Scenarios for 2024: end of the war, jokers and risks
The excitement of the spring of 2023 has already subsided, and public sentiment has shifted in the opposite direction. However, let's attempt to step away from emotions and approach the analysis rationally
What will happen next?
We are taking a time frame of at least 2 years here to take into account the effects of elections in key countries. Now the euphoria of spring 2023 has passed, and the pendulum of public sentiment has swung in the other direction, but let's attempt to step away from emotions and approach the analysis rationally. However, if you choose to be ignorant, stop here and do not read further.
What we know for sure at the moment:
- Positional warfare does not result in a substantial shift in the contact line. Military analysts argue that the defensive capabilities of each side surpass their offensive capacities. Despite Ukraine's notable achievements in the air and at sea, the primary focus of the war remains the land front.
- Putin has opted for a strategy of attrition, a scenario in which authoritarian Russia holds an advantage over Ukraine. This is due to our reliance on democratic allies whose stance might shift post-elections, especially considering Russia's interference in these democratic processes.
- Currently, the West deems the prospect of Russian defeat as unacceptable, causing repercussions such as the quantity and quality of arms supplies and the strictness of the imposed sanctions.
This leads to three main scenarios for Ukraine.
1. War of attrition
This is the worst-case scenario, and so far the events are unfolding in this direction, with the gradual change of power in Western countries resulting in a diminishing level of support for Ukraine. This trend could eventually reach a point where Ukraine becomes unable to sustain the war and is compelled to negotiate for peace on Russia's terms.
Even if political support remains at the current level, two additional factors pose challenges. First, the escalation of tension in various global regions may divert attention away from Ukraine. Secondly, the West's capacity to supply weapons may dwindle, as private arms and military equipment manufacturers may be hesitant to invest in expanded production without substantial government guarantees – guarantees that Western governments are currently unwilling to provide. In any case, Ukraine is not able to provide itself with modern weapons on its own, although it must take all possible steps in this direction.
This scenario implies Ukraine's defeat, offering little chance for economic recovery. Moreover, it results in Russia's defeat as well, although they may be content with the war's end through mutual failure. Domestically, Ukraine faces challenges, as holding elections during prolonged martial law is impractical. If elections proceed, they may institutionalize the current government in an unfavorable manner, providing the West with grounds to dismiss Ukraine as undemocratic. Alternatively, it could lead to mass protests during wartime, with dire consequences.
A variation of this scenario involves a decrease in hostilities due to the limited capacity of both sides, followed by a resurgence of high-intensity conflict when at least one side is ready to resume. If neither side is prepared, gradual depopulation and deindustrialization may occur in both countries.
In the event of a Russian victory, there's a significant likelihood that the conflict could extend to European territories, particularly the Baltic states. This may happen without explicit NATO opposition but could involve the participation of mobilized Ukrainians in the Russian army.
2. Freezing the war
This scenario provides the West with a way out of the current trap of "defeat, victory, and delay are equally unacceptable."
In this scenario, the allies maintain their support for Ukraine at approximately the current level in order to prevent Ukraine's defeat and to prevent Russia's defeat. Stating the impossibility of achieving success, the Western allies persuade Ukraine to negotiate a freeze on the war, while putting strong pressure on Putin.
Either Biden will initiate the negotiations in the spring or summer of 2024 (he needs to look like a winner in the election, or at least a peacemaker), or the winner of the American elections in the spring of 2025.
Today, this scenario may seem unlikely, because neither Ukrainian society nor Putin is ready for negotiations - he does not need elections, because he is betting on the first scenario of a war of attrition. But many factors can change the situation: for example, the majority of Ukrainian society may not accept the mobilization and start putting pressure on the government (and the government will easily shift the responsibility to "the people who are guilty of disrupting the mobilization"), or numerous splits in our society (largely created by Russian special services) will make it impossible to hold the line. Meanwhile, Putin may find himself under internal (clans) or external (China) pressure, including as a result of growing economic problems in Russia and China. The Russian position may be affected by various asymmetric Ukrainian actions. Let me emphasize that, unlike the first scenario, the negotiations will be conducted on Western terms, not Russian ones.
But this is not the end, but a new beginning.
After signing the peace agreement, both sides (Ukraine with the help of the West, Russia with the help of China, since the war is formally over) begin to intensively prepare for the next war, which will take place in an average of 5 years (at least 3, maximum 7 - this is how long military analysts estimate that Russia needs to restore its capabilities, but the pace depends on the amount of foreign aid and other factors).
Since the peace agreement leads to the lifting of martial law, democratic elections are held, in which new faces representing the course of comprehensive modernization win, while Zelenskyy is associated with defeat and leaves the political scene (refusal to hold democratic elections in peacetime will have even worse consequences for him).
As Russia prepares for the next war, it has a chance to learn from the mistakes of 2022 (and it will), and Ukraine has a chance to modernize significantly (not only technically but also institutionally; I would also add in parentheses that it is worth starting now).
Then there are two scenarios:
In the best-case scenario, Ukraine modernizes so well that Russia is afraid to attack, so the situation is frozen for a long time, like the Korean scenario. This is not the victory that most people want, but it gives us a good long-term economic and security perspective.
In the worst-case scenario, Ukraine is poorly prepared and the second invasion leads to a complete defeat and the establishment of a pro-Russian regime (see the first and second Chechen wars), eventually eliminating sovereignty with all the consequences of 1920-1980. A variant of this scenario: if populists win the election, instead of modernizers-defenders, an active minority terrified of the prospect of Ruin takes to the Maidan. Not the best option, but it can avert the worst.
Ukraine manages to convince its allies that Russia's defeat is an acceptable (and even desirable) scenario. Aid increases sharply to a level that allows for a successful spring and summer counteroffensive, liberation of the South and Crimea, a significant reduction in the front line, freezing the occupied part of the East until better times, and in this format entering into negotiations on Ukrainian terms.
After the peace is signed, Ukraine joins NATO and receives large sums of money to rebuild and modernize its economy. A victorious Ukraine attracts the world's attention in various ways, including investment. The security situation is favorable for economic growth, and the unblocked seas are open for exports. Zelenskyy easily wins the democratic elections as a winner in the war. Meanwhile, Russia's defeat leads to the accumulation of factors in Russia that lead to political change, as has always happened in its history after military defeats. These changes (in the soft format of refederalization or in the more likely hard format of decolonization) make it impossible for Russia to engage in further aggression.
The "Victory" scenario is the least likely, as it presupposes a level of strategic and negotiating skill that Ukraine does not currently possess. At the same time, it is the only one that ensures the survival of the ruling political team, and it is good that the interests of society and the political elite coincide.
- There can always be some "black swans" or even "gray rhinos" (an event that has been long awaited). For example, Putin may die, and the possible duration of concealing this information is much shorter than it takes to identify a successor and consolidate power (no one in Russian history has managed to do this faster than 3-4 years). There are also many jokers hidden in the sleeve of the Chinese robe. But it is pointless to bet on such events.
- Trump is an eccentric and completely unpredictable character, so there is a non-zero probability that, due to certain factors, he will suddenly turn around and support Ukraine to the maximum. But it is obvious that it would be foolish to bet on this.
What Ukraine should do in 2024:
- Shaping a compelling narrative of victory and the post-war world, emphasizing that Ukraine's success is synonymous with the success of Western allies and partners, and conversely, any setback for Ukraine is a setback for them. To achieve this, Ukraine should strengthen its diplomacy across key areas, leverage cultural and artistic initiatives, collaborate with international business networks, and engage with public organizations globally. Efforts should be made to enlist the support of Western intellectuals and public figures, while leveraging the influence of the Ukrainian diaspora, both traditional and new. Crafting a clear and potent anti-colonial and anti-imperialist message, especially to non-Western nations, can further bolster Ukraine's global standing. Finally, Ukraine should articulate its preferred scenario and outline the necessary resources and mechanisms required for its realization.
- Significantly increase Ukraine's capacity: simplify business conditions, actively develop public and private production of weapons and military equipment, launch public administration reform, remove the most active Russian agents from the government, increase the inclusiveness of policy-making, continue to increase the capacity of the Armed Forces through training, change management processes, etc.
- To maintain the unity and cohesion of Ukrainian society, to prevent splits based on Russian information influences. Focus on the picture of the future for Ukraine: victory, modernization, democracy. To insure failed state institutions with civil society networks.
- More actively influence social forces within Russia: local elites, national liberation and regionalist movements, etc. To form an anti-imperial bloc of enslaved peoples within the Russian Empire, providing them with all possible assistance and actually opening a second front against Moscow. To maximize the use of the strategy of indirect actions, to transfer the war to the enemy's territory with the help of available weapons and means.
What every one of us should do in 2024:
- Keep a cool head, help others do the same. Help those who have a harder time: Ukrainian soldiers, their relatives, residents of frontline areas, internally displaced persons, veterans, etc.
- Contribute to the victory with your own money (donations) and time (volunteering, participation in public teams working for victory, etc.)
- Be ready for mobilization, especially psychologically and practically.
- Do not fall for Russian information operations, do not spread them. Remember that the world is complex, not black and white, and there are no simple answers to complex questions.
- To resist the government's attempts to limit democracy, halt the economy, and expand corruption through opinion polls, petitions, and social media waves (I hope it doesn't come to the point where citizens are forced to break martial law restrictions and take to the streets).
- To clean up the part of the Ukrainian space for which each of us is personally responsible, namely, our own minds, i.e. to throw out the entire legacy of the Russian-Soviet empire: the remnants of communism, totalitarianism, colonialism, paternalism, closure, economic dirigisme, inferiority complex, Soviet stereotypes, etc.
- Support Ukrainian: goods, small local producers, culture, books, independent media, etc.
- Think about others. Respect. To be grateful.
Finally, we thank the Armed Forces of Ukraine for the fact that we still have an open scenario space in which different futures are possible.
I want to emphasize once again: the future is not predetermined. The best scenarios are possible, but we need to implement them, not just believe that everything will work itself out.
About the author. Valeriy Pekar, lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.
The editors do not always share the opinions expressed by the blog authors.