion of France, the United Kingdom and Poland, the resistance primarily of the United States makes this prospect border on utopia. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Mike Johnson, said that he intends to put to the vote, perhaps by April, the famous measure blocked in Congress which allocates 60 billion dollars to Ukraine, 50 of which for weapons and military equipment. But at the moment, there is no certainty in this regard.

Meanwhile, reality dictates that despite notable successes in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions in late 2022, Ukraine's much-vaunted 2023 counteroffensive was met with strong and disciplined Russian resistance, bringing the war to its current impasse. Likewise, uncertainty about the level of support that Kiev's main Western supporters intend to provide is determining its defeat: “How do you fight with one hand tied behind your back, at the hands of our allies?” ask the Ukrainian generals.

This makes Scenario 3 more likely today, that is, the one that involves an “Agreement between the parties” mediated by the international community or favored by other unfavorable circumstances for Moscow. In this scenario, Russia and Ukraine will be forced to sign a ceasefire preparatory to a consequent peace agreement, which will probably bring the clock back to the positions of 2014: Crimea in Moscow and a buffer zone in Donbass, Ukraine's maintenance of independence and the Atlantic Alliance's commitment to guaranteeing its security.

But it is perhaps Scenario 4, “No agreement”, that is the most realistic and at the same time dangerous: in this case, Russia and Ukraine continue to fight chasing the same objectives. Neither of them manages to land a decisive blow, but neither does they promote or show interest in an agreement with the international community.

This hypothesis makes not only the future of Ukrainian and Russian security uncertain, but also directly threatens European and global peace. Because it means that the war could spread to regions hitherto spared from the war, in view of the desperate attempt by both sides to reverse the situation: a typical example is Transnistria, a strip of land protected by the Russians in Moldavia, from which Moscow could wanting to launch an offensive to conquer the strategic port of Odessa and thus deny Kiev access to the sea.

In this scenario, some European countries could be involved and forced to intervene directly. In fact, the proverbial “snowball effect” would be produced, which would undoubtedly overwhelm the whole of Eastern Europe and drag Moldova itself into war. The problem is that Moldova has obtained the status of a candidate country for EU membership in June 2022, and an attack on its territory would force – morally and politically – the European Union (not NATO, of which it is not party) to defend it. France, Poland, Romania and Moldova have already prepared for this possibility. The war “is already real and started more than two years ago”, said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in this regard. And the United Kingdom is also convinced that, despite its divorce from Brussels, it intends to defend every inch of Europe from the Russian threat.

It goes without saying that the Kremlin would respond to a European intervention with unpredictable hostile actions, even within the borders of the Union. Which would effectively force NATO to think about a possible deployment. Moscow has so far focused on the West's lack of will to take such a step, on the ability of its intelligence to persuade individual states not to vote for new supplies of weapons to Kiev (even by bribing individual politicians), and on the fact that they will not be enough NATO's long-term funding, because ultimately it is men who make war. And the Ukrainian ones are starting to run out.

Each scenario described here may ultimately still happen, but the only certainty we have is that time is running out for Kiev.