At the dawn of the seventh month of conflict, the war seems to be turning to Ukraine’s advantage. Long on the defensive, Kyiv forces launched a massive offensive on August 29 and made spectacular inroads into Russian lines, particularly in the Kharkiv region. Two weeks after the start of operations, President Zelensky claimed the reconquest of “6000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territories in the East and the South”.
A new blow for Moscow, after the failure of its initial offensive on kyiv, in February-March, then its laborious advance in the Donbass at the end of the spring. If the strategic initiative is now in the hands of the Ukrainians, who benefit from the crucial help of the West, the outcome of the war remains nonetheless uncertain. Several scenarios are emerging for the months to come. From a Russian military collapse in Ukraine to a nuclear escalation in Moscow, L’Express reviews the possible developments in the conflict.
• Scenario 1: The total collapse of the Russian army
For the Kremlin, it would be a nightmare: the complete collapse of its military apparatus. Strategists no longer exclude this hypothesis. In his last note, Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus at King’s College London, even argues that a “sudden rout (…) is nothing unusual in wartime” and cites the case of “the Afghan army, in the summer of 2021”. “This scenario is possible, but is not the most likely, judges General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French mission to the UN. Because it would imply that the Ukrainian maneuver in Kherson, in the South, also succeeds, leading a general stampede of Russians in the rest of the country.”
So where would the Ukrainian troops stop? On the front line of 2015 or on the borders of 1991, regaining a foothold as far as Crimea? Everything will depend on the negotiations… if they resume. “The Russian army has not been completely defeated in the east and its troops in the south are larger and of better quality, recalls Tomas Ries, professor at the Higher School of National Defense in Stockholm. But the morale of the Russian soldiers is so low that a collapse remains possible.”
A military bankruptcy could cause political upheaval in Moscow. As Australian General Mick Ryan has pointed out, “a quick victory for Ukraine would not only have a profound impact on Putin’s future, but also on the psyche of a Russian public fueled by a narrative about his fate. and the threat posed by NATO”. By its strategic and historical scope, a rout would open the field of the possible on the domestic as well as on the international level. For better or for worse: nothing says that the Russian State, which has nuclear fire, would become less dangerous.
• Scenario n° 2: gradual reconquest by Ukraine
In the eyes of many experts, this is one of the preferred hypotheses for the coming months: the forces of kyiv manage to retain the strategic initiative and continue to push back, little by little, the Russian forces from their territory. “Given the balance of power currently in Ukraine, we seem to be heading towards a scenario of this type, confirms General Dominique Trinquand. In this case, a victory for Ukraine would be possible during the year 2023.”
Managing to impose itself on the western shore of the Kherson Oblast, in the south, as far as the Dnieper River, kyiv’s forces could then concentrate their effort on the Zaporizhia region and seek to retake some of their territories in the east of the country. Until the areas passed under the Russian flag since 2014? “At most, the Ukrainians could regain the territories they have lost since the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, estimates Olivier Kempf, director of the strategic cabinet La Vigie. The recovery of separatist territories in the Donbass seems to me very uncertain and the Russia will do everything to defend Crimea which it annexed in 2014.”
However, this would only be a small consolation for Vladimir Putin: his “special military operation” would therefore not have led to any territorial gain, at colossal political, economic and military costs. “The essential condition for this reconquest would be continued military and financial support from Western countries, warns Tomas Ries, however. This could disrupt a winter marked by inflation and potential energy shortages.”
• Scenario 3: the status quo
In this scenario, the Ukrainians reach the end of their attacking potential, then find themselves unable to push their effort further. The result: positions become frozen, with neither side able to field the resources needed to break through enemy lines on the battlefield. “This assumes that the Russians manage to reorganize their system to put in place an effective and well-supplied defense, notes Léo Péria-Peigné, researcher in armaments and forecasting at the Center for Security Studies of the French Institute for International Relations. However, we know that they have lost a lot of equipment, following the various strikes and the Ukrainian counter-offensive, and that they lack trucks to ensure their logistics.
The stability of the front line would not necessarily mean the end of the fighting. “It would be like a frozen conflict, like in the Donbass between 2014 and 2022, points out Olivier Kempf. It is very likely that lower intensity fighting will continue, with sporadic bombardments and skirmishes causing deaths and injuries in each side.” The war in the Donbass – before the Russian invasion – had left more than 14,000 dead and 25,000 injured.
Ultimately, the inability of one side to prevail over the other could lead to the opening of talks. “The risk would be that a weariness of Westerners vis-à-vis the harmful consequences of the war would lead them to put pressure on Ukraine to accept a compromise that is not necessarily to its advantage, explains Tomas Ries .Under these conditions, it would not be guaranteed that a deal could hold in the long term.” With, ultimately, the risk of a new conflagration.
• Scenario n°4: Russian escalation
In the impasse, Moscow is trying everything for everything in order to regain control over the course of operations. Several options are therefore on the table. Faced with the difficulties encountered by the Russian army, voices have already begun to rise in Russia to demand a general mobilization. The objective: to increase the pool of men available. But putting it into practice could be tricky. “This decision would be very unpopular in the big cities and would have the disadvantage of depriving Russia of a large part of its workforce, warns Léo Péria-Peigné. In addition, this will not solve the main problem of the Russian army, namely its lack of specialized soldiers, capable of using complex weapons, piloting and firing armored vehicles.”
A need that would not be met by a mass of hastily trained non-professional soldiers. “The Russian army can still increase its level of commitment, affirms Olivier Kempf. It still has pools of men available among its reservists, its conscripts or its professional units which have not yet been engaged.”
Another extreme – and dreaded – hypothesis, that of a nuclear escalation by Moscow. “A single nuclear strike would only have a limited effect on the battlefield, due to the significant dispersion of Ukrainian forces, believes Tomas Ries. To really change the situation, Russia would have to resort to massive strikes.” A scenario that remains at this stage very hypothetical in the eyes of the experts. The political repercussions of such action, on a global scale, could far exceed the expected benefits. And tip Russia, which still has international support, to the rank of “pariah of the world”.
Paul Véronique and Clement Daniez