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Russia-Ukraine Crisis Scenarios

Ukrainians In London gather outside Downing street demanding greater sanctions on Russian after they commence their invasion. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona. Licensed under Unsplash.

Diplomacy has failed, what is next?

A week that started with hopes of a summit in the near future between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended with a feeling that we are currently living in the darkest hours of Europe since the Second World War. The Russian President signed, on Tuesday 22 February 2022, a decree to send what he is describing as a military operation into the separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. The decision comes after Putin recognized, a day earlier, both regions as independent states and described Ukraine as ancient Russian territory. Since then, with a few strokes of his pen, the Russian leader has made a diplomatic solution even less likely. As I am writing this article, we are finding ourselves at the early stages of a large-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine. The tensions between Ukraine and Russia continue to escalate after Russian forces invaded Ukraine from three sides. This move marks a significant escalation amid fears that Russia could fully occupy Ukraine. While the security environment is rapidly changing, this article aims to reflect on the most recent events, since Friday 25th of February, and provide strategic foresight analysis.

To end this crisis, Putin wants to redesign Europe’s “security architecture”, to re-establish Russia’s influence and extend its geopolitical reach. He wants to re-establish Moscow’s hegemony in the area that was controlled by the Soviet Union—including NATO members in Eastern Europe—and to weaken both NATO and the European Union. In pursuit of this objective, he wants NATO to pull back from “frontline” member countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, former members of the defunct Warsaw Pact. Further, he wants to limit or halt deployments in Eastern and Southern Europe of new medium-range missiles of NATO Allies. Regarding Ukraine, Putin wants NATO to never accept the country (nor Georgia and Moldova) as fully-fledged Alliance members. He wants Kyiv to accept autonomous status for the Donbas region and relinquish its claim to Crimea (as part of the so-called Minsk accords). If Putin succeeds in Ukraine, it is likely that he will turn his attention to those NATO members in Eastern Europe.

Four Russia-Ukraine Crisis Scenarios

The crisis has now reached a critical inflexion point with European stability and the future of East-West relations delicately hanging in the balance. As the objective of the Russian offensive was to surround Kyiv and force regime change, a number of full invasion scenarios can be considered highly likely.

1. Russian Military Full-Scale Invasion - The Initial Phase

It is most likely that a military intervention could see a lightning attack, aimed at encircling Kyiv, with the intention of forcing the collapse of President Zelenskiy’s government and trying to install a pro-Russian regime without urban warfare. This is most clearly indicated by Thursday’s early moves of troops from the north toward Kyiv which indicate an intention to remove the Ukrainian government. Furthermore, Russian forces have launched a major assault on Ukraine, firing missiles on cities and military targets. Russia could further aim to expand territorial gains in eastern Ukraine to recognize “breakaway republics,” establish a land bridge from the Crimean Peninsula to Odesa and the occupied Moldovan territory of Transnistria—or likely all three.

To achieve these aims, Russia could further seek to establish air superiority by destroying Ukrainian aircraft and quickly consolidating naval superiority in the Black Sea and blockading Odesa. This was evident with Russian airstrikes having destroyed 74 ground targets belonging to the Ukrainian military thus far, including 11 airfields, three command centres and a naval base. On the ground, Russian forces are executing simultaneous offensives: a northern thrust to threaten Kyiv and a southern push from Crimea, likely turning west towards Odesa. As of today, Russia is now in full control of significant parts of Ukraine’s territory. After Ukraine’s border came under attack on Thursday morning from artillery, tanks and small arms from Russian troops with the support of Belarus Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas are now taking over Ukrainian government-controlled territories amid the Russian invasion, with the intention of controlling all of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in Donbas. Another development has included Russian forces entering the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and capturing the nuclear power plant, which begins immediately below Ukraine’s border with Belarus. From the north, Russian troops are believed to have crossed the border into Ukraine at the three-way junction between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, at Senkivka. In the east, there has been fighting around Kharkhiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. Parts of the city have been shelled. There is also fighting around Donetsk, which has come under attack from troops crossing from Belgorod in western Russia. In the south, troops have crossed from Crimea to the mainland, towards Kherson, taking Chongar and Novo Alekseyevka. A third offensive, a western advance from the Donbas towards the Dnieper River is likely.

Figure 1: A map show areas of Ukraine attacked by Russia, on Feb. 24, 2022, Reuters

Putin will seek to continue to sow discord and instability in Kyiv, likely with a powerful cyberattack targeting critical infrastructure, including power, heat, and communications. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine redefines how we think about cyber conflict. The Ukrainian government has already been hit with a series of digital attacks ranging from wiping the data from computers to merely overwhelming them with traffic. Most recently, the Ukrainian government websites and banks were attacked on Wednesday, 23rd February 2022. The incident represents the third wave of attacks against Ukraine this year, and the most sophisticated to date. The attack appears to be consistent with recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks designed to knock a website offline by flooding it with huge amounts of requests until it crashes. As part of his hybrid warfare playbook, Putin will continue to use influence campaigns that rely on mis- and disinformation, and he is likely to use special forces to execute destabilisation operations in the capital. With a full-scale invasion now evident, Ukraine can expect to contend soon with more cyber attacks. These have the potential to cripple infrastructure, affecting water, electricity and telecommunication services – further debilitating Ukraine as it attempts to contend with Russian military aggression.

While in this scenario, an outright annexation of Ukraine’s territory is unlikely, a Putin victory would include the establishment of a new pro-Russian puppet government that recognizes breakaway republics in the Donbas as well as Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Such an intervention is directly linked to Putin’s fears that Ukraine is assimilating into the West, with its growing ties to NATO and the development of links with the EU.

2. Not the same 2014 euphoria in Russia

Putin’s decision to manufacture and instigate a crisis with Ukraine is not primarily driven by domestic political considerations, but by his recognition of an opportunity to advance his long-standing geopolitical goal of reestablishing Moscow’s control over key areas of the former Soviet space, specifically Ukraine and Belarus. The last time Putin invaded Ukraine, it resulted in a sharp rise in his popularity; but by fully invading Ukraine, it will most likely not be a “small victorious war.” Instead, in this scenario, there is a strong probability that it will result in a Ukrainian insurgency, a high level of Russian casualties, and severe economic pain due to Western sanctions. Therefore, Putin could be taking on significant domestic political risks by pursuing his geopolitical ambitions.

While Putin’s occupation of Crimea has always been popular among Russians, who typically view it as a brilliantly executed operation and an act of historical justice, the same is not true of Russian attitudes towards the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine; much of which is also currently occupied by the Kremlin. According to an April 2021 survey conducted by Russia’s last remaining independent pollster, the Levada Centre, only 25% of Russians support the incorporation of eastern Ukraine’s Kremlin-controlled “People’s Republics” into the Russian Federation. Meanwhile, 26% believe the so-called republics should remain within Ukraine with enhanced autonomy or the same status they had prior to 2014. It is, therefore, very unlikely that attempts to officially annex the Donbas would spark the kind of nationalistic euphoria associated with Crimea, with many questioning why Russia should pay a high price in terms of both blood and money for the control of the region. As of Thursday evening, thousands of Russians protested Putin’s assault on Ukraine across multiple cities, only to be met with heavy police presence and hundreds of arrests.

Likewise, efforts to expand the occupation of Ukraine and seize more land would also struggle to capture the imagination of the Russian public, especially if the advance was accompanied by a steady flow of Russian casualties. It would be difficult for Russians to reconcile an open and bloody war with the still widely believed myth that they and Ukrainians are “brotherly nations” or, in Putin’s words, “one people”. A full-scale invasion would, therefore, expose the painful truth behind many of Russia’s most popular propaganda narratives about Ukraine and fuel considerable public anger towards the Putin regime.

3. A stronger Ukraine

Since the outbreak of hostilities in 2014, Moscow has consistently depicted Ukraine as a brotherly nation that has fallen under the control of extremist elements and foreign powers. According to the sensationalised myths promoted by the Kremlin, most Ukrainians are eager to join the “Russian World” and are only prevented from doing so by the nationalist fanatics and Western agents who have seized power. In reality, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. A clear majority of Ukrainians back the country’s European choice and support further Euro-Atlantic integration. This has been demonstrated at the ballot box in numerous elections since 2014 and is regularly confirmed in opinion polls that indicate overwhelming levels of support for EU and NATO membership. The latest poll opinion surveys in Ukraine show an all-time high of majority support for accession to NATO (62%) and EU (68%).

Far from welcoming Russian troops, a recent poll indicates that millions of Ukrainians are prepared to offer armed resistance. This is very much in line with the experience in 2014, when thousands joined improvised volunteer battalions in order to support the country’s threadbare military and stem the tide of the Russian advance. In this scenario, the question remains whether there is any chance that Ukraine can put up a fight against Russia. The start of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 highlighted the weak state of Ukraine’s military which had been hollowed out by years of underfunding, outdated Soviet weaponry and corruption. To update their armaments Ukraine has received aid from the US totalling more than $2.5 billion, including equipment like counter artillery radars, drones, flak jackets, night-vision goggles, and armed patrol boats. It has also included sophisticated Javelin anti-tank missiles, which would potentially give Ukrainian troops a small battlefield advantage against Russian tanks. Furthermore, along with other NATO officers, the U.S. has also tried to improve training for Ukrainian forces; more than 150 troops from the Florida National Guard's 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team are currently in the country. Ukraine's military is now estimated to have a total of around 145,000-150,000 troops, with the army comprising the bulk of that. Nevertheless, much weaponry and equipment remain outdated, and a small airforce makes Ukraine, as evidenced yesterday, vulnerable to a major Russian incursion. In case of a full occupation, Ukraine will not have the military capabilities to stop the onslaught of the Russian Army.

While Ukraine certainly does not have decisive advantages which can deter a full Russian invasion, the improvement in combat experience, more and modernization of weapons would make full-scale occupation difficult. Russia could indeed acquire some specific areas, including cities; however, it will be difficult for them to hold such areas since they will be constantly attacked by Ukrainian groups.

4. The Western Resolve

As the preeminent institution dedicated to European security, NATO is a key player in this crisis. Among other roles, it is a forum for consultations among its allies and partners, an institutional authority condemning the Kremlin’s belligerence, and a conduit for dialogue with Russia to reinforce the European security order and the values on which it is built. Operationally, NATO has no obligation to defend Ukraine and will not send forces to do so. Instead, in the scenario of a full-scale invasion, the Alliance would continue to focus on deterring Russian aggression against NATO territory by increasing the readiness of its forces, supplementing its force posture in the frontline states, and harmonising command-and-control of those forces. Nevertheless, the routine cooperation that NATO promotes among its allies and partners would enable support to Ukraine bilaterally or through coalitions. While it remains unlikely that Biden would send forces into Ukraine, if the fight were to spill outside Ukrainian borders, there is a possibility Americans would get involved. Earlier this week, Biden approved the deployment of 2,000 U.S.-based troops to Germany and Poland, while Russia has gathered an estimated 190,000 troops near its border with the former Soviet country and in Belarus. He also agreed to send 1,000 U.S. soldiers currently based in Germany to Romania. In the case that Russian soldiers moved into NATO countries, perhaps hiding among refugee flows, or if there is an accidental attack by Russia—or one it claims was an accident—on a NATO ally, the US would certainly get involved, especially if Article 5 is triggered. While NATO has resolutely refused Moscow’s demands to reverse its Open Door policy, a NATO expansion as a direct result of this crisis is unlikely.

More sanctions will evidently follow in the next period. The EU leaders met yesterday to discuss the crisis and further restrictive measures that will impose massive and severe consequences on Russia for its actions. As of today, the EU Council has adopted new sanctions against Russia which cover the financial, energy and transport sectors, dual-use goods, export financing and visa policy. Additionally, the list of individuals targeted by sanctions has been expanded to cover new Russian citizens. These sanctions complement the severe and coordinated economic and financial sanctions vowed in yesterday’s statement of G7 countries. Notably, President Biden unveiled harsh new sanctions on Russia yesterday in addition to the initial tranche of sanctions, ​​including export blocks on technology. This would severely limit Russia's ability to advance its military and aerospace sector. Furthermore, since halting the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, on Tuesday 22 February, in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz has continued talks on sanctions, including discussions on whether to ban Russia from the SWIFT international payment system. While the 2014 sanctions were designed to impose longer-term constraints on the companies targeted, create leverage to halt the Russian advance and provide room for a diplomatic off-ramp to the fighting, Russia has not shown any sign that it will fulfil its commitments under the Minsk agreements. Now the US and Europe are rolling an arsenal of economic sanctions to combat Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; however, the economic entanglement between Europe and Russia makes the situation more complicated. The effects could take years for Russia to feel, causing the country’s stock market to falter, cutting the value of the ruble and making doing business with Russia increasingly difficult. Further, a total economic blockade would likely hurt Europe as much as Russia. In the short and medium-term, it is almost impossible for Europe to phase out its reliance on Russian energy supplies and Russia needs Europe’s money, accounting for approximately 40% of the country’s federal budget.

As of today, Friday 25 February 2022, the UN Security Council will vote on a resolution condemning Russia and calling for withdrawal. The resolution would impose “legally binding” obligations for Moscow to “immediately, unconditionally, and completely” withdraw its forces. While Russia could successfully block this resolution with a veto, action would be taken at the UN General Assembly, where Russia does not have a veto and all 193 members get a vote.

Looking ahead

As a nostalgic revisionist, Putin regards Ukraine as an integral part of historical Russia, with its loss as a symbol of Russia’s Cold War defeat. Putin further needs a big victory to shore up his domestic support, vindicate his anti-western policies, excuse rampant regime corruption and kleptomania, and justify the hardships Russians endure as a result of western sanctions imposed after his first attack on Ukraine in 2014, when he annexed Crimea and took de facto control of the eastern Donbas region. In our current context, Russia would move in on Ukraine to claim a quick, decisive victory and increase its bargaining power in future talks about NATO’s expansion and spheres of influence. If Russia does succeed in capturing and holding all of Ukraine, then there are risks of it spiralling outside of Ukraine. In the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in yesterday’s statement: “The fate of not only our state is being decided, but also what life in Europe will be like”.

While the US and Europe have been working together to compensate for a shortfall in gas, if Russia captures all of Ukraine, gas transit through Ukraine would likely be interrupted. This move would have serious ramifications across the entire continent, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. It is further possible, under a full invasion scenario, that outright conflict would have a large impact on energy markets. As of yesterday, Ukraine has temporarily disconnected itself from Russian and Belarusian energy systems to function independently and test for a future connection to a European network of transmission system operators. G7 leaders are closely monitoring global oil and gas market conditions, including in the context of Russia’s further military aggression against Ukraine.

There would be refugee flows that, at a minimum, could be destabilising to neighbouring countries. If Putin rolls in and seizes all territory east of the Dnieper River, including the capital Kyiv, Europe would be flooded with refugees. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi from yesterday’s statement: “The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating”. As Russian airstrikes hit overnight, European countries neighbouring Ukraine prepared for a flood of Ukrainian refugees by setting up reception centres and hospitals. Given Russia’s destabilising activities in the past, it is even possible that they could try to infiltrate refugee flows with special-operations forces to destabilise neighbouring NATO countries.

Failure to stop Putin in Ukraine may also give China another reason to challenge the U.S. over Taiwan. Beijing would take a Putin win as a sign of western and U.S. weakness and become more confident to move on Taiwan. The recent joint statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin earlier this month leaves little doubt that China and Russia have a much deeper strategic partnership today than when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Significantly, Putin waited until just after the Winter Games in Beijing were over to recognise the two breakaway regions of Ukraine and send in troops to back them. Nevertheless in any scenario, China will most likely adopt a more neutral position, with Xi not openly backing a Russian invasion. The war in Ukraine is a severe test of China’s new axis with Russia. Since Thursday’s attack, Beijing has trod a cautious diplomatic line on the crisis and refused to call it an “invasion” or condemn the actions of Russia, its close ally. Furthermore, Ukraine's number one trading partner is China and Beijing would ideally like to maintain good relations with Kyiv, but this could be difficult to sustain when it is clearly so closely aligned with the government which is sending its troops into Ukrainian territory. In a recent statement, the Chinese President told Putin to: “abandon the Cold War mentality, attach importance to and respect the reasonable security concerns of all countries, and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations”. Nevertheless, while most nations in Asia rallied to support Ukraine, China has continued to denounce sanctions against Russia and blamed the United States and its allies for provoking Moscow. A possible Chinese intervention may, therefore, be possible through indirect assistance to Russia to deter the effects of strong Western economic sanctions or export controls.

Overall, Putin is playing a dangerous game in the early stages of invading Ukraine. Facing waves of sanctions from Western allies and invading areas of Ukraine without sentimental value to the Russian people is quickly making him lose domestic support. His actions are further undermined by an inability to annex the entire territory of Ukraine, which is now confronted by a more resistant country that is better trained and has more updated weapons than in 2014. Even his strategic partner China may not show the support desired in his quest to redesign Europe’s “security architecture” to the Cold War status quo. While we are looking at many more attempts for a diplomatic resolution, Putin’s continued interventionist actions will only make him increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Scenarios
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This research contributes to Sustainable Youth Goal 4:

Achieving Conflict Prevention and Resolution


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