It’s a popular topic on legacy and social media. Watchers and analysts of the Russo-Ukraine war say Russia is on the ropes and that Ukraine is winning. That may be true, but what does “winning” mean? And what would complete victory for the Ukrainians mean? It could be the entire capitulation of Russia’s troops, who decide to leave the entirety of the country to Ukraine. It could be the two countries enter into a frozen conflict that could last another decade. Or there could be some type of ceasefire or armistice that would make both countries stand down. Let’s examine the likelihood of these scenarios.
Ukrainian Counter-attack Has Been an Undeniable Success
It is clear that Ukraine has taken back substantial territory since it embarked on a two-pronged counter-attack in the country’s northeast and southeast regions between Kharkiv and Mariupol. The counterattack has been more successful from Kharkiv down to Izyum and from the Dniepr River down to Kherson.
Russia Is Holding On
Russia has redeployed troops to stem the bleeding, but many have arrived too late to stop Ukrainian advances. Russian forces had no good military options, especially outside of Kharkiv, where the troops were surprised at the veracity of the Ukrainian fighters. Momentum still belongs to Ukraine, although the initial advance has slowed down. Russia, as was expected, adjust and fight back, again with missiles, artillery, and rocket fire.
Restore Borders Before the War
One “winning” scenario would be restoring the borders that existed before the war started. With its recent success, Kyiv is not likely to stop here. The second winning formula would be the Ukrainians ejecting all of Russia out of the country, including Crimea, to turn back the clock to the borders of 1991. Ukraine also wants war reparations and war crimes tribunals. This is what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy demands and he has said so repeatedly. But even with the high rate of Ukrainian success recently, pushing the Russians completely out of the country would take another year at least. The Russians are weak, but they are not so weak to completely give up their holdings. Vladimir Putin would not have it. Giving up Crimea is simply out of the question.
Make It Official Russian Land
Russia wants Ukrainian territory, even though it has lost substantial ground recently. The referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson that would commit these regions to become official Russian territory will be coming by September 23. When this happens, Russia will claim new borders even though it does not militarily control all of the ground in these areas.
Both Sides Dig In Again
The counter-offensive could bog down due to Russian troops consolidating and re-organizing around key terrain to improve their defenses and dig in while Russian artillery and air power become decisive. Ukraine has bought itself more time to continue to receive Western military support with its recent successes.
Would They Ever Just Talk?
Getting both sides to the negotiating table would mean Ukraine and Russia would be completely exhausted from fighting. This is not yet the case. So that means stalemate and ushering in an era where there is a frozen conflict along trench lines similar to the years after the annexation of Crimea.
This is the more likely scenario than a complete win by Ukraine. No peace talks, no cease-fire, but no new military breakthroughs by either side. The fighting ebbs and flows as both sides look to receive reinforcements and new war materiel. The Russians still have more firepower, weapons, and ammunition. But the Ukrainians have better morale and ground mobility along with higher energy. Ukraine would have to mount more gains this fall before winter kicks in. Russia would have to play defense until Ukraine stops advancing and battle lines are re-drawn. It looks like a stalemate and frozen conflict until next spring, even though Ukraine could re-take the initiative and conduct more attacks this winter.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.