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How the Ukraine War Could End: Stalemate or Russia Captures Kharkiv and Odessa

U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 65th Field Artillery Brigade fire a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a joint live-fire exercise with the Kuwait Land Forces, Jan. 8, 2019, near Camp Buehring, Kuwait. The U.S. and Kuwaiti forces train together frequently to maintain a high level of combat readiness and to maintain effective communication between the two forces. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Bill Boecker)
U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 65th Field Artillery Brigade fire a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) during a joint live-fire exercise with the Kuwait Land Forces, Jan. 8, 2019, near Camp Buehring, Kuwait. The U.S. and Kuwaiti forces train together frequently to maintain a high level of combat readiness and to maintain effective communication between the two forces. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Bill Boecker)

Bucking Basic (Western) Beliefs: Ukraine is in far worse shape than portrayed – Ukrainian officials claim their forces are ready to launch a “million-man offensive” against Russian forces next month, while retired U.S. generals talk confidently about the war ending on Ukraine’s terms by the end of this year. But an unemotional and realistic assessment of the war’s most likely trajectory paints a different picture.

Wars are inherently violent, chaotic, and unpredictable. Trying to predict how a war will turn out is a challenging task because there are so many variables that could change over time, each with the potential of altering the course of the conflict. Yet that does not imply that it is impossible to make reasonably confident assessments. If one considers the most critical fundamentals at play on all sides of the conflict, it is possible to chart several plausible endings.

This assessment will be the first of three articles that considers four different outcomes to the war through the end of 2022 that available evidence suggests are the most likely possibilities. Two of the outcomes are possible, one is possible but unlikely, and one emerges as the most likely – most of which are unpalatable to Ukrainian and Western audiences.

Ukraine War Scenario One: A Stalemate

In this scenario – held by a sizable portion of western analysts – the war drags on into the winter, deteriorating into a stalemate.  Russian striking power is eventually whittled down to the point they can no longer sustain even the incremental advances that have characterized the Spring and Summer offensive. Russia will complete its capture of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in the Donbas’ northern shoulder, but owing to cumulative losses to stiff Ukrainian resistance, they will not be able to complete capture of the Donetsk Oblast and won’t be able to launch offensives against either Kharkiv or Odessa.

As Kremlin leaders begin to recognize the likelihood that they would not be able to sustain the offensive to complete capture of all of Donbas, they will order their troops in all parts of occupied Ukraine to begin building strong and elaborate defenses along the forward line of their all advances: to the north and northeast of Kharkiv, from its forward positions in the Donbas, and forward of the Kherson front in the south.

Ukrainian troops would likewise begin building defensive works on its side of all three fronts in an effort to prevent an unexpected resumption of the Russian advance. Meanwhile, Kyiv would aggressively recruit and train replacements for the substantial losses they have suffered since February. Raising and training scores worth of new battalion tactical groups (BTGs). At the same time, Zelensky’s government will be aggressively working with Western partners to accelerate and expand the amount of modern heavy weaponry needed to eventually equip those new BTGs with kit sufficient to conduct offensive operations.

On the other side the line, Russia would likewise continue efforts to recruit and train additional soldiers, drawing from existing service personnel from its navy or air force, national guard forces, or new recruits. Moscow would maximize its industrial output to either produce new offensive gear, repair tanks and other armored vehicles damaged during the war or modernize equipment from its storage facilities so as to enable the new troops to return to the offensive in 2023.

Concurrent with all this military preparation and rebuilding, Kyiv and Moscow would engage in some degree of diplomacy to explore the possibility of a political solution that could end the war. Neither side would desire to keep fighting because of the cost in blood and treasure to its side. But unless or until one side calculates that it cannot win, a negotiated settlement during a stalemate is unlikely.

The more probable course is that each side will continue to rearm and retrain with an eye to starting an offensive of its own at the earliest moment in 2023 they conclude sufficient strength has been achieved. All during this phase, we are likely to see something like what happened during the eight years of stalemate from 2014 through the start of this war when low level artillery duels played out, along with sniper fire to keep reminding the other side that the war is not over. But there will be no serious offensive operations launched in the near term.

Ukraine War Scenario Two: Russian Capture of Kharkiv & Odessa

Between now and early fall, Russia not only captures Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, but all of the Donbas. Yet, the Ukrainian Armed Forces remain a viable force, preventing any immediate Russian breakthroughs into the Ukrainian rear areas beyond the Donbas. Zelensky’s forces avoiding a force-wide collapse, however, doesn’t mean they will have sufficient capacity to effect a stalemate.

Once Russia finishes the Donbas off, the most likely next target would be Kharkiv. To take that city, which had a pre-war population of almost 1.5 million, Russia will have to produce considerably more troops than what they have produced to date. As was graphically demonstrated in the opening rounds of this war, if Moscow tries to invest Kharkiv with insufficient troops, they will likely suffer enormous casualties and fail to capture the city. Whether Putin desires to take the risk politically or not, to have a real chance at capturing Kharkiv, he will have to mobilize considerable numbers of additional troops, at least 100,000 (but more likely double that).

Fighting in cities will again give advantages to the defenders as Ukrainian troops did in the opening rounds. Unlike the push last February, however, Russia has learned lessons from both its failures and successes and will not make the same mistakes that plagued it the first time (especially the employment of armor without infantry support and trying to force entry to the city without massive artillery support). Additionally, in this scenario, Russia will be starting from a position where it has severely depleted the Ukrainian manpower before the operation beginning – and most importantly – will invest the city from three sides (south, east, and north).

As with Mariupol, Russia will collect intelligence from multiple sources to try and identify where the majority of the UAF defenders are and then target that area with a relentless bombing campaign, possibly lasting weeks. While the artillery preparation is underway, the Russian Command may choose to use its maneuver forces to close off the western side of Kharkiv to cut it off from the outside, so no supplies or replacements get in, and no wounded can get out. Alternatively, they may also “leave the back door open,” so to speak, and offer the defenders an escape (as happened in Severodonetsk).

If Ukrainian defenders choose to stay and fight, then the battle will get ugly quickly. Russia has clearly shown that they have no qualms about methodically leveling a city with withering artillery and rocket fire, along with drone and air strikes. Once the city is cut off from all outside support, Russian forces will begin closing the ring, block by block, until they take the city. Kharkiv was one of eastern Europe’s most beautiful and historic cities. If this scenario plays out, it will be reduced to a shell of its former self, as was Mariupol before it.

But as the Battle of Donbas is currently demonstrating, the greatest loss for Ukraine may not be the city per se, but in the additional loss of the troops they assign the duty to protect it. Already Ukraine has lost many scores of thousands of troops. If the remainder of the Donbas falls, Ukraine will have even fewer effective soldiers to defend the rest of the country. If Russia completes the destruction of Kharkiv, they will also destroy another major percentage of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF).

So long as Russia retains the manpower advantage – and it is important to note that in a war of attrition (which this scenario would definitely be) – Russia has literally millions more military-aged men from which to draw. Ukraine can’t even match Russian losses one-for-one, much less suffer a greater number of losses (which would be likely if Russia is able to hold back its ground forces while its artillery, rocket, and air forces pound away on the UAF).

If Kharkiv falls, Ukraine will have even fewer troops left with which to defend Odessa. If Russia were to mobilize enough men, it is conceivable that they could invest Odessa even before Kharkiv was completely captured. But whether simultaneously or sequentially, if Russia moved on Odessa they would almost certainly employ the same strategy they’ve used countless times already in this war, surround the city, cut off its defenders, and then crush the city with saturating firepower.

If Russia were to successfully take both Kharkiv and Odessa (after having taken the Donbas before), then Russia would essentially be in control of all of Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. It would be likely at this point that Putin would seek to force a settlement on Kyiv, declaring that Moscow would keep all the territory it had conquered up to the Dnieper but would agree to let the authorities in Kyiv retain control of the capital city and all of western Ukraine.  If Zelensky still refused, Putin would face some complicated options.

He could either threaten to move his entire force on Kyiv – and with the casualties sustained in the loss of Kharkiv and Odessa, Ukraine would not have any hope of preventing Russia from seizing the city – or he would unilaterally declare he had accomplished all his objectives and move to annex all the territory, establishing a defensive line on all his western-most territory. Once the fighting gets to that point, however, Ukraine will have effectively lost the war. The chances of it ever regaining any lost territories would be virtually nil.

Consequences – and Next Possibilities

If either of these scenarios plays out over the remainder of 2022, Kyiv will be in bad shape. Even in the “better” option of a stalemate, the damage done to Zelensky’s troops and country will be incalculable. There would be the theoretical possibility that Ukraine could mount an offensive in 2023, but even that potential comes with a major caveat: all the while Ukraine was rebuilding its strength, Russia would be deepening its defensive works along the frontlines and likewise rebuilding its fighting power. Ukraine would then have the same monumental task of attacking into prepared defenses that Russia had back in February.

If scenario two plays out, however, Zelensky’s position will be markedly worse. He will have lost nearly half his country and an irreplaceable majority of his trained and experienced troops. It is possible to mobilize many hundreds of thousands of new troops, but years of experience and training can’t be replicated; it has to be built, and that will take years. The Ukrainian government would be faced with the ugly choice of either trying to continue the fight into 2023 – with the prospect it would continue losing even more territory and men – or seeking a negotiated settlement from a position of weakness.

Ascribing a value to the level of probability as to which is more likely, scenario one would be a “2” whereas scenario two would be closer to “3.5”.  The reasons: For Ukraine to achieve a stalemate between now and the end of the year, two things have to happen simultaneously. It’s not impossible for Kyiv to produce a stalemate, but it will be very difficult.

First, Ukraine would have to find a way to reverse their alleged 20-1 deficit in artillery, their reported 40-1 deficit in artillery ammunition, and find a way to reach air parity so they can both defend against Russian air and threaten Russian ground forces with airstrikes of their own. To date, the West has sent less than 150 howitzers and about a score of multiple rocket launchers – not enough to offset daily combat losses, much less close the gap with Russia.

Ammunition is an even bigger problem, as some Ukrainian gunners complain that often they can’t fire the weapons they do have for shortage of shells. It is enormously difficult to conduct any mobile tactics necessary to defeat an attacking force if the defenders remain outgunned so badly. If Ukraine is unable to reverse the ratios, even a stalemate becomes very difficult to achieve.

The chances for Russia to capture Kharkiv or Odessa are also tall orders. Though they do have firepower advantages over the defenders, it will take far more troops than Russia has thus far allocated to the so-called “special operation” to invest a city the size of Kharkiv. For that to happen, Putin will have to abandon his reticence at calling this what it is – a war – and engage in a large scale mobilization. Without at least 100,000 additional troops (and more likely 200,000) earmarked for the seizure of these cities, he will almost certainly be unable to capture either. If Putin doesn’t mobilize, the best he can do is continue to make incremental gains around major Ukrainian urban centers.

In the next piece, we will examine two other scenarios: the first, Ukrainian combat losses pass the point of sustainability and their defenses completely collapse, and the second, Western support is strong enough to equip Ukraine for a large-scale counteroffensive. Spoiler alert: the first scenario is theoretically possible, but very unlikely; the second is virtually impossible.

Expert Biography: Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

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Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.