Three scenarios for a long and bloody conflict in Ukraine

Russia’s military operations in Ukraine may last just weeks, but Putin could seek total occupation of the country or even challenge NATO, according to military and diplomatic analysts, who have not ruled out a “miracle of Dnieper”

Guerra en Ucrania
Destroyed Russian military vehicles in Borodianka, in the Kyiv region, pictured by a drone on March 3.MAKSIM LEVIN (REUTERS)

Russia’s war against Ukraine will intensify in the coming weeks; Vladimir Putin will seek to gain total control over the country and the subsequent occupation could last for years, according to forecasts by several Western governments 11 days after the Kremlin launched its invasion. Ukrainian resistance against Russian forces has been considerably more concerted than Moscow surmised, but few military experts and world leaders believe the Ukrainian forces can stop the advance definitively. A majority of Ukraine’s allies are under no illusions that Putin will see his military designs through to the bitter end and in the next few weeks Russia’s initial probes are likely to become full-scale assaults on a much larger front as the vast armored column approaching Kyiv and more support units arrive at the various fronts to reinforce the advance combat troops.

These are the scenarios being predicted among the Western powers, almost of which augur a protracted and bloody war.

1: “The miracle of Dnieper”

According to this scenario, which the Atlantic Council think-tank has dubbed “the miracle of Dnieper,” Ukrainian forces, backed by allied armaments, halt the Russian advance. Putin, buckling under international isolation and sanctions, retreats.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the BBC last Friday that a Russian victory is far from guaranteed. “If it’s the intention of Moscow to try somehow to topple the government and install its own puppet regime, 45 million Ukrainians are going to reject that one way or the other.”

On the assumption that the Western powers will not directly intervene, the idea is that sanctions and the delivery of firepower to Ukrainian forces will make life difficult for Putin and force him to rethink his strategy. In the words of a source in the French government, who asked for anonymity, it is a matter of “making the cost of war so expensive that it is impossible to continue.”

However, on Thursday, following a telephone conversation between Putin and Emmanuel Macron, the same source said: “Taking into account what he has just been told, the president fears the worst is yet to come.” François Heisbourg, Special Adviser for the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, notes: “Vladimir Putin has shown that, when he encounters difficulties, he does not rein in his ambition but increases his means.”

2: The war escalates to total occupation

Russia’s military operations will last weeks, rather than months, but the war itself will be longer and the aftermath could be a matter of years and result in an uncertain outcome, according to the Spanish government’s top military advisors.

Ukraine’s allies estimate that Kyiv could fall in five to 10 days, but that will not mark the end of the conflict, a diplomatic source tells EL PAÍS. A guerrilla war is likely to ensure, fought by a resistance armed by the Western powers and in possession of hardware such as Stinger surface-to-air missiles, of much the same model that helped the Mujahidin to repel a Russian occupation in the 1980s.

This scenario was corroborated last week by high-ranking officials in the Joe Biden administration - among them Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines - in a closed-door meeting of the US government. According to several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the White House predicts a ferocious struggle for Kyiv, which Russia could get the better of in a matter of weeks, followed by an entrenched conflict that could last for years.

Russia’s strategy, according to Spanish military sources, is based upon encircling and cutting off Ukraine’s major cities to force them into submission. If they do not surrender, the Russian army will unleash shock and awe tactics that will cause a huge number of civilian casualties, for which the blame will be laid squarely by the Kremlin at the feet of Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

The outcome, according to these forecasts, would lead to the total occupation of Ukraine. “Our analysis of the ongoing military operations is the Russian ambition, in effect, is to gain total control of Ukraine,” says the French diplomat. Macron does not view the partition of the country as a viable prospect, because Putin’s design is power over Ukraine and partition would be a violation of the sovereignty of the invaded country.

“This is the base scenario: the capture of the big cities across all of Ukraine’s territory, because they want to prevent a legitimate government from remaining present in the country,” says Heisbourg. The Spanish military sources consulted believe the most likely outcome is the creation of a new country, New Russia, which was put forward by separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in 2014 before they performed a U-turn on the idea.

In the most modest version of that scenario, says the same sources, the new state would stretch from the Donbas region to the Crimea, incorporating Mariupol and turning the Azov Sea into a Russian inland sea. At its most ambitious, it would connect with the Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria and annex Odessa, depriving Ukraine of access to the sea. The logical thing, in this scenario, would be for Putin to then annex New Russia, as he did Crimea, and maintain it as a satellite republic.

According to Spanish analysts, Putin’s strategy involves installing a puppet government in Kyiv, which would take Ukraine off the path to NATO and European Union membership. To ensure compliance, the Kremlin would maintain a garrison in Kyiv but with a limited profile – not patrolling, for example – so as not to provide a target for guerrilla resistance groups. What remains impossible to predict is how long Putin could maintain this state of affairs as an international pariah and with an overwhelmingly hostile occupied population.

US House representative and Iraq veteran Ruben Gallego compares this scenario to the long battel waged by US forces against insurgents after the occupation. An important difference, Gallego told PBS, is that only a third of Iraqis supported the fight against US occupying troops, whereas in Ukraine that percentage would be considerably higher. Another factor is losses among Russian troops. “In all those years we suffered 4,500 casualties,” Gallego noted. “Russia could suffer the same in a matter of days.”

Before the Russian invasion, US government sources estimated that a full-scale war may cost between 25,000 and 50,000 civilian casualties, between 5,000 and 25,000 casualties among Ukrainian military personnel and 3,000 to 10,000 among Russian troops. Russian casualties

may already be in the region of 2,500, five times more than the Kremlin has acknowledged, according to the same sources. Another US congressional source quoted by PBS believes that the conflict could drag on for 20 years, with Russia eventually on the losing side.

3. Russia challenges NATO

“A quite likely scenario is that after Ukraine, Putin will take power in Moldova,” says Heisbourg. But this scenario, says the analyst, could lead to another, in which Putin attempts to redraw the map of Europe to something approaching pre-NATO expansion. “Imagine if Putin wins the war in Ukraine and he assumes control over Moldova. For the first time, he has a continuous political-military border from the North Cape to the Black Sea. On one side are Russian troops, and on the other NATO troops, with the risk of accidents and unintentional acts of violence. Then, Putin can say: ‘I’m going to try and divide the Western powers.’”

The Balkans could provide a breeding ground for unrest. As the Elysée Palace has noted: “We are very attentive to what Russia might do in its immediate environment.”

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